By the Johnson County Museum
As we begin Black History Month, the Johnson County Museum is exploring the history of a family who for five generations has helped shape our county’s history. The McCallop family has a legacy of freedom, helping the community, and determination in the face of adversity.
Making a Life in Kansas
Harrison McCallop was born enslaved in Tennessee. After gaining his freedom, McCallop fought alongside the Union Army in 1863 during the Civil War. Approximately five years after the Civil War ended, McCallop and his wife, Nellie Jackson, moved to Johnson County, Kan. and began farming near Wilder, a small agricultural community along the banks of the Kansas River in the county’s north central region. In the late 19th century, the area was home to several Black families who had fled the south after the Civil War. Together, the McCallops farmed the rich soil and raised a large family with 14 children. Many of their of descendants live in Johnson County and surrounding areas today.
One of the McCallops’ sons, Robert (born 1893), also sought to make his future as a farmer in Johnson County. He grew potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, and wheat on his roughly 100 acres near Shawnee. Robert and his wife, Mary Jennings, raised their children on the family farm. The McCallops used their agricultural truck to haul their harvest and their neighbors’ harvests, as well as coal and manure to other locations for sale. This form of large-scale agriculture, called truck farming, involved using a large truck to pick up and move literal tons of agricultural products and was common in Johnson County in the first half of the 20th century.
Getting to School
Growing up, Mary (Jennings) McCallop attended Shawnee’s Dunbar School, an all-Black one-room school. The McCallop children attended the integrated Greenwood School near Shawnee. However, when the McCallops’ children reached the 8th grade, they were barred from attending the whites-only Shawnee Mission High School. There was no high school in Johnson County for Black students.
Rather than allow segregation to stop his children from getting a full education, Robert McCallop, like his father, chose to fight for freedom. In 1934, Robert McCallop turned his agricultural truck into a makeshift bus, which he used to transport his children and others from around Shawnee and South Park (Merriam today) to Northeast Junior High and Sumner High School in Wyandotte County. The need for this type of transportation was so vast that McCallop was able to start the first school bus service in Johnson County, the R.L. McCallop Bus Service. McCallop and his team drove African American children to school during the week and transported private school students and church groups on the weekends on a fleet of more than ten buses. He owned and operated the McCallop Bus Service for 39 years. Many family members worked as drivers.
After schools nationwide were integrated in 1954 following the Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision, Robert McCallop took on a new role in addition to his private bus line – bus driver for the Shawnee Mission School District. Mr. McCallop transported white students to the school his own children had previously been unable to attend for many years. He retired from driving for SMSD at the age of 78 and died in 1981.
As Oscar Johnson, past president of the Northeast Johnson County branch of the NAACP said in a Johnson County Sun newspaper article in 2002, “children who went to school because of that ride [to Kansas City, Kan.] continue to contribute to the prosperity of this community and this nation.” Johnson, a former educator himself, continued, “the McCallops were a family so intact, so committed to stay the course in a community that wasn’t always welcoming. Yet, they thrived and flourished despite the odds they faced.”
Robert McCallop’s dedication to education made it possible for his children and countless other Black students living in Johnson County to receive a full public-school education.
A New Generation
The McCallops believed in fighting for freedom, equality, and access to education. Jessica McCallop-McClellan, the great-great-granddaughter of Harrison and Nellie McCallop, continues her family’s tradition of service today. McCallop-McClellan was born in Wyandotte County and spent the first years of her life in Shawnee. She has fond memories her grandparents. Both her grandfather and father both drove for the McCallop Bus Service.
McCallop-McClellan’s earliest memory is of selling greens out of a truck with her grandparents, Alexander Harrison and Cleo McCallop. A woman came to the truck, which was parked near 31st and Brooklyn in Kansas City, Mo., and asked for some greens. The woman told the McCallops that she didn’t have any money to pay. Cleo McCallop looked at her granddaughter and said, “just give it to her.” Jessica crawled into the truck and grabbed three bushels of greens to give to the woman. From that moment on, Jessica understood the power of helping others. “Giving is in my DNA,” she said, as was the idea that if she saw a problem in her community, she should work to solve it.
In 2013, Jessica started Giving Hope & Help, a nonprofit dedicated to lifting others so they can live their best lives. As professional speaker and change agent for social justice, Jessica empowers people through her nonprofit’s scholarship program, “Education is Your Passport.” The scholarships benefit under-served high school seniors and non-traditional college-bound students, including students from Wyandotte County’s Sumner High School, the very school to which her grandfather once drove Johnson County’s Black high school students.
Since the scholarship program began in 2015, Giving Hope & Help has awarded 72 scholarships, including several full-ride scholarships. Jessica named two of them after her grandparents: the Neoma Spearman Legacy Scholarship and the Alexander Sr. & Cleo McCallop Legacy of Giving Scholarship Award, named for the grandparents who taught her the art of giving. The McCallop family history in Johnson County runs, as Jessica phrased it, “from slavery to school buses to scholarships.”
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