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‘We must tell the truth of our past before we can improve it,’ Lawrence NAACP chair says

In community presentations over the past few years, Lawrence NAACP President Ursula Minor said most people were stunned when told three Black men were lynched from the Kansas River bridge in 1882.

But remembering what happened to Pete Vinegar, George Robertson and Isaac King more than 139 years ago, Minor said in a similar presentation Thursday evening, is crucially important to improving racial equity today.

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“We must tell the truth of our past before we can improve it,” Minor told a crowd of around 30 at the Lawrence Arts Center, flanked by images of the center’s ongoing “Ghosts of Segregation” photo exhibit.

Vinegar, Robertson and King were taken from the Douglas County jail after midnight on June 10, 1882 by an angry mob. Robertson and King were charged with the murder of David Bausman, a white man in his 40s. Vinegar wasn’t charged with anything, but he was arrested anyway. The three men were hung from the bridge and left until the next morning, Minor told the crowd.

Bausman was a widower who was thought to be having sex with Margaret “Sis” Vinegar, Pete’s daughter, who was just 14 years old. King and Robertson are said to have discovered the two having sex, and beat Bausman before he drowned in the Kansas River.

Margaret herself was arrested for a supposed role in the killing — a fact that drew several exasperated sighs from audience members Thursday — and the mob briefly considered lynching the teenager as well. Minor said the facts of the lynching, and what preceded it, were “swept under the carpet” by white-run media outlets at the time, including nearly all of the information about Margaret being sexually abused and nearly lynched herself.

Margaret died of tuberculosis in the Lansing state penitentiary seven years later.

The three men were buried in unmarked graves in Potter’s Field at Oak Hill Cemetery. Their burial location was unknown until February, when the Lawrence city clerk’s office discovered a chart of cemetery plots which included King, Vinegar and Robertson’s names tucked in a book of decades-old bond registers. Work is ongoing to pinpoint the exact location of their graves.

The NAACP, Minor told attendees Thursday, has partnered with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama since 2019 to fully document the killings of Vinegar, Robertson and King. The EJI’s Community Remembrance Project is working to record the approximately 4,400 racial terror lynchings in the United States between 1877 and 1950.

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In 2018, EJI opened its National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which includes more than 800 columns etched with names. Each column, Minor said, represents a county in America with a documented terror lynching — and while it may be a sobering and surprising fact for a town such as Lawrence, now considered a liberal bastion, Douglas County is represented in those columns.

“The videotaped death of George Floyd was a modern-day lynching. Floyd was killed in broad daylight by police officer Derek Chauvin, who lay down with a knee on his neck for more than nine minutes. Lynchings like these should not be a part of American society today, as they should not have been 100 years ago,” Minor said. “The NAACP continues to fight back against white supremacy and violence, and demand that people responsible, including law enforcement officers, should be held accountable.”

The NAACP and the Lawrence/Douglas County Community Remembrance Project recently kicked off a “year of learning” leading up to the official dedication of the EJI marker for Vinegar, King and Robertson next June. Minor said one of the events will focus on the Lawrence public swimming pool, which she remembered being segregated until she was in sixth grade.

In the more immediate future, though, the remembrance of the three men will continue at 10 a.m. Saturday with a soil collection ceremony near City Hall under the Kansas River bridge. In September, employees of Bowersock Mills & Power Company collected soil, which has since been drying to prepare it for placement in jars that will be permanently memorialized at both the national memorial in Montgomery, and at Watkins Museum of History.

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More coverage:

Clay Wirestone: At memorial for Lawrence lynching victims, a crowd faces history head-on (Column)

“On that Saturday morning by the Kansas River, as soil was scooped into glass jars and carnations placed on top of each, a spirit moved among the crowd. They had gathered there, near Lawrence City Hall, to commemorate the victims of a lynching nearly 140 years ago,” Clay Wirestone writes in this column for Kansas Reflector.

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‘We must tell the truth of our past before we can improve it,’ Lawrence NAACP chair says

Remembering what happened to three Black men lynched in Lawrence more than 139 years ago is crucially important to improving racial equity now, Lawrence NAACP chair Ursula Minor said Thursday.

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Conner Mitchell (he/him), reporter, can be reached at cmitchell (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com or 785-435-9264. If you have sensitive information to send Conner, please email connermitchell (at) protonmail (dot) com.

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