Kerry Altenbernd: We must face up to vile racist incidents and discrimination in Lawrence (Column)

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Why is the Lawrence/Douglas County Community Remembrance Project Coalition bringing up events from local history that cast a negative light on our community — lynchings, racial injustice, discrimination against people of color? Would it not be better to just let the dead past remain the past and forget all about those few unfortunate incidents?

The answers to these questions begin with William Faulkner’s well-known quote, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” We live with the legacy of our history and the generational trauma from those “few unfortunate incidents” that has passed down to those living today. Passed down because there was never recognition of the injustice of those events or efforts made toward reconciliation within the community.

Lawrence and Douglas County were at the heart of the Free State movement during the days of Kansas Territory prior to the Civil War, and they were critical to Kansas being admitted to the Union in 1861 as a state that did not allow slavery. This narrative is true as far as it goes, but it has been used to ignore or discount evidence that nonwhite people were not always welcome to settle and live here.

In his extremely important book titled “This is Not Dixie: Racist Violence in Kansas, 1861-1927,” Brent Campney shows that this “Free State Narrative” is toxic to understand what really happened in Kansas and obscures how much the state did not live up to its purported openness and tolerance.

Lawrence and Douglas County were in no way immune from the widespread racist violence and discrimination in Kansas. There were more than a “few unfortunate incidents” of local racial injustice. In his book, Campney documents at least 13 incidents of serious racial violence in Douglas County during the period of 1861-1927, including the lynching of Isaac King, George Robertson, and Pete Vinegar from the Kansas River Bridge on June 10, 1882. Not included in the book is the problematic murder conviction and imprisonment of 14-year-old Margaret “Sis” Vinegar, who narrowly escaped being lynched along with her father, Pete.

Since Campney’s book ends with 1927, local racial violence and injustice that occurred after that, including the questionable killing of Rick “Tiger” Dowdell by a Lawrence police officer on July 16, 1970, are not covered in it. Other evidence of the continuing oppression includes the fact that the Ku Klux Klan was active in Lawrence and Douglas County during the first half of the 20th century, and klansmen sought to intimidate people of color, many of whom were their neighbors.

This prejudice and oppression was not limited to African American residents. It was extended to students at Haskell Indian Nations University, beginning when it opened as the United States Indian Industrial Training School in 1884 and continuing throughout the history of the school. 

The only way to heal the generational trauma and reclaim the soul of our community is to face up to those vile incidents head-on, make certain that we will never forget them, and actively work for a genuine communitywide reconciliation between the descendants of both the oppressed and the oppressors. These will not be pleasant tasks and will not be quickly or easily accomplished, but failing to do so will ensure that we will pass on the trauma to future generations, which would be a monumental failure on our part.

The Lawrence/Douglas County Community Remembrance Project Coalition was formed to partner with the Equal Justice Initiative of Montgomery, Alabama, to work together to enable our local community to document, commemorate, and work toward reconciliation for racial violence and injustice. The accomplishments to date are a Racial Justice High School Essay Contest and the collection of soil near the site of the lynching. A project to get a historical marker that documents the 1882 lynching installed on City Hall property is nearing completion with a dedication ceremony anticipated to be on Juneteenth (June 19) next year. 

The coalition is also engaged in a “Year of Learning” to organize and support informational programs leading up to Juneteenth 2022. The coalition invites and encourages all community members to participate in its important activities.

— Kerry Altenbernd is coordinator and liaison for the Lawrence/Douglas County Community Remembrance Project Coalition. Follow the coalition on Facebook for the latest updates.

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