Shawn Alexander: The little-known story of George R. King and Bailey Hall (Column)

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Working at Bailey Hall at KU over the past 17 years, I have heard countless people walk through the halls or past the building asking about Dr. Edgar H. Bailey. In response, I usually hear the same stories about helium and the origins of the Rock Chalk chant, but for me the space is represented by a person no one seems to know or remember: George R. King. 

King worked in Bailey — originally named the Chemistry Building — and the Chemistry Department longer than Bailey, and he may have had more of an impact on the students taking chemistry classes at KU and the community of Lawrence than the famed professor.

My office, and the Department of African and African-American Studies, are on the ground floor of Bailey Hall. Across the corridor from my room is the former chemistry storeroom. As the storekeeper of the department, King occupied that room and walked the hall for decades. 

He started working in the Chemistry Department in 1891, when he was 18 years old and the supply room was in the old Chemistry Hall, known as the “Shack” just southwest of Fraser Hall. In 1900, when the new Chemistry Building was completed, King moved over with the rest of the department, and for more than 40 years, he continued to distribute supplies, take the occasional class, and ultimately become a KU tradition, as Lorene Miller declared in “The Graduate Magazine” in 1937.

Off Mount Oread, King was an equally formidable force. 

Among other things, George was an active member of the Lawrence Forum, an African American literary society, the local Prince Hall Masonic Lodge, and a devoted attendee of both St. James and St. Luke A.M.E. churches, where he was a member of the choir and often played his clarinet. At the Forum, King not only participated in the general business of the group but also gave lectures to members and the community, including one in 1905 on the uses of liquid air and another in 1914 on the usefulness of bacteria.

In 1914, King was also appointed to a committee by the Forum to explore the possibility of organizing a Lawrence branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It would take an additional seven years, but in 1921 those active in the effort, including King, received word from the national office that their branch was approved. The local NAACP existed in Lawrence for more than 20 years before internal conflicts forced the group to disband briefly in the 1940s. 

In the wake of the NAACP, King and other activists — including Henry Stone, the secretary on the initial charter of the Lawrence branch — came together in 1945 to create a new grassroots organization, the Lawrence League for the Practice of Democracy (LLPD) to fight against the discriminatory practices that continued to exist in the city.

King also took his activism in the direction of self-help and self-determination. Alongside his work at the university, King owned and operated a school supply store, King’s School Specialties, which sold lab aprons, white coats, beakers and a rub for rheumatism, among other things.

In an act of self-preservation, he and other African American business owners organized the Community Welfare Club, which promoted Black businesses in Lawrence and spoke out against the racism that African American customers experienced at white-owned establishments. The group, which named King president, encouraged the community to not buy from businesses that practiced discrimination, and to support Black owned stores and professionals. They also published a pamphlet, “Directory of the Negro Business Establishments in Lawrence, Kansas,” to help promote Black businesses and a better future for the community. 

As King explained in one of the pamphlets: “Labor organizations and prejudicial discrimination are making it more difficult for our youth to obtain employment … We must make some provision for ourselves. The Negro businessmen of Lawrence are trying to find a solution … Better patronage, better business for them means more chances for employment for those seeking it. It means a better economic position for all of us.”

King was what historians have come to call a “Race Man.” He was an active member of the African American community of Lawrence who struggled against the racism and discrimination that existed within the city for his entire life — from Reconstruction to the Brown v. Board decision. He is one of the many people whose history and memory have been lost over the years, not only in Lawrence but throughout the country. 

King is an example of why history matters and a testament of who gets lost in the retelling of history when certain stories, individuals and events are left out of the history books and public memory.

The next time you stop at the corner of Mississippi Street and Jayhawk Boulevard or walk by Bailey Hall, think not only of Dr. Edgar Bailey or the Rock Chalk chant, but also remember George R. King — a man who worked in the building for nearly 50 years and struggled to make the city of Lawrence a better place for all its citizens.

About this column

“The Way of the Wide, Wide World” is a regular column about race, history and politics by Shawn Leigh Alexander, professor of African & African-American Studies at the University of Kansas. Dr. Alexander is the author of, among other titles, “An Army of Lions: The Struggle for Civil Rights before the NAACP” (2012) and “W. E. B. Du Bois: An American Intellectual and Activist” (2015). He is also a frequent consultant and contributor on PBS documentaries, including “Reconstruction: America After the Civil War” (2019) and “Niagara Movement: The Early Battle for Civil Rights” (2023).

Read more of “The Way of the Wide, Wide World” at this link.

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Shawn Alexander: The little-known story of George R. King and Bailey Hall (Column)

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”King is an example of why history matters and a testament of who gets lost in the retelling of history when certain stories, individuals and events are left out of the history books and public memory,” Shawn Alexander writes in this column.


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