Author and history professor Brent Campney said because Kansas was a “free state,” Kansans — particularly Lawrencians — have maintained the perception that their communities are more welcoming and accepting than they truly are.
Campney is an author and professor of history at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. During a virtual talk hosted by the Lawrence Public Library on Thursday evening, he shared findings from his 2015 book, “This is Not Dixie: Racist Violence in Kansas: 1861-1927,” which dives deep into white supremacist violence within Kansas’ history.
Campney said that as a midwestern state, it was easier for Kansas to attribute most racial violence in the country to the south.
He recalled observing this mindset amongst people in Lawrence while attending the University of Kansas, where he received his master’s degree in American Studies in 2001.
“It really [was] kind of extraordinary that a town that 30 or so years before I moved there was Jim Crow, didn’t get an integrated swimming pool until 1967 and yet there is this belief among a lot of people who probably should’ve known better that everything had been fine.
“I thought, ‘Well, if I take this Southern theory and I apply it to Kansas, will Kansas still be able to maintain this mythology?’ Based on my findings, they could not.”
In his book, Campney mainly focused on 1880-1930, the period of time after the Civil War and into the 20th century. He discussed several types of racial violence that he studied, including lynching, race riots, rape, and police violence, all of which he said asserted white dominance. He also looked at sundown towns, which were towns that made it known they did not welcome Black people, either through policy or intimidation.
He shared true accounts of individual events of racist violence in towns and communities all across Kansas. One included the lynching of three Black men, Isaac King, George Robertson and Pete Vinegar, by an angry white mob in Lawrence on June 10, 1882.
This was one of 56 lynchings and 41 incidents of racist attacks in Kansas between 1861 and 1930 that Campney found.
A historical marker to remember the 1882 event and mourn the three victims has recently been installed near the Kansas River bridge in Lawrence, where the lynching occurred. Friday was the 140th anniversary of the lynching. Though more than 100 years seems like a long time ago, Campney said there is a false narrative that today is far removed from the gruesome past.
“As humans we always tend to think the bad stuff happened about 30 years ago. We have this mythology that we’re always better in the present and so we can’t wrap our heads around the fact that we’re the same creatures that we were 30 years ago, or 60 years ago, or 100 years ago,” Campney said.
To define lynching in modern-day language, Campney said it refers to lethal violence in which a mob targets a victim(s), alleging that they committed a crime, but victims almost never actually committed the crime. Crowds would often gather to witness white mobs lynching Black people as a form of entertainment. When perpetrators were prosecuted, which was rare, they would walk away free of consequences, Campney said.
Unlike lynchings, race riots aren’t directed at individuals; rather, they are huge, violent events. Campney found that Kansas’ biggest race riot was in Hays in 1869.
“Virtually every town in Kansas that had an African American population of any size at all had some kind of racist killing or racist brutality that enforced the white supremacist order,” Campney said.
Campney later shared what he found about the beginnings of police violence and how the idea of a Black person “making a quick move” or “reaching for a weapon” is often used today. He briefly shared the story of 19-year-old Tiger Dowdell, who was shot in the back of the head by a Lawrence police officer in 1970, as an example.
Campney explained the danger of attributing the worst of a community to the past only. He has noticed that inheriting assets, like generational money or land, is accepted in America, but inheriting something dark, like the legacy of racism, results in a deflection of responsibility.
To conclude his discussion, Campney shared that as a white person who grew up having an economic advantage, he has learned to inherit the good and the bad.
Ursula Minor, president of the Lawrence, Kansas Branch NAACP, shared the importance of community remembrance of even the most painful stories.
“It’s hard to hear, but it’s needed,” Minor said.
Brad Allen, Lawrence Public Library executive director, said the livestream will be posted to the Lawrence Public Library YouTube channel for those who would like to watch later.
This event was the first of three in a series hosted by the Lawrence-Douglas County Community Remembrance Project on June 9, 10 and 11. The conversation will continue at 7 p.m. Friday with a historical marker ceremony behind Lawrence City Hall. Visit this link to learn more about CRP’s three-day event.
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“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.
Though a final answer is likely still a few months away, work began Monday to solve a question that originated just over 139 years ago: where are the three Black men lynched in Lawrence in the summer of 1882 buried? One Kansas researcher is using ground penetrating radar technology to find out.