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John Hutcherson Spearman, Sr.

Advocate and activist for racial justice





John Hutcherson Spearman Sr., the son of John L. Spearman and Rose Ann Hutcherson Spearman, was born June 28, 1928. He received his early education at Pinckney Elementary and Lawrence Jr. High School. He was a member of the 1946 graduating class of Lawrence High School, which, until 1954, was named Liberty Memorial High School (LMHS). Some of his fondest memories centered on his days playing for the LMHS Promotors (known unofficially as the “Oilers”), the segregated African American basketball team. He attended the University of Kansas for two years.  

John was a military veteran, serving as a Corporal in the segregated WWII 159th Field Artillery Battalion, 25th Infantry Division in Occupied Japan. 

He married Vernell Pillow on July 16, 1949, building a family of five children, John Jr., Michael, Terry, Melanie, and Paul, all of whom attended LHS. They were married for 50 years before her passing in November 1999. Vernell was his passionate partner in a life of contributions to family and community. 

He started as a cutter at Hallmark Cards in 1961 and retired as an industrial engineer in 1994. 

John’s father, mother, and her parents, Lucy and Marcellus Hutcherson, were educators, community leaders, and activists in Lawrence’s Black community and western Kansas. Lucy had been enslaved and told her story to the Lawrence Journal-World in a 1952 article. His father and paternal grandparents had been activists and Republican political leaders in the hard-fought struggles of Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction Mississippi. His grandfather, Tom, was forced to flee to Kansas on one occasion, writing to Mississippi newspapers that he would return, and he did, continuing the struggle.  

John’s family instilled in him the values of hard work, education, self-sacrifice, self-worth, and the obligation to extend the family philosophy into community service and leadership. John, together with Vernell and others, stood at the center of the myriad struggles for equality, opportunity, and inclusion in Lawrence. Working to build broad alliances of people of all ethnicities and incomes, they engaged community leaders, everyday citizens, and political influencers at every level, whether to ensure quality education for children of color, the establishment of a municipal swimming pool accessible to all, or integrated campus housing for Black students at KU. The civil and human rights of African Americans were the focal point of John’s activism, but his approach to struggle was centered on the inclusion and elevation of all citizens and residents of Lawrence and this nation. 

John served on the Lawrence Human Relations Commission from 1966 to 1969 and was elected to the Board of Education, serving from 1969 to 1975. He was a leading strategist in the Lawrence Branch of Concerned Black Parents and the Lawrence Chapter of the NAACP. He was also an unrelenting affordable housing advocate for Lawrence’s low-income residents. 

John‘s favorite poem was Invictus by William Ernest Henley. Its sentiments stood at the core of how he conducted his life, raised his children, and served his community: you must live your best life, maintaining your courage and dignity even in the face of formidable circumstances and life’s imposition of callous indignities: 

Out of the night that covers me, 

    Black as the pit from pole to pole, 

I thank whatever gods may be 

    For my unconquerable soul. 

In the fell clutch of circumstance 

    I have not winced nor cried aloud. 

Under the bludgeonings of chance 

    My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears 

    Looms but the Horror of the shade, 

And yet the menace of the years 

    Finds and shall find me unafraid. 

It matters not how strait the gate, 

    How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate, 

    I am the captain of my soul.

John Hutcherson Spearman, Sr.
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