Hidden History: Burlingame’s ‘Aunt Emily’ endeared for her strength and virtue

By Wendi Bevitt

You probably haven’t heard of her, but Aunt Emily Ford was one of the most beloved citizens of Burlingame, Kansas. At a time when prejudice and segregation ran rampant throughout most of the country, the color line however did not exist for Aunt Emily in her adopted community, and she held a special place of honor and respect there.

Aunt Emily Ford was a spry little figure, with toil-scarred hands and a kindly face. “To know her [was] to love her” and later in her life, the local newspapers would run lengthy articles on the occasion of her birthday celebrating her many years, or an interview inquiring about her past.

“I shouldn’t think anyone would want to hear about slaves and slavery,” she said, but the reply was, “Yes, but everyone especially those of the younger generation know little of slavery and such an article would be of interest to the readers.”

This is her story.

Emily was born in North Carolina in 1813. Her family was owned by a family named White. The Whites treated their slaves harshly and used them for hard manual labor clearing trees and grubbing out shrubs when they moved to Tennessee.

As was the custom for slave owners, when Mr. White’s daughter was married to a man by the name of Farmer, she was given Emily as part of her dowry. Emily was two years older than her new mistress, and the two had shared a childhood together. Because of this familiarity, Emily found herself in a much more hospitable environment in her new home. Emily served as a cook in the Farmer household. The family moved to the Springfield, Missouri, area in 1837. It was there that she was allowed to marry another local slave, Daniel Ford.

When the area was invaded by Union soldiers in 1861, the Union forces freed slaves on the farms they encountered. Daniel Haney, of Burlingame, was with the 1st Kansas regiment when their company came upon Daniel Ford hauling potatoes in from the fields with his master’s wagon.

“Come with us to freedom!” was the call. Daniel Haney helped the Fords load all their children, earthly possessions, and even the feather mattress from the big house into the master’s wagon and the family followed the soldiers to a new life.

Their eventual arrival in Burlingame found the family without much means to start their new life. Instead of letting them remain relegated to their poor status, the people of Burlingame gave them a fair shot at success in their new life.

Judge Marmaduke Rambo provided them with a home on 10 acres south of town. It was on this little farm that they tilled the land and established themselves. This farm would sustain their family when Daniel died five short years after their arrival.

Emily is quoted as saying, “My little farm is mine until I’m done with it, then I don’t care what becomes of it.”

Emily, endearingly called “Aunt Emily” by all who knew her, maintained a bountiful garden and orchard, and raised chickens and about seven or eight head of cattle. She also raised the finest horses in her part of the county. She used her skills to aid her neighbors in sickness as well as in household management, always offering hospitality to others. Her heart was always hopeful, her words cheerful and she spread sunshine where she went. She volunteered in the community, creating elaborate decorations for the Memorial Day festivities. Emily commuted the five miles to town on foot. She attended the Presbyterian church in Burlingame from its inception in 1868 (also the church of her benefactor, Judge Rambo) not facing segregation during her attendance.

In September 1912 on the occasion of her 99th birthday she received nearly 100 letters from the surrounding community. The Burlingame Enterprise ran a full column of her story in her honor, detailing her story and accomplishments. Before the end of the year she passed on, commemorated with a sizeable obituary in the Enterprise. Her large funeral was attended by all those that loved her with no regard to race and attested in small measure to the high regard the community felt for this woman of strength and virtue.

Emily’s little farm is no longer hers and she is done with it – the house is gone, now farmground near 197th Street south of Burlingame. But this woman who started out as the property of another, and who could not read or write, was able to leave a lasting legacy for her family because of her determination, generosity and a little help from her community.

“Aunt Emily” photo from the Burlingame (Kan.) Enterprise, Thursday, Sept. 19, 1912.

wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She has lived in Osage County for 18 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.

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