Black history is integral to Lawrence history, community leaders discussed during Tuesday’s Lawrence City Commission meeting.
Ursula Minor, president of the NAACP Lawrence Branch, kicked off a unified Black History Month talk, along with representatives of the Lawrence NAACP Youth Council and B.L.A.C.K. (Black Literature and Arts Collective of Kansas) Lawrence.
Minor said the branch is working on a historical marker — like the one posted near Lawrence City Hall in memory of Isaac King, George Robertson and Peter Vinegar, who were lynched by a white mob in Lawrence in 1882 — for Margaret “Sis” Vinegar, Peter Vinegar’s daughter. Margaret escaped the mob, but not without consequence. She was then sentenced to death by an all-white jury and died in prison at the age of 20.
Minor also said the branch has received a grant to reveal vastly untold stories of Black burial grounds within the city.
“There are a lot of Black burial grounds in Lawrence where the graves are in disrepair, and a lot of people don’t know the stories about them,” Minor said during the meeting.
Additionally, the NAACP will be partnering with Watkins Museum of History to create a popup exhibition of the history of the Lawrence branch, Minor said. She said many people don’t know that sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Dubois came to Lawrence when the NAACP was founded.
Wendo Kimori, Free State High School senior, spoke alongside Minor about the newly revived Lawrence NAACP Youth Council, where she serves as founder and president. The council offers high school and college students an avenue to implement their equity ideas, turning them into action.
“I wanted a forum that would be ground zero for all things youth empowerment, specifically advancing racial equity through action — so basically what the NAACP is doing but more youth-centered and youth-focused,” Kimori said during the meeting.
So far, the council has read to elementary school students in the district during Martin Luther King, Jr. week and plans to continue the program during Black History Month, and members are currently planning more community engagement activities. In collaboration with the Sunrise Project, Kimori said, the council will serve meals to community members in need on Saturday, Feb. 18.
Future Lawrence NAACP Youth Council events and updates can be found on the group’s Instagram page.
Mercedes Lucero and Ashanti “Ash” Spears, co-founders of B.L.A.CK. Lawrence, discussed their local work. B.L.A.C.K. Lawrence, now in its sixth year of existence, is a network of Black artists, poets, musicians and creatives celebrating and uplifting each other.
Spears explained B.L.A.C.K. Lawrence began in 2017 but resulted from the Womxn of Color mural project. She said a group of Black artists wrote a literary magazine called “Fire” for the Black Harlem Renaissance, and that many of them met up in Kansas. Those who contributed to the first issue of “Fire” in 1926 included poet Langston Hughes and writer and graphic designer Richard Nugent as well as Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Bennett, John Davis, Lewis Grandison Alexander, Countee Cullen, Arna Bontemps, Aaron Douglas and Wallace Henry Thurman.
According to the African American Registry, Langston Hughes wrote that the name “Fire” was meant to symbolize their goal “to burn up a lot of the old, dead conventional Negro-white ideas of the past … into a realization of the existence of the younger Negro writers and artists and provide us with an outlet for publication not available in the limited pages of the small Negro magazines then existing.” This history inspired present-day B.L.A.C.K. Lawrence, Spears said.
“Just as the literary work created in 1926 was devoted to younger Negro artists, B.L.A.C.K. Lawrence stands as a pro-Black collective, rooted in the Lawrence community for everyone,” Spears said during the meeting.
Lucero shared a number of activities through which B.L.A.C.K. Lawrence has engaged with the community, like poetry residencies with Lawrence Public Schools students and a youth zine workshop at the Lawrence Public Library on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
In addition to supporting one another within the collective, B.L.A.C.K. Lawrence continues to put on public events throughout the year. One lined up for Black History Month is a poetry reading with Courtney Faye Taylor, whose recent poetry book was nominated for an NAACP award. That event is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 28 at Raven Bookstore.
“We also among ourselves are heavily involved in building each other up in transferring skills and sharing our knowledge and pulling each other up as we climb,” Lucero said during the meeting. “…We are very heavily involved in Black History Month, but we also want to champion just events throughout the year and continued and ongoing efforts outside of February.”
Lawrence Mayor Lisa Larsen concluded the segment of the city commission meeting by reading an annual Black History Month proclamation, declaring February 2023 as a celebration of Black history in Lawrence. Read the full proclamation at this link.