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Kansas’ messy racial history dates to its founding

Heather Hollingsworth
Kansas’ messy racial history dates to its founding

TOPEKA, Kan. — During the prelude to the Civil War, Kansans fought on the side of what was right, seeking to keep the scourge of slavery out of the state and help the enslaved.

Wait a minute, historians say.

As Kansas celebrated its 150th birthday last Saturday, those who have devoted their careers to studying the period want to fill people in on something: Most of the settlers who fought to ensure Kansas entered the union as a free state initially wanted to ban blacks from the state entirely.

“They were hardly abolitionists who shared our 21st century racial views,” said Jonathan Earle, a history professor at the University of Kansas, located in the former abolitionist stronghold of Lawrence. “They didn’t want anything to do with these people. They didn’t like slaveholders really.”

Kansans have long struggled with how their state can be so heavily tied to both John Brown, the fiery abolitionist who made a name for himself in the Kansas Territory before leading a failed slave revolt at Harpers Ferry, and to the school desegregation case of Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education a century later.

Even today, the state continues to grapple with one of the largest racial dilemmas in recent years, illegal immigration. Kansas’ newly elected secretary of state, Kris Kobach, has made the issue his calling card in part by helping Arizona draft a new immigration law.

“Kansas over the course of its 150 years, it was born in this national discussion about race relations and I think we are still there,” Earle said.

The conflict in Kansas started in 1854 when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, allowing settlers to decide for themselves whether to permit slavery.

While abolitionists from the east were alarmed by the potential spread of slavery and sent settlers to the territory, the bulk of the new arrivals were Midwesterners who were merely looking for good land to farm. Many of the Midwesterners had come from states with laws discriminating against freed slaves, said Nicole Etcheson, a Ball State University professor who wrote “Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era.”

“So the Midwesterners are kind of up for grabs,” she said.

However, the Midwesterners start paying attention when residents of the neighboring slave state of Missouri crossed into what would become Kansas to vote illegally and help elect a pro-slavery territorial legislature. That led the New Englanders and the Midwesterners to form an alliance and begin operating their own extralegal, shadow government, a move some considered treason.

A pro-slavery territorial constitutional convention produced a pro-slavery constitution, and the free-staters produced three of their own. The free-staters’ first attempt at a constitution is the one that would have banned blacks from the state, freed or otherwise.

Gradually, however, a change took place, and the Kansas settlers decided the only way to free themselves from Missourians who were seeking to impose slavery in the territory was to get rid of slavery, Etcheson said.

“It’s only when they see their interests and the slaves’ interests as being in common do they start to move to end slavery, but they do that,” Etcheson said. “The rest of the north isn’t going to see their interests, white interests and slave interests, as being the same until around 1863 when they decide that the only way to defeat the Confederacy is to free the slaves and take black men into the Army.”

After the war, Kansas would become a popular destination for oppressed blacks leaving the south amid intense racial oppression. Earle said the exodusters, the name given to the fleeing blacks, saw Kansas as a “symbol of freedom and a new life.”

It was during this time that Nicodemus, an all-black farming settlement in northern Kansas, was formed. But the era also saw the passage of a state law that permitted, but did not require, segregated elementary schools in towns with at least 15,000 residents.

“It is still this kind of mix,” Etcheson said. “Kansas has this historic burden to be enlightened, but the reality is that there is still racism in Kansas.”

Ultimately, the state’s 1879 decision to permit school segregation led the Rev. Oliver Brown to join a dozen other black families and sue the school district in Kansas’ capital.

The Topeka lawsuit was joined with cases from Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C., and led to the historic 1954 Supreme Court ruling that overturned segregated education.

Earle said including the Kansas case was important because the state “had always tried to live up to its separate but equal tenets.” Indeed, the courts found that black and white schools in Topeka were substantially equal.

“If you strike down segregation in Topeka, Kan., you strike it down everywhere,” he said.

Now another racial group is the focus of intense scrutiny — Hispanic immigrants, many of them working at the state’s scattered meatpacking plants. Historians see continuity in the ongoing tension and debate. As much as whites once feared that exodusters would need extra help to survive and drive down wages, there is fear today that Hispanic immigrants will do the same.

“Kansas was at the heart of the fundamental American question of the morality of our race relations,” Etcheson said, “and that has been part of Kansas’ legacy ever since whether Kansas likes it or not.”

Associated Press