Note from the Times: This story discusses racially motivated killings and includes details that may be disturbing. Please read with caution.
A small pink flag currently marks a spot in the northeast corner of Oak Hill Cemetery, the spot in Lawrence’s first cemetery known as Potter’s Field.
The pink flag looks innocuous, as if it were noting the location of a sprinkler head in one of the few areas of the sprawling cemetery not already lined with gravestones.
In reality, the flag signifies — at least within a few feet — an answer 138 years in the making: the burial location of Pete Vinegar, one of three Black men lynched in Lawrence in the summer of 1882.
Until February — when Lawrence City Clerk Sherri Riedemann made a happenstance discovery while cleaning out a City Hall storage area — where exactly Vinegar, Isaac King and George Robertson were buried was nothing short of a guessing game.
Riedemann told The Lawrence Times that while cleaning out that storage area, which housed numerous Douglas County bond register records from decades ago in large, leather-bound books, her office discovered a chart of cemetery plots tucked inside.
“I didn’t actually see (the chart initially) because it had been folded in tucked in some pages that had sort of pockets on them,” she said. “We were excited to find this cemetery book in and of itself, not fully understanding (what it would show).”
Because Douglas County is also working on a project to transfer all of its cemetery records to a new system, Riedemann said a coworker showed her the chart, which she recognized as potentially important. She immediately shared it with Derek Rogers, the director of parks and recreation — the department manages the county’s cemeteries.
She asked Rogers to let her know if anything came of the records, and just a day later, something did.
Kerry Altenbernd, who chairs the History Committee of Lawrence’s NAACP chapter, had done preliminary research on the lynchings before the NAACP joined forces with the Equal Justice Initiative out of Montgomery, Alabama, in 2019. The EJI’s Community Remembrance Project seeks to document the roughly 4,400 African American victims of racial terror lynchings from 1877 until 1950.
He told the Times he was able to take the newly discovered chart — which includes the plots where Vinegar, King and Robertson are buried — and match names on it to the few existing headstones in Potter’s Field, confirmed by city burial cards from the era.
The clearest of those existing headstones was that of Moses Gray, a Black man who died in May 1894. Altenbernd then used the chart and some basic calculations to pace out where Vinegar’s plot is listed. King is buried next to Vinegar, and Robertson is buried 10 feet south of King.
It’s not quite exact, yet, Altenbernd said, as the chart doesn’t indicate how long the plots from nearly 140 years ago are or how exactly they’re oriented. It will take more research and likely a ground survey to pinpoint exactly where the three men were buried.
But it’s a monumental step toward properly memorializing something thought to be long lost to a dark chapter in Lawrence’s history.
“I knew we needed that chart. That was something we wanted to do, to identify an actual tombstone out here with a chart of where the burials were,” Altenbernd said. “That’s the only way you’re going to be able to calculate.”
The story of how and why Vinegar, King and Robertson were lynched is harrowing. In the summer of 1882, the body of David Bausman — a white man in his mid-40s — was found drowned in Lawrence.
As best historians can tell, Bausman was a widower who was thought to be having sex with Margaret “Sis” Vinegar, Pete Vinegar’s daughter, who was around age 14. King and Robertson are said to have discovered the two having sex, and beat Bausman before he drowned in the Kansas River.
The two were living with Pete at the time, so Pete was also arrested simply for association, even though he was thought to be out of town at the time of Bausman’s killing. He was never charged with a crime.
Margaret was also arrested in connection with the murder, but the lynch mob that came for Vinegar, King and Robertson ultimately decided against hanging her as well. She would die a few years later of tuberculosis at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth.
It was 1 a.m. on June 10, 1882 when the mob showed up at the county jail (now Robinson Park) with nooses in hand and demanded the release of Vinegar, King and Robertson. The sheriff is said to have refused the request before being overtaken by the mob, which used sledgehammers to break the men out of their cells.
They were dragged to the Kansas River bridge, tied down and thrown over, their bodies left to hang until the next morning. The three were buried in unmarked graves, which until now could’ve been anywhere in the roughly acre-and-a-half portion of Potter’s Field.
“I think there was belief that that’s where they were buried, but it’s just to see their name specifically listed on that map,” Riedemann said. “It’s nice to have that confirmation.”
Altenbernd said there isn’t an exact timeline or plan for which technique will be used to pinpoint the men’s exact burial plots, but the discovery of the chart is enough to begin properly memorializing the lynching.
As part of Lawrence’s partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative, Vinegar, King and Robertson will be remembered through a historical marker paid for entirely by the EJI. Altenbernd said one side of the marker will discuss the history of lynching in America and in Kansas, and the other side will detail the lynching itself as well as the racial history of Douglas County.
The marker text has been written and agreed on, he said, and now the committee is waiting on it to arrive. The NAACP History Committee’s initial goal was to dedicate the marker on Juneteenth of this year — June 19 is the day celebrating the 1865 emancipation of enslaved people in the United States — but due to COVID-19, the committee decided to postpone the official dedication until June 19, 2022.
In the interim, Juneteenth this year will virtually celebrate the winners of a social justice essay contest sponsored by EJI, which Altenbernd said will then kick off “a year of learning” in which the committee will host at least monthly events about racism and social justice leading up to the official marker dedication.