A ceremony Friday on the north side of Lawrence City Hall honored the lives and memory of three Black men who were murdered by a white mob atop the Kansas River bridge on June 10, 1882.
Early that morning, Isaac King, George Robertson and Peter Vinegar were dragged from the Douglas County Jail to the middle of the Kansas River Bridge and hanged over its side by an angry mob of more than 100 white men. No members of the lynch mob were ever charged or faced any legal consequences for the murders.
For years, the men’s bodies were buried in unmarked graves in Potter’s Field, at the northeast corner of Oak Hill Cemetery. In 2021, City of Lawrence employees discovered a cemetery plot chart that included their names. And now a historical marker west of City Hall does too.
Ursula Minor, president of the Lawrence, Kansas Branch of the NAACP, told members of the crowd the memorial project took root in 2019 within the local NAACP chapter. More than two years later, they would honor the men “standing together as a community” near the site of their deaths.
“I want to reiterate standing together, which is something that could not and did not happen in 1882 because Black people were in fear of their lives. Standing together as a community to honor Peter Vinegar, Isaac King and George Robertson 140 years later is monumental.”
Throughout the ceremony, speakers repeated those names. And they included Margaret “Sis” Vinegar’s, too. She was the daughter of Peter Vinegar who barely escaped the mob with her life. She was later sentenced to death by an all-white jury and died at age 20 from tuberculosis while in prison.
The volume of Rev. Verdell Taylor’s voice rose as he mentioned the child-survivor.
“These three Black men died from hanging because they defended a 14-year-old Margaret Vinegar — a child, do you hear me? A child who was being raped. They were not given a trial but were lynched. I say, ‘Let us remember.’ Let us not forget this happened right here. Yes, right here in Lawrence, Kansas, our city, Lawrence, Kansas. It had racial problems in 1882, and it has problems today.”
“Let us remember that change can only come when we acknowledge the wrongs of the past and work together to change our future so we don’t have modern-day lynchings.”
“The Black body is the most disposable body in America. America has proved this time and time again. In a perfect world, America would acknowledge our horrifying past and take steps to move toward equality. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Instead, our history is whitewashed in the classroom; completely censored to downplay the horrors of the racial brutality our ancestors faced,” Brown told the audience.
Friday’s ceremony was part of a series of free public events sponsored by the Lawrence/Douglas County Community Remembrance Project Coalition and the Equal Justice Initiative. Based in Montgomery, Alabama, the initiative provides historical markers at no cost to communities where any of the more than 4,400 documented racial terror lynchings occurred between 1877 and 1950 in the U.S.
The south side of the marker displays information about King, Robertson and the Vinegars, while the north side displays historical information about lynchings in the U.S. It explains that lynching “emerged as the most public and notorious form of racial terrorism” and that “State and federal officials tolerated these lawless killings of Black people by failing to hold white mobs accountable for their crimes. During this era, white lives held heightened value and Black-on-white violence, including defense of other Black children, women, or men, could spark white rage, mob violence, and lynching.”
The marker notes that between 1865 and 1950 there were at least 23 documented racial terror lynchings in Kansas, including at least three in Douglas County. It makes special mention of the terror inflicted upon Black women and girls by white men in power: “Black women and girls were killed in racial terror lynchings and also endured the racial terror of sexual violence by white men who were protected by a judicial system that enforced the view that Black girls and women had no legal protections against white men’s advances.”
Kerry Altenbernd, coordinator and liaison for the Lawrence/Douglas County Community Remembrance Project Coalition, called the lynchings of the men “a really shameful event in Lawrence history.”
“And Lawrence has failed to recognize that, and until you recognize the bad things in your past, they just sit there and they fester. And they fester down the generations, generational trauma, and we want this to be the last generation to have had that problem. We want to reconcile and to bring that healing to our children and grandchildren instead of the memory of something unreconciled.”
Today, Altenbernd said, was a special occasion and “the only way to expunge something like this is to face it and get by it.”
The Burch-Hill family reflected on the dedication ceremony as they left. Three generations of the family attended, including young Eleanor, who is almost 2. Her dad, Jacob Burch-Hill and mom, Melissa Burch-Hill, participate in NAACP and CRP activities. Melissa grew up attending events like this with her family.
“We wanted to bring her today, because this is the first of many events for her,” Melissa said.
On Thursday, Brent Campney, author and professor of history at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, presented findings from his 2015 book, “This is Not Dixie: Racist Violence in Kansas: 1861-1927” during a virtual lecture. Campney shared instances of racial violence that transpired all over Kansas, including the lynching of the three Lawrence men in Lawrence.
The Watkins Museum of History on Saturday will screen the documentary film “Then Three Were Taken: The True Story of an 1882 Lawrence, Kansas, Lynching,” with Executive Producer Barbara Higgins-Dover. All seats for showings have been reserved, but the film will also be available on the museum’s YouTube channel for a limited time that afternoon.
For more about the CRP events June 9, 10 and 11, click here.
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More coverage: Lawrence/Douglas County Community Remembrance Project
Note: This article has been updated to correct a misspelled name.