Note: This post was contributed by the staff of the Watkins Museum of History and not produced by the Times staff.
In some ways, North Lawrence is a hidden gem.
Many Lawrence residents don’t realize that this community north of the Kansas River has a vibrant and diverse history of its own. The area that became North Lawrence was designated in 1829 as a reservation for the Delaware/Lenape tribe, but white people had begun encroaching on the reservation lands by the early 1850s.
While the 1850s wave of settlers arrived both north and south of the river at the same time, North Lawrence was independent. After incorporation between North and South Lawrence occurred, North Lawrence citizens faced prejudice from community members south of the river as economic and social differences continued to act as a wedge between the two communities. As a result, North Lawrence developed an independent identity that carries on to this day.
Black settlers shaped the growth of North Lawrence. From its beginning, the social barriers and segregation that grew south of the river differed in North Lawrence. This community included diverse peoples who built businesses, homes, and farms side-by-side. That included Lenape tribe members who left the reservation for the newly emerging town as settlement constricted their relocated land, Black families who had left the post-reconstruction South, and white settlers from the East Coast.
North Lawrence residents elected the city’s first Black officials. Local social and cooperative organizations, including the North Lawrence Farmers Association, were also led by Black citizens.
In 2021, the Watkins Museum of History received a treasure trove of photographs from Gary Davis, a native North Lawrence resident. Davis’ family has deep roots in North Lawrence. Watkins curator Brittany Keegan, with advisement from University of Kansas historian Alyssa Cole, has drawn on these images for a new exhibit called Familiar Faces: The Gary Davis Photo Collection.
While the images in this exhibit embody North Lawrence’s history, they also illustrate a broader experience of Black citizens across the United States. Black citizens in North Lawrence used institutions including churches and schools to inspire pride. Generations of Black people across the nation served their country in the Armed Forces, a tradition shared by residents of North Lawrence. Community celebrations, travel, leisure time, and use of fashion and photography to capture moments in time were joyous acts of resistance to the prejudices they faced.
Familiar Faces is on view at the Watkins through Nov. 4. Learn more on the museum’s website.
— Brittany Keegan is curator of exhibitions and collections and Will Haynes is director of engagement and learning at the Watkins Museum of History.