BY VERONICA COONS
Dennis Embry, Ph.D., is a 1967 Great Bend High School alumni. The son of Great Bend photographer Herbert Embry and wife Ruth, he has fond memories of time spent with the nanny his parents hired, Marry Williams, and her husband, Keith. They took him many places, including to their church, where he remembers being doted on by many of the women there. Even at a young age, Dennis was aware of a racial divide. The Williams were black, and attended a church with a predominantly black congregation. One of Dennis’s early memories is telling his parents he preferred “black church” over going to his grandmother’s church because they had more fun.
He has other not-so-happy memories too. When he entered fifth grade, he went to live with his grandmother, Marguerite Embry, in her Forest Ave. home. She was the widow of Dr. H.C. Embry. Her common derogatory comments about black people have stuck with him, and even today cause him distress. At the time this was going on, the Civil Rights Movement was underway, with reports in the newspapers and on the evening news filled with images and stories about marches and other protests, some peaceful, others bloody.
Dennis’s interest in history blossomed. Particularly for those who endured adversity. In college, he wrote about the affects of lead poisoning on race relations, pledged the first two black students at his fraternity, and later as a University of Kansas faculty member, hired an interracial couple to assist with work there.
Still it was a surprise when, in 1998, he was contacted by a distant relative. A retired San Diego detective, Wayne Embry was the great grandson of one of the brothers of Dennis Embry’s great grandfather, Owen Talaiferro Shackelford Embry, a veteran of the Union Army. Wayne had learned a surprising secret about the family history. Both men were descendants of emancipated slaves.
Wayne Embry was working on a family genealogy, and had traveled to Kentucky in search of answers. He was unable to find any records until he stopped at the courthouse in Lexington. He visited the Clerk of Deeds, and there found the deeds of emancipation for his great great grandmother, Jane Embry, and her eight children (including Owen Talaiferro). They were freed by a Kentucky plantation owner, William Walker, sometime around 1846. Photographs of Jane’s children as adults indicate they were light skinned, with European facial features, allowing them to pass as white.
Very little is known about their parentage at this time, according to Dennis, who agreed to be interviewed for an oral history project conducted at the Barton County Historical Society museum in Great Bend earlier this month.
After they received their deeds, the family was sent to Kansas with a sizable sum of money, and settled at Lawrence, investing in a variety of businesses. Learning this, Dennis was left to wonder how much his grandfather, father and brother had known. Especially since Dr. H.C. Embry had been a prominent doctor in Great Bend for about 25 years from the early 1920s until after WWII. He believes his grandfather and his father both knew the family secret, and keeping it had taken its toll on them.
“My grandfather, H.C. Embry, went to medical school at the Kansas City Medical College. When my great grandfather died, my grandfather, Horace Crandell Embry, the doctor, signed the death certificate of his father as Caucasian,” Embry said.
In order to put himself through medical school, and Kansas Medical College, H.C. worked as a waiter at the Savoy Grill in Kansas City, where he slept in the boiler room. He made the acquaintance of a Barton County farmer Peter Krier, around 1905. During harvest, he operated a threshing machine. When he finished medical school in 1910, he married one of Krier’s daughter’s, Marguerite, and set up his first practice in Claflin. They had three children, Horace Herbert “Herb” Embry, Dennis’s father, and Arvella Whitmore-Embry, his aunt. A third child, a girl, died as an infant. In the early 1920s, Dr. Embry and his wife visited Edinburgh, Scotland, where he did post-doctoral study. The family moved to the Forest Ave. home around that time.
Beverly Komarek was born in Great Bend in 1934, and was delivered by Dr. H.C. Embry. She was at the interview with Dennis Embry, and interjected what she knew of the doctor, and the Great Bend area when she was growing up. While technically segregation was not mandated legally, it occurred nonetheless, she said. She can recall there were sections of the movie theaters where it blacks were required to sit, and they were barred from swimming at the municipal swimming pool.
“I suspect, but I don’t know, that he might have not had a thriving medical practice in the middle of Kansas if it were a known fact,” Komarek said, referring to Embry’s mixed-race heritage.
“Oh, absolutely,” Dennis said. “Absolutely I would have thought that. “
Dennis believes his grandfather and his father knew the secret, but it is uncertain if his brother, Crandell, who is 10 years older than him and knew his grandfather before his death knew. Crandell died before Wayne Embry made contact with Dennis.
Today, Dennis Embry can embrace his entire heritage. He has had his had his genes tested and learned he is of German, Irish and Northeast African bloodlines. Regardless of their origin, his ancestors have diverse stories of fleeing oppression, and he has new appreciation for what hardships and secrets they had to endure in order to thrive and survive, he said.
It has also helped him to be completely transparent about who he is in his own life. He calls himself a mongrel, like most Americans. A doctor now himself, Embry is a child psychologist and special educator, and works to help children from adverse conditions, “ create a path for the best life they could possibly have,” he said.
Research into the Embry family heritage is continuing at the Barton County Historical Society museum, and the release of a report and oral history will be announced to the public when it is completed.