From the days of Bleeding Kansas to the Exoduster migrations of the post-Civil War era to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954, Kansas frequently found itself at the crossroads of the national struggle regarding race. Like all Kansans, black Kansans had lived and worked, suffered through droughts and pestilence, witnessed the slow but inexorable decline of many rural communities, and struggled to carve a living from an often unfriendly world. Unlike their white counterparts, however, African Americans living in Kansas had endured the sting of segregation for much of the state's history. By end of the 1950s, however, they had cause to celebrate as the legal foundation for segregation collapsed, even if the underlying racial animosities lingered in some quarters. All the while, the Sunflower State's black residents left behind an astonishing documentary record from which their manifold stories of triumph and tragedy, of the extraordinary and the mundane, could be assembled. Unfortunately, even at the state’s flagship university, the University of Kansas, this material had been overlooked to a large extent.
To be sure, the KU Libraries had always included the state's African American heritage in collecting archival materials. The Kenneth Spencer Library's Kansas Collection, for instance, included a number of rare manuscripts, sheet music, playbills and articles donated by Langston Hughes, the great poet and Harlem Renaissance writer who spent his childhood years in Lawrence. Likewise, the Wilcox Collection of Contemporary Political Movements documented the civil rights struggles of the mid-twentieth century. Records relating to KU’s African American student population could be found in the University Archives. And in 1984 Elmer Jackson, a Kansas City, Kansas native, KU alumnus and lawyer who in 1970 became the first African American to be appointed to the Kansas Board of Regents, had given his professional and personal papers to the Spencer Library's Kansas Collection.
However, these materials simply did not testify to the breadth of the African American experience in Kansas. As Sheryl Williams, curator of the Kansas Collection, wrote in 1994, a recognition "that the experiences of African Americans within the state and region were not well represented in area depositories” led to a joint initiative on the part of the Kansas Collection and the African and African American Studies Department “to develop a more formal collecting program.” Under the auspices of Williams and Dr. Jacob Gordon (the latter of whom represented the AAAS Department), the University applied for and received a three-year grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). The grant enabled the Kansas Collection to hire a full-time field archivist, Deborah Dandridge, who became the lifeblood of what remains an on-going endeavor.
From the get-go, the Library had believed that the materials acquired as part of what became known as the African American Experience Collection should be incorporated into the larger Kansas Collection. Indeed, creating a collection of African American materials stored separately from those of the Kansas Collection ran counter to the underlying rationale behind the project. As Williams noted, “African American history is not something separate to be studied.” On the contrary, the Library's aim in the venture was to acquire archival documents that provided a "voice" for African Americans from all walks of life, and in so doing assemble the kind of documentary record that is seldom found in major repositories like state historical societies. The intent, then, was to gather the most complete collection of archival material relating to African American Kansans to be found anywhere, and integrate it into the Kansas Collection, for African Americans living in the Sunflower State, of course, were no less Kansans than their white counterparts.
During the first year of the grant, Dandridge and Williams focused on contacting community leaders, families, churches and businesses located the three largest metropolitan areas in Kansas – Kansas City, Topeka and Wichita. While they continued to devote attention to those areas over the course of the second and third years of the grant, they also turned their attention toward smaller communities. The women traveled around the state to meet with and interview potential donors and local steering committees, the latter of which were organized to identify potential acquisitions. In doing so, they sought to forge a working partnership between the Library and the members of African American communities, and the response of the donors—most of whom donated rather than sold the material—laid the foundation for what has proven to be the lifeblood of the Collection. This partnership between the Library and the community members lies at the heart of its distinctiveness and is the essence of its success.
Not surprisingly, Williams and Dandridge placed particular emphasis upon obtaining items that captured the diversity of the African American experience in the state. The archivists sought out church and school records to demonstrate the importance of these community institutions. They obtained the records of social clubs and civic organizations to give testament to powerful community networks. And the papers of professionals – teachers, lawyers, social workers and doctors – were courted along with the records of businesses and political activists.
African Americans came to Kansas as far back as the early nineteenth century. William Clark, for instance, brought his personal slave (and childhood friend) York with him when he and Meriwether Lewis made their famed expedition across the continent. Other African Americans came as free men and women, but most (at least of those that appear in the documentary record) "were enslaved and in the service of Army officers, fur traders, missionaries, and Native Americans,” noted Dandridge and historian Bill Tuttle in their essay in Paul K. Stuewe's Kansas Revisited (1998). By mid-century, the status of slavery in the state led to the controversy over the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, resulting in what some historians believe was the beginning of the Civil War. (Historian Richard Sheridan, for instance, argues that "Kansas was born in a struggle for liberty and freedom, a struggle that raised the curtain on the civil War and sounded the death knell of slavery.") From 1854-1856, the period known as Bleeding Kansas, over 200 settlers died in the debate over whether Kansas would enter the Union as a slave or free state.
When a free Kansas joined the Union in January 1861, the issues of slavery and states’ rights (issues that were inextricably intertwined, to be sure) had fractured the nation. During the Civil War, African Americans from Kansas, in the aptly named First Regiment of Kansas Colored Volunteers, became the first black soldiers to fight against Confederate forces. When the Civil War closed, emancipation and, for a brief time, Reconstruction sparked joy and hope in African American communities throughout the South. But as one state after another was "Redeemed" by the Democratic Party, the ideology of which was rooted in white supremacy, hope dimmed in many quarters for a better life in the South. And by the mid-1870s, the eyes of many African Americans turned toward Kansas. Indeed, by 1879 had become the primary destination of the first large exodus of free blacks from the South.
Motivated in part by rumors of free land and free transportation, but primarily seeking to escape the South where their economic possibilities were decidedly proscribed and in which they endured the terror tactics of white supremacists, a diffuse group of migrants made their way to Kansas. The Exodusters, as they are remembered, saw Kansas as a "Promised Land" in large part because of its association with famed abolitionist John Brown and its ultimately victorious "free state" ideology. As historian Nell Irivin Painter has pointed out, "The Kansas Fever Exodus—the most remarkable migration in the United States after the Civil War—took some six thousand Blacks from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas in the space of a few months" in 1879. All told, perhaps 40,000-60,000 African Americans made their way from the Deep South to Kansas over the course of the late-1870s and early 1880s. Unfortunately, they discovered that an opposition to slavery didn't preclude racial animosity; indeed, they came to realize that racism wasn't a regional phenomenon even if it had a less violent edge on the Central Plains.
The Exodusters, however, weren't the only African Americans to migrate to Kansas in the 1870s. To be sure, the best known African American community in Kansas (and the only remaining one at that) is Nicodemus, which is located in Graham County and predated the Exoduster movement of 1879. The founders of Nicodemus came to the northwestern part of the state from Kentucky and Tennessee in the fall of 1877 with, as one former resident stated in 1964, “‘their minds on establishing a community of black men by black men and for black men.’” The town grew rapidly, boasting a population of almost 600 residents at its peak. But when a promised railroad was not constructed through the town in 1888, locating instead four miles to the south, Nicodemus began a century-long decline.
Facing the same trends of rural depopulation as other western Kansas towns over the course of the twentieth century, the residents of Nicomedus and many of the descendants of its initial settlers made preserving the community’s heritage a priority. Their efforts gained momentum in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Designated first as a National Historic Landmark in 1976, the town was recognized as a National Historic Site managed by the National Park Service in 1996, and it still holds an annual homecoming and "Emancipation Celebration" at the end of July, a tradition that dates to the early days of the community. In an effort to preserve records donated to the Nicodemus Historical Society, director Angela Bates selected KU as the repository for the historical society’s records in 1991—a response to the Library's outreach program led by Williams and Dandridge.
The Nicodemus collection has continued to grow, as more longtime Nicodemus residents have donated their personal effects and memorabilia to the library to leave a permanent record of this pioneering community. While the collection does not include written documents from the nineteenth century, it does contain files of family letters and correspondence, church records, newspaper clippings, journals and photographs that testify to the resilience of the Nicodemus community.
While Nicodemus is the best known African American community in the state, it was hardly the only place African Americans settled. Within the African American materials of the Kansas Collection can be found the documentary record of two families stretching back over 100 years of their lives. The Walker Family Collection tells the story of George and Catherine Walker, who moved to Stafford County in 1878, becoming one of the first African American families to homestead in south-central Kansas. Family correspondence and personal papers from the Walkers and their descendants testify to both the difficulties and prosperity facing residents on the Kansas plains. The Cooper-Sheppard-Cox Collection records the experiences of a Topeka family whose patriarch, William Damascus Cooper, moved to the city in 1884. Cooper’s daughter and her husband, Henry Edward Sheppard, purchased the Apex Theater in 1922, making it the first movie theater in Topeka to be owned and operated by African Americans.
A trailblazing spirit lasted beyond such homesteaders, as the realities of racial segregation led to the creation of many successful African American-owned enterprises. In 1899, for instance, a group of physicians headed by Dr. Solomon H. Thompson, Sr. founded Douglass Hospital in Kansas City, Kansas, the first facility located west of the Mississippi River dedicated to providing healthcare to African Americans. Similarly, the Miles Funeral Home in Atchison and the Mrs. J.W. Jones Memorial Chapel in Kansas City provided funerary services for African Americans in the greater Kansas City area. Both have donated an assortment of records to the Spencer Research Library ranging from burial records to diaries.
Many of the donors to the African American Experience Collection have had the common experience of attending Sumner High School, which from 1905 to 1978 was the state’s only African American secondary school. In fact, until the 1960s most African American graduates of the University of Kansas were Sumner High grads. Located in Kansas City, Sumner High opened its doors in September 1905 after a dispute between an African American and a white student at a baseball game in April 1904 changed community attitudes toward inter-racial education. Prior to the fall of 1905, the one high school in Kansas City had been open to both African American and white students, but the death of the white student after the baseball incident hardened racial tensions. “Despite the fact that the Negro boy was not a schoolboy,” noted the student authors of the 1935 book The Story of Sumner High School, “the incident was used as a pretext to launch an agitation for the separation of the races in the high school.” By late February 1905, the Kansas State legislature had passed House Bill No. 890, known as the “Segregation Bill,” which authorized the creation of separate high schools for white and black students in Kansas City, Kansas.
Sumner High School was named for Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts senator who argued vigorously for political and civil rights for African Americans in the years immediately preceding and following the Civil War. “Because of the qualities of scholarship, broadmindedness, and courage, which he possessed, the name ‘Sumner’ was chosen for the new high school in the hope that every boy and girl who passed through its portals would learn to emulate these virtues of the great character whose name the school was to bear,” noted the authors of Sumner’s 1935 history. Though other names were considered – including Lincoln, Douglass, and Washington (not after George, but Booker T.) – each was eliminated.
As Sumner’s enrollment grew, the high school quickly became a focal point for Kansas City’s African American community. The school attracted highly qualified teachers, most of whom had earned their Master’s degrees. (Indeed, Sumner's principals placed such an emphasis on advanced degrees that it became, in essence, a de facto requirement.) Sumner graduates consistently went on to earn baccalaureate and advanced degrees, and many returned to the Kansas City area to become teachers, businessmen and community leaders.
Sumner’s segregated tenure came to an end in the spring of 1978—hardly "with all deliberate speed," some 24 years after Brown v. Topeka Board of Education—with a court desegregation order. The school re-opened in the fall as the Sumner Academy of Arts and Sciences, a school for gifted and talented students in the Kansas City, Kansas Public School District, and continues to welcome students. In a 1986 effort to help preserve the history of the original Sumner High School, the Sumner High School Alumni Association donated materials commemorating the school’s history to the Spencer Research Library—making it one of the first major additions to the African American Experience collection.
The Library has also acquired collections that feature the activities and leadership of women. The African American Experience Collection’s records of women’s social clubs and civic organizations offer intriguing insights into middle-class life within northeast Kansas’ African American community. Among the early women's literary club records are those of the Pierian Club, organized in November 1894. The women's group drew its name and motto from a passage in Thomas Pope’s “Essay on Criticism:” “A little learning is a dangerous thing, Drink deep or taste not the Pierian Spring.” Club members compiled annual yearbooks outlining the topics and books to be discussed, which covered a wide range of interests, including works by notable African American authors. The first written history of the club, compiled in 1927, noted that “the most important books concerning Negroes, and those by Negro authors are attacked with great enthusiasm.”
The clubs did not limit themselves to the finer pursuits of literary criticism and socializing. Most bent toward civic duty and activism, both on the local and national levels. The Pierian Club, for example, protested the Kansas City presentation of The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s film which depicted the Ku Klux Klan in a sympathetic manner. Thirty years later, in the spring of 1948, the Paramount Club organized a postcard campaign aimed at President Harry Truman and the Kansas and Missouri senatorial delegations. The postcards called upon the elected officials to support civil rights legislation then pending before Congress, including an anti-lynching bill and an anti-poll tax bill. Paramount Club members sent the double-sided postcards to 300 clubs and church groups, urging them to petition for the passage of these bills. Likewise, the Yates Branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), chartered in 1913 as the “colored” branch of the citywide YWCA, maintained an active role in causes concerning Kansas City from its inception until its absorption by the Central Kansas City, Kansas YWCA organization in 1982.
The club campaigns illustrate another theme in the larger collection—active resistance to status quo segregation and racism. Though some clubs, schools and businesses formed in response to their being denies access to services, the African American community refused to believe in segregation’s finality. The efforts of numerous activists gave rise to the civil rights struggle of the mid-twentieth century. And Kansans were at the heart of the crusade.
One such Kansan was Charles S. Scott, a Topeka native and graduate of the city’s Washburn Law School who became integrally entwined in cases aimed at eliminating racial segregation in the schools and public facilities of northeast Kansas and, indeed, the nation. Along with John Scott, Elisha Scott, and Charles Bledsoe, he represented 13 Topeka plaintiffs objecting to segregated schooling on the grounds that the separate facilities weren't equal. What began as a local case was eventually combined with four other cases and appealed to the United States Supreme Court, where it became one of the most famous and most important cases in American history: Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. There, chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall convinced a unanimous court to scuttle the principle of "separate but equal" which had been the rule since the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896. The decision, which was passed down on May 17, 1954, paved the way for school integration across the nation and undermined the legal foundation for segregation of all kinds.
Scott’s papers provide a unique window into this pivotal case. “’This is one of the few collections available in a public repository that records local involvement in this case,’” remarked Dandridge in an interview with the Lawrence Journal-World in 2004. The Scott papers include draft copies of legal briefs, research materials related to the case and letters and telegrams sent between attorneys working on the combined cases. These papers, when placed alongside the collections of Chester I. Lewis, a Wichita civil rights lawyer who received his undergraduate and law degrees from KU and who served as a leader of the Young Turks faction within the NAACP, and Elmer Jackson, an attorney who practiced in Kansas City, one of the leaders of the National Bar Association and the first African American chairperson of the Kansas Board of Regents, are critical for understanding the civil rights struggle in Kansas. As Professor William Tuttle has pointed out, “’just having an idea for what the lawyers involved in civil rights activism were thinking makes it a really wonderful collection.’”
To these collections can be added the records of African American state legislators. While KU doesn't have the papers of Kansas' first black legislator, a Baptist minister and former member of Louisiana's House of Representatives who had fled to the Sunflower State following the "Redemption" of Louisiana and was elected in 1889 as a representative of Chautauqua County, it does have the papers of black legislators since the time of the Civil Rights Movement. Among them are those of James P. Davis (who was first elected in 1958), Clarence Love and Billy Q. McCray (both of whom were first elected in 1966), and Norman Justice (who began a seventeen-year tenure in the Kansas House of Representatives in 1973). Indeed, the Library's efforts to assemble these materials mark the first systematic attempt to acquire and preserve the papers of African American legislators.
After the initial NHPRC grant expired in 1989, the University of Kansas took a significant step to secure the future of the African American Experience Collection. The University chose to absorb the financing for the project and, under the direction of Jim Ranz, the Dean of Libraries, made a commitment to continue to fund the full-time field archivist position held by Dandridge. This decision, noted Williams, “spoke to the commitment of the University to this project,” and was a testament to its success in obtaining and organizing materials.
In addition to the line item funding in the University’s budget, the African American Experience Collection has also been able to draw upon a fund provided by two of KU’s most prominent donors over the past decade. Dana and Sue Anderson of Los Angeles, California established the Dana and Sue Anderson Kansas Collection Fund in 1996, in part to help support the continued collection of archival African American materials. The fund has provided financing for special exhibitions drawn from collections held at the library and provided the economic means to hire students assistants to help process material as it is added to the collection. And in 2006 Michael Shinn made a substantial financial donation to the collection. A former KU football captain, retired General Electric executive, syndicated columnist, and financial planner, Shinn had previously contributed material to the Collection and, like Dana Anderson, had a long tradition of service to KU that had been recognized by his alma mater with its prestigious Fred Ellsworth Medallion.
KU’s institutional commitment to this project has set it apart from similar collections around the nation. Few post-secondary institutions, apart from the nation’s historically recognized black colleges and universities, engage in the active collection of materials relating to a state or region’s African American community. In fact, KU was one of the first non-HBCU institutions to receive an award for such a project. There is no doubt, however, that the University has been rewarded for its efforts. The collection is used extensively by students and faculty at the University of Kansas, as well as by scholars from across the nation. Numerous documents and artifacts from the collections were given regional and national attention in May 2004 when the country marked the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka decision. (Indeed, that year KU Libraries hosted a Brown v. Board of Education conference.) The Langston Hughes materials also garnered notice during the 2002 “Let America Be America Again” symposium at the University of Kansas, which marked the centennial of Hughes’ birth.
And yet plenty of gems remain to be discovered. Twenty years after the NHPRC grant was awarded, the Spencer Research Library continues to actively collect and archive materials relating to African Americans in Kansas and the Midwest. And as the collection grows, it lays the foundation for future scholars to understand how African Americans have shaped the history of Kansas and the region.
Valerie A. Schrag
Social Studies Department
Lawrence High School