I knew Treemonisha. Well, I should have written “a Treemonisha.” I certainly knew her as surely as if the fictional heroine of Scott Joplin’s opera by that name had been a real person. It took me 48 years to realize how similar Dorothy Kitchen and Joplin’s heroine were. When I did, I decided to blow the dust from my old scrapbooks and properly celebrate the life of one of the most remarkable women it was ever my privilege to know.
Let me explain. Mrs. Dorothy Kitchen was my first principal at the Hubbard Elementary school, in Sedalia. I’ve previously explained the beginning of my teaching career, so I will just remind readers that when I first received my state teaching certificate in 1971, there were no high school positions in Sedalia where I lived at the time. The only open position in the entire school district was for a 5th, 6th, and 7th grade Social Studies and English teacher in the segregated Hubbard Elementary School and for which my faithful life-time teaching certificate qualified me. I was essentially to be a token Caucasian teacher in the all African American school in an effort by the district to delay mandatory desegregation (a full 17 years after Brown vs The Topeka Board of Education decision mandated it).
I already had many friends in the Northside community and knew Mrs. Kitchen from my presentations as a school safety officer for the Sedalia Police Department. I put myself through college working as a Sedalia police officer on the night shift, with the public service work two afternoons a week. To make that long story short, I was grossly underprepared for that teaching job, but thanks to Mrs. Kitchen’s kind hand and constant encouragement, I completed my contract. It was to be the last year for Hubbard School and an awkward desegregation plan followed. It resulted in Hubbard’s closing, transferring the teachers to the three previously white schools, and bussing the students to those white schools across town.
It was not a seamless transition, and Mrs. Kitchen was caught up in the process after serving over thirty years in the system. She was the district’s senior principal, but she did not want to serve as principal in a school where she didn’t know the parents.
Dorothy Kitchen was a leader in the Northside Community, and she knew every student personally as well as their entire families. Thus, because of her dedication and incredibly successful career, the school district board allowed Mrs. Kitchen to serve as a home-school coordinator out of the district office so she could work with the transferring students and receive her full retirement. She performed her new duties proficiently and with her usual caring kindness. I watched her former students light up when she visited the school where I was transferred.
You see, Dorothy Kitchen had grown up in her community. After losing her mother as a small child, she was adopted by a rural Miami, Missouri, farm family, Thomas and Ida Moore. In the truest spirit of Booker T. Washington’s philosophy and like Ned and Monisha of Joplin’s opera, they wanted their adopted daughter to have a good education.
The African American Lincoln High School in Sedalia under the leadership of principal Christopher Columbus Hubbard had the best reputation in Missouri, so Thomas moved his family to Sedalia and Dorothy Moore graduated from Lincoln in 1931. She went on to earn a teaching degree from Lincoln University and after she taught several years in small towns, she began teaching 2nd grade at the Lincoln Elementary in 1941 under her old teacher and mentor C.C. Hubbard. Thus, for 35 years she served her community as a beloved teacher and principal.
In 1946 Dorothy married Virgil Kitchen and their marriage lasted 66 years until her death in 2012 at the age of 99. Virgil died in 2016 at the age of 101. They lived long, service-filled lives.
Like Treemonisha, Dorothy Kitchen was also a highly esteemed and respected community leader. I am blessed that I can write of her leadership and the respect she earned, from firsthand experiences. I was always impressed by the behavior of the students under her charge as compared with the other rather noisy and less disciplined schools I visited as a policeman. She used no heavy hand or loud admonitions, but simply led with quiet, loving firmness when necessary. Her well-known familiarity with all the students and their families in North Sedalia made her sort of a surrogate “Great Aunt.”
I inadvertently find myself singing “We Will Trust You As Our Leader,” from Joplin’s opera as I write and that could have been her community’s anthem. I had witnessed her great authority earlier on a terrible night in the city and country’s history. Without being overly dramatic, I watched her confront an inebriated group of young men, building to what could have been a destructive conclusion. I was walking a night beat in downtown Sedalia when the tension began to build. I watched as her simple presence defused their anger and calmed a riot that would have undoubtedly occurred. Downtown Sedalia was spared the destructiveness other American cities experienced on April 4, 1968.
A great reminder of the respect she had, was exhibited by my Hubbard students. When we had rainy days and couldn’t go outside for recess, the youngsters would become a bit restless inside. I thought I noticed if I just stopped what I was doing, the class would instantly become manageable again. One day at lunch and feeling all too proud of myself, I mentioned these experiences to a colleague who had taught at Hubbard for years. “Can you see the door from where you are when this happens?” he asked. “No, I am in the front corner and can’t see the doorway.” Well, you can bet your bippy son, that the children straightened up because Dorothy coincidentally walked by your room the minute you stood up,” he said chuckling.
Dorothy Kitchen was a person of great religious persuasion who chose to preach the Gospel she knew by the actions of her life. Her voice did ring out from the Ward Memorial Missionary Baptist Church choir on Sundays and she could deliver an impassioned devotional, but Dorothy was no Parson Alltalk, she was Sister “Allaction.”
Proudly, with her long list of community activities, Ms. Kitchen was a founding board member of Sedalia’s Scott Joplin Festival. However, I came to realize, it came at a cost for her. While the Northside community respected and appreciated Joplin’s musical genius, the original ragtime era had not been so kind to the African American community.
With its “Gentlemen’s Social Clubs,” and lesser establishments spewing violence, intoxication, gambling, and prostitution out onto Main Street turning it into “Battle Row,” the rest of the African American citizens had to accept the consequences of their unearned Bacchanal reputation. After all, the Maple Leaf Club, so celebrated in ragtime circles, was closed by petition from the Black community just months after it opened. And, recall that Joplin collaborator Arthur Marshall was nearly shot after a Maple Leaf Club altercation over a girl in October 1899.
Thus, the Northside Community was still hurting over years of segregation and having had the Maple Leaf Club used on them as a verbal cudgel. Nevertheless Mrs. Kitchen and a host of Northside leaders backed the Festival to honor Scott Joplin. As a Founder, Dorothy was honored with a Joplin Festival Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.
As I am writing this, I have also come to realize how important Dorothy Kitchen was to me and how the two days leave she granted me led to the first Sedalia ragtime festivals. I had discovered that Joplin’s opera was going to premiere in Atlanta on January 27, 1972, and I audaciously asked Mrs. Kitchen for the days off so I could attend. She was unaware of Joplin’s opera or of Treemonisha’s story, but she knew of my interest and approved my as yet, properly unaccrued leave. At the premiere I met some of the leading Joplin authorities and asked them if they would be interested in coming to a festival where Joplin published the Maple Leaf Rag. They responded enthusiastically. I doubt that a festival would have otherwise happened.
Had Scott Joplin been born 100 years later, he would not have had to contrive a fictional heroine for his opera. He would have had a living paragon for a model who also had a fine singing voice. I am so amazed by how much his heroine was mirrored by Dorothy Kitchen’s life. So, you see, I knew—okay, a “Treemonisha.”