CHARLOTTE — More than 60 years ago, eight young African American students living in segregated Wichita, Kansas stood up for their rights by sitting down at the Dockum drugstore counter where only white people were served, according to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
Over the next three weeks, the group sat at the counter in silent protest, where they reached their goal of changing the drugstore’s discrimination policy.
Veteran crime reporter, Glenn Counts, sat down with family and friends of one of the Witicha 8, Frederick Umoja, who was wrongly convicted of a robbery and fled to Liberia for 40 years where he made quite the name for himself.
“He provided an opportunity for a lot of our people to go to school,” former student, James Johnson told Counts, “I was sent to the AME Zion school to fix me up, so that’s how I met him.”
Umoja spent the beginning of his life in Kansas in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement, where he became one of the Witchita 8 and even got to meet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“He felt privileged to have met Martin Luther King and the rest of the boys that you see in that picture,” his wife, Veta Dennis-Umoja said.
In 1969, Johnson and seven others were convicted on false robbery charges by an all-white jury forcing him to flee to Liberia and change his name. There he met his wife and helped educate thousands by participating in the founding of multiple schools.
“It made him feel good, it made him feel useful that he could be there for these kids,” Dennis-Umoja said.
Some of the kids Umoja helped were former child soldiers who fought in both of Liberia’s civil wars.
In 2011, he was pardoned by the governor of Kansas allowing him to return to the United States. In 2014 he and his family decided to settle her in Charlotte.
“We came here during the Ebola epidemic like in 2014,” his wife told Counts.
Umoja helped hundreds of students attend college in the United States, some of whom went to Livingstone College in Salisbury. Many of those students came to the Queen City to attend his funeral over the weekend.
“His favorite song: if I can help somebody as I travel along this way then my living shall not be in vain,” Dennis-Umoja said.
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