The namesake of McAdams Park and neighborhood

Emerson McAdams

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

Emerson McAdams took on many roles at what was known as McKinley Park in northeast Wichita.

Often referred to simply as Mac, he cut the grass. He chaperoned dances. At the only city swimming pool open to black residents, he fished out snakes and threw them over a fence in the direction of a nearby canal. He raked sand on the golf course. He was there for the outdoor movies shown on Thursday nights. And if any of the neighborhood kids stepped out of line, he got on the bullhorn he often carried and bellowed out their name.

“I don’t know if he ever went home,” said Galyn Vesey, one of those kids who hung out at McKinley Park during McAdams’ tenure. 

About three months after the 52-year-old McAdams died of a heart attack in October 1965, the Wichita Park Board and the City Council approved a petition to rename McKinley Park — established in 1901 and named for the assassinated 25th U.S. president — in McAdams’ honor. It’s unclear exactly when the city adopted McAdams as the name for the surrounding neighborhood, but documents referring to it by that name go back at least as far as 1975. Longtime Wichitans say the recognition is well deserved.

“He was a big influence on a lot of black teens at the time,” said Vesey, who participated in the 1958 Dockum Drug Store sit-in and went on to a career in higher education. 

“We all had a lot of respect for him,” added Charles McAfee, whose boyhood home was just down the street from the park. 

McAfee, who became an architect and community leader himself, spearheaded the petition drive to rename the park. The adjoining McKinley Golf Course was also renamed in McAdams’ honor. The golf course was eliminated in 1971 when I-135 was built, but the McAdams Golf Club — reportedly one of the oldest African American golf clubs in the country — remains active.

According to a document about the park’s name change in The Kansas African American Museum archives, 370 people signed the petition. 

“Signatures included large, printed letters of grade school children McAdams had supervised at the park playground, a young man McAdams had helped when he was in trouble, and adults who said they could not voice their appreciation of what the park director had done for their children over the years,” the document said.

A former motorcycle cop before he became the park supervisor, McAdams could be counted on to offer some stern — and loud — warnings. 

“He had a bullhorn, and if any of us was doing anything he didn’t like, he’d get on that thing, and you could hear him all over the park,” McAfee said.

“Mac was an enforcer,” Vesey agreed. 

He recalled the time a so-called friend was spreading the word that he wanted to fight Vesey. When McAdams heard about it, he advised the young Vesey to stay away from the park until the situation blew over.

McAdams also loved to talk about and show the kids different animals. According to a Wichita Eagle article, McAdams owned a raccoon that was treated by prominent black veterinarian Monroe Balton.

A statue of Jackie Robinson was unveiled at McAdams Park earlier this year. The park also includes a football field named for Barry Sanders and basketball courts named for Antoine Carr. In addition to athletics, the park is used for events such as annual Juneteenth celebration.

While he was a voice of authority, McAdams was also a prankster and someone who loved to joke around.

“He loved to laugh,” Vesey said. “He was a practical jokester and he’d love to embarrass you if he could.”

McAfee recalls being at the receiving end of McAdams’ pranks during his induction into the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. The Kappas are one of the country’s oldest black fraternities, and McAdams was the local dean of pledges. 

“I remember he had us (the pledges) down on our knees outside the drugstore at Ninth and Cleveland singing ‘wimoweh,’” McAfee said, referring to a lyric from the 1961 hit, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

Another time, when McAfee was headed to play a baseball game in Kansas City, McAdams gave McAfee some eggs with instructions to go to the home of the Kappas’ regional director, have him sign the eggs and bring them back to Wichita. The director wasn’t home, but McAfee left the eggs and a request that they be signed. When the director visited Wichita shortly afterward, McAfee asked for the signed eggs.

“Oh, I enjoyed them for breakfast,” was the director’s reply. 

“Mac was laughing about that the whole time,” McAfee recalled.

McAdams is buried in Maple Grove Cemetery, along with his wife, Muriel, who died in 1983. His funeral at the couple’s church, St. Paul’s AME, Vesey recalled, was standing room only.

Contact Amy Geiszler-Jones at  algj64@sbcglobal.net.

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