Humboldt a mecca to Mexicans

By BOB JOHNSON
Register City Editor

For two decades before World War II, Mexicans flocked to Humboldt to work at its Monarch Cement Company. They came, despite deep segregation against them and their counterparts who worked for the railroads.
They lived in row houses south of Monarch’s plant, along what then was U.S. 169, and others built for them near the Santa Fe and Missouri, Kansas and Texas (Katy) depots.
They didn’t mind, Bill Shirley told a small gathering at Iola Public Library Tuesday evening.
“It was a different time” he said. “The 12 houses built south of Monarch were called Cement Row. Whites referred to the communities as ‘Little Mexico.’”
The neighborhoods were socially self-contained, “and the Mexicans liked it that way,” he said, quoting interviews he did in 1978 for a history class at Pittsburg State University. “They were better off than they were before coming to Humboldt.”
The Mexicans worked six days a week, 10 hours a day. Wages at Monarch were 16 1/2 cents an hour, good money for the early 1920s. White workers received the same compensation and worked the same hours.
Humboldt might not have had a Hispanic population had it not been for Jesus Leone.
“He worked with Walter Wulf Sr., who later became chairman of the Monarch board. In 1919, Leone and Wulf set records for bagging cement and getting it ready for movement,” Shirley said. “By Leone’s hard work the decision was made to hire other Mexicans.”
To accommodate them, Monarch built the row of sturdy cement-block houses that they occupied until the late 1960s. Rent for years was $5 a month, deducted from their paychecks. The railroads also built row houses and Mexican immigrants welcomed the opportunity for whole families to live and work in one community.
During the Great Depression, work slowed. Monarch maintained production though hours were reduced, with Mexican workers treated the same as others.
“These were hard times, but the loyalty shown by Monarch toward the Mexican workers during this period was never forgotten,” Shirley said.

DURING THE 1920s and 1930s, Mexicans remained in their neighborhoods and made no moves into Humboldt proper. Mexican workers spoke little English and could not read the language; their wives could do neither. In Mexican neighborhoods, Spanish was the official tongue, Shirley said.
The workers did shop at Humboldt’s 16 grocery stores, although Spanish-speaking Norman Dewey, at East Side Market, got the bulk of the Mexican trade. Additional merchants were eager to take the workers’ money, but there were places they weren’t welcome or had to go with care.
They could attend movies, but had to sit on the right side of the theater and couldn’t mingle with whites. When Hispanics and blacks visited South Park they were limited to its north side, a practice that continued into the 1950s.
“To stop by the drug store and have a glass of water or soda was unthinkable,” Shirley said.
“Mexicans for the most part are Catholic, and in the 1920s when they started attending (St. Joseph’s) the Humboldt Catholic church, problems arose that some still remember with bitterness. They were required to sit in the back of the church. If they came to church in shirt sleeves, they were asked to leave. Marriages occurred in the church, but a party room in the basement was off limits to receptions.”
Mexicans partied in their own neighborhoods, though some went to the one Humboldt drinking establishment where they were welcome.
“Many of the older Mexican gentlemen had fond memories of the ladies who worked there; however, none wanted to be quoted,” Shirley said. “One woman told me it would take 30 minutes to walk there, and two hours to walk back.”
In the late 1960s, Monarch announced it would discontinue providing housing and ordered homes vacated by May 1970. Marriages and other social interactions with whites, spurred by the relaxation of segregation after World War II, led to the break-up of the Mexican communities.

SHIRLEY’S presentation was the third of five Iola Sesquicentennial events scheduled for the library. Emy Platt will talk about hats Sept. 10 and Skip Becker will recall “Poems We Learned in School” Nov. 19.