Kansas Legislature endorses license plate bearing design by slave owner

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TOPEKA — A bundle of new distinctive license plates passed last week by the Kansas Legislature has drawn criticism for the inclusion of a plate design with ties to a former slave owner.

House Bill 2166 authorizes the creation of several new plates to support various organizations, including the production of a plate modeled after the Gadsden flag. The yellow Revolutionary War symbol bears a hissing snake and the words “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Christopher Gadsden, the designer of the flag, was a merchant and slave owner in South Carolina. He also built a wharf bearing his name in Charleston, where an estimated 100,000 enslaved Africans landed in the United States.

Despite other worthy causes — a plate to support state educators, veterans and raise money to fight childhood cancer — the idea of putting the state stamp of approval on something with these associations pushed some Democratic senators to question the bill.

“Why we have to put this foul piece or keep this foul piece in is beyond me on something else that is so well done,” said Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City, Kansas Democrat, who said he voted in favor of the bill due to the other plates. “For the legacy of this despot who too will be included, I’m ashamed that we have added this to this bill.”

The measure passed the Senate 29-5 and the House 81 to 41. The bill now goes to Gov. Laura Kelly for approval. It is unclear if the governor would veto the bill due to this provision.

Under the measure, anyone applying for a Gadsden flag license plate would make an annual payment of $25. All funds would go toward the Kansas State Rifle Association.

Rep. Blake Carpenter, R-Derby, viewed the effort to decry the provision as hypocritical. He pointed to Washington Days, a yearly gathering of the Kansas Democratic Party named after George Washington, who was also a slave owner. 

While the flag may have these ties, the sentiment behind it is not based in racism, Carpenter said.

“I think that our citizens want to have the ability to say, ‘Don’t tread on me.’ I like my freedom, and I would like for you to support my freedom to choose whatever you want to choose,” Carpenter said. “I think that that’s what this means.”

The license plate package passed through the House without opposition before it was amended by the Senate Transportation Committee to include the Gadsden flag. Neither chamber held a hearing on the Don’t Tread on Me provision this year.

Passing the bill without public input would be an instance of inadequate vetting and unfair treatment of those who had to come before the body to testify on other plates, said Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita.

“If it didn’t come before us, I may not have voted for it, but I wouldn’t have been a loud no,” Finney said. “But it didn’t come before the committee, and all the other (plates) that are there did.”

While there was no testimony this session, Sen. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, noted there have been hearings on the same plate in years past.

Rep. Trevor Jacobs, R-Fort Scott, felt the plates should be authorized, and the decision of whether or not to display it should be left up to individual Kansans.

Still, Rep. Henry Helgerson, D-Eastborough, urged the body to send the bill back to a new conference committee and remove the provision.

“For me, (distinctive license plates) are not as much of a controversial issue, but it is a controversial issue for me when we put on a license plate that represents all of us and that a significant majority of Kansans do not believe represents them,” Helgerson said. 

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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