John Grant Pegg
The Honorable John Grant Pegg
Our sister Khadijah published this accounting of his life on the website “Black Past.org.”
“John Grant Pegg was born around 1869 in Virginia. He began his career in about 1890 as a Pullman porter, working out of Chicago. It was there that he met Mary Charlotte Page of Kansas, a seamstress. After their marriage they moved to Omaha, Nebraska in 1898. Pegg became involved in Omaha politics as a Republican committeeman who became known informally as the “councilman for the Black community.” In 1910, Pegg became the first African American appointed Inspector of Weights & Measures for the City of Omaha. His work in the black community led him to be known as a “race man” dedicated to improving the African American section of Omaha’s population. Pegg, for example, was a Shriner and a member of the local Masonic Lodge. The Kincaid Homestead Act of 1904 opened up thousands of acres of northern Nebraska for homesteaders. In 1911, John Pegg sponsored a number of black settlers who went by wagon out to Cherry County, Nebraska to homestead. Among them were his brother Charlie Pegg and his nephew James. They homesteaded land in John Pegg’s name in Cherry County although John Pegg never lived on the homestead.
John’s brother and nephew operated a cattle ranch that supplied beef to the South Omaha packing plants.
Speaking of the many accomplishments about John Grant, he was referred to as a “Kaunan man” in a newspaper article from the Plaindealer, (Topeka, KS 8/23/1907). The term is Nordic meaning:
“The torch is known to every living man by its pale, bright flame; it always burns where princes sit within.”
John Grant Pegg died in 1916 in Omaha.”
Sources: Personal letters and journal entries of William G. Pegg, son of John G. Pegg, 1982. 3
John Grant was the oldest of the Pegg children, born in 1869, four years after the end of the American Civil War during the tumultuous Reconstruction Era. The location of his birth is debatable at best…oral history has him born in Richmond, VA, whereas the census put him in South Carolina near Bushy Creek where his mother is reportedly from.. More research on the horizon….
We do know that in 1878, John’s family moved west to Kansas, where he was able to enroll in Freeman’s Academy at Dunlap, Kansas. He left home shortly after graduation to pursue his destiny. Right away he was able to land a position as a porter on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad passenger dining cars. He sent money home to his mother. It was in this capacity that he learned to expand his knowledge of business and current events. Instead of sleeping after his shift, he would read the newspapers left behind by the passengers. One such passenger would discreetly pass him various pieces of literature broadening his view of the world and the events unfolding in the country here at home. Since tips were their primary means of support, it paid to be efficient and invisible. “You can’t learn anything by being noisy and doing all the talking. At the same time one needed to be on hand for and second-guessing most every need, all the while maintaining a discreet decorum about oneself. On the traveling cars, the call was for service not for entertainment.” – John Pegg
A “paid” servitude of sorts
While working out of Chicago, John was an active and aggressive political figure, debating and sharing ideas with the likes of Edward Morris, (a prominent Black Chicago Attorney and politician) and the infamous Clarence Darrow (abolitionist and lifelong champion for the rights of Blacks in and out of the courts). John learned the finer points of political arguments and became prepared for the political life that awaited him in Omaha.
Thinking politics and his future, John returned home to Kansas to visit his family and friends. It was during such a visit that he met and began to court Mary Charlotte Page. Six months into their courting John asked Mary Charlotte ‘s father for her hand in marriage. He had a good position on the ATSF (Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad). Mary Charlotte was a very popular young lady, refined, cultured and educated. They married in Chicago May 16, 1898.
At the urging and continued mentorship of Mr. Morris, he became a 32nd degree Mason and a Shriner. [I’m sure these men saw in him a strong figure in the political arena and in the our people’s fight for justice] John did in fact, become an active member of the Republican Party after moving to Omaha. So active that he was reported in the newspapers as to traveling and speaking on behalf of the Republican Party. 1
Leading Colored Republicans of the Western States Meet in Conference, Many Important Questions Discussed other Meetings – Date: Friday, February 25, 1916. Paper: Advocate (Kansas City, KS) Volume: 2 Issue: 27 Page: 1
Knowing that working as a porter and traveling the railroad was not for him and especially now as a newly married man. John discreetly inquired about work off the railroad line. He first secured a position as a janitor in the building that housed the Mayor’s office in Omaha Nebraska. Mary worked as a skilled and gifted seamstress; such talent inherited from her mother. John worked and walked with certain deportment and his attention to current matters and obvious intelligent responses were soon noticed by the Mayor’s office. Within short order, he was offered the position of personal messenger to Mayor Moores. Finally, on June 6, 1906, after winning one of the two Republican nominations, he won an appointment as the City Weights and Measures Inspector by J.C. Dahlman, Mayor of Omaha. “He was paid a handsome salary of $100 a month.”
Speaking of the many accomplishments about John Grant, he was referred to as a “Kaunan man” in a newspaper article from the Plaindealer, (Topeka, KS 8/23/1907).
The term is Nordic meaning:
“The torch is known to every living man by its pale, bright flame; it always burns where princes sit within.”4
As the years went by the Pegg family grew in size to 5 surviving children. John Grant was known throughout town as a refined, gentle family man who kept his children by his side whenever possible. He had become increasingly popular in both political and social circles. Pegg represented for his family, people, and his position. [* There was a small mention in the local paper that Pegg was hauled into court on drunk and disorderly charges, but nothing seemed to come of this, no other mention after that!].
John and Mary succeeded in managing family finances in a very practical manner, on behalf of his family, he was able to purchase a home on Patrick Ave., a number of properties within the city of Omaha, shared investment in a cattle ranch with his brother Charles, and they also had holdings in California.5
Pegg was a City Councilmen for the Black Citizens of Omaha and often would submit recipes to the Omaha Star newspaper demonstrating a softer side to his strong personality. As a skilled negotiator, it was John who assisted on buying trips for the 650-acre cattle ranch his brother Charles obtained through the Homesteaders Act. It was also through John Pegg’s efforts that the word continued to circulate for other families looking for a start to experience the benefits of land ownership in the Sandhills of Nebraska. Black settlers were initially attracted to the area by the 1904 Kinkaid Act, which offered one square mile (640-acres) of land to those who could settle and live in the Sand Hills.6
4 Matin, K. (1982, January 1). John Grant Pegg. Retrieved January 19, 2015, from http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/pegg-john-grant-1869-1916
5 Leading Colored Republicans of the Western States Meet in Conference, Many Important Questions Discussed other Meetings – Date: Friday, February 25, 1916 Paper: Advocate (Kansas City, KS) Volume: 2 Issue: 27 Page: 1
6 [Notice in the Plaindealer (Topeka, KS) Volume: VII Issue: 32, Page: 6 Newspaper Local and Personal section: “Pegg’s off to southern California for a visit” – Date: Friday, August 18, 1905]
[As the years went by, families struggled to make a living on the sandy soils, the Great Depression, Influenza, and droughts of the 1930s compounded their efforts. Their point was not to establish a generational farming community but to establish a base for their children and future generations as well as excel in whatever field they chose. And they had the audacity to think they could.
After 30 years, Audacious formerly known as DeWitty was generally abandoned. Most of the families moved to Valentine and Omaha or out of state completely]. See more about the homesteaders in Chapter 5.
Life was good for the Pegg’s though in Omaha; traveling, socializing, being involved with community activism, political involvement and a growing family were all the elements that made this romantic couple give many thanks each day. But alas this was not to continue for John Grant Pegg fell ill from heat prostration and suffered a stroke late in July of 1916, he succumbed to his illness on the fourth of August at the age of 47. The death was so unexpected that the news shook the Page and Pegg families and communities both in Omaha and in Topeka, Kansas. Prayers and condolences were outpouring from all over. John G. Pegg had accumulated many friends and admirers.
The crowd that later arrived for the funeral forced the doors of the Zion Baptist Church to remain open with people spilling down the front steps and onto the sidewalks. The day of the funeral was a very said day indeed. Many businesses closed their doors and hung dark funeral wreaths. Most people wore their funeral clothes and laid flowers at the fence line of the Pegg home. Schools were closed and the Mayor along with the city council attended the services.
John Grant Pegg has left us a legacy of hard work, perseverance, and faith…