The Story of Kansas

Struggles over rights, equality mark Kansas' history

Saloon smasher Carry Nation
Saloon smasher Carry Nation Courtesy

The cries for equality began on the Kansas prairies in 1854 and rippled throughout the nation.

Kansas became the keystone state for human rights when abolitionists and slavery proponents wrestled over how Kansas would enter the Union.

For seven years, Kansans fought. It was bloody, messy and turbulent, earning the state the nickname "Bleeding Kansas."

In the decades that followed, Kansas has time and again been the testing ground for social experimentation and reform.

As Kansans, we constantly define who we are — by color, gender, religion, social class and politics.

In past decades, we have led the nation in the struggles for women's rights, prohibition and the rise of the Populist movement; in civil rights issues through the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case and the Dockum Drugs Store sit-in; and through socialism and labor unions.

In more recent decades, the testing grounds have turned to gay and lesbian rights, and the ongoing debates over abortion.

It spills into our politics with the current popularity of the tea party.

"Kansas is different because it was settled for a cause," said Thomas Fox Averill, a Kansas historian and a professor of English at Washburn University in Topeka. "It was settled for an idea.

"The abolitionist people were infected with cause and idealism, and that has gotten into our blood, into our DNA."

The right to change

Historian Carl Becker wrote at the turn of the 20th century that Kansans held the notion they could help people and change behavior through social experiment and, in turn, make laws to the betterment of society.

"That liberty and equality are compatible terms ... is an unquestioned faith in Kansas," Becker wrote. "The belief in equality, however, is not so much the belief that all men are equal as the conviction that it is the business of society to establish conditions that will make it so."

It is not that these ideas and issues were first sparked in Kansas, says Jay Price, director of the public history program at Wichita State University.

But in Kansas those ideas are played out and fought — sometimes with violent, horrifying results, such as when abortion provider George Tiller was shot and killed two years ago while attending a church service.

"The thing that makes Kansas unique is that we are a border state," Price said. "We have both the qualities and attitudes of New Englanders in that we know what's best for you and the Southern mentality that nobody should tell us how to live, and that chemical reaction in the political culture gives us attitude."

We continually live our motto: "Ad Astra per Aspera" —"To the Stars Through Difficulties."

Quest for civil rights

From the get-go, Kansas was the confluence of radical activity.

Abolitionists first gathered during the mid-1850s and fought to keep Kansas free from slavery.

Two decades later, former slaves — Exodusters — flocked to Kansas at the invitation of the governor to start lives in richly networked black communities. Those included Nicodemus, one of the oldest surviving African-American towns west of the Mississippi.

Decades later, it was Monroe School in Topeka that served as the backdrop for the Supreme Court's 1954 landmark decision on Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional.

"The kind of struggles we saw in the Kansas territory is endemic to the state itself," said John Edgar Tidwell, an associate professor of English at the University of Kansas who teaches African-American literature.

"There is this ideal notion of what Kansas represents," Tidwell said. "But it's never been a utopia. It has never been a place where people can go and simply be free of tyranny."

In 1882, three black men — Exodusters — were hanged from the Kaw River bridge in Lawrence and left there to serve as an example: "If you get out of line, you could be next," said Bill Tuttle, professor emeritus of history and American studies at the University of Kansas.

Other lynchings and killings would follow; in southeast Kansas, black men were labeled as scabs and killed during labor strikes.

During the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was a popular social and political organization that recruited members across the state. The KKK persecuted not only African-Americans, but Catholics, Jews, Germans and almost anyone else it perceived as different from mainstream Kansans.

Even when the Klan lost its power in Kansas politics, segregation and racism continued to thrive.

For example, drugstore lunch counters and restaurants in Kansas might serve black customers, but only if they didn't sit down.

Wichita was the first city in the nation to have a successful sit-in.

Late in the summer of 1958, 10 members of the youth chapter of the NAACP staged a successful sit-in at the lunch counter at the Dockum Drugs Store, on the southeast corner of Douglas and Broadway. Their nonviolent effort resulted in Dockum and eventually other Rexall stores across the state providing seated service for blacks.

And until the 1960s, some Wichita neighborhoods refused to allow African-Americans to buy houses on their blocks.

While Kansas produced nationally known black authors and artists during this time, such as Topeka poet Gwendolyn Brooks and Fort Scott photographer and author Gordon Parks, they endured the pain of discrimination.

Frank Marshall Davis grew up in Arkansas City and went on to become one of the most prominent black poets and journalists of the 20th century, championing equal rights and fair wages. He described his boyhood in Kansas as a "hellhole of inferiority."

It took courage to stand up and make changes.

"If you wanted to make changes in the world, there was the belief that you had to go to a place that had not yet made all the laws," said Averill, the Washburn professor.

"Kansas was one of the first arenas where you could change society and culture."

Suffragettes to unions

Before women could vote or run for public office, they ran newspapers in Kansas.

In 1857, Clarina Nichols, associate editor of the Quindaro Chindowan in eastern Kansas, crusaded for women's rights and the Free State Party, which opposed slavery.

Nichols wrote:

"When I listen to the Fourth of July orations and the loud cannon tributes to men who won freedom for themselves, I labor in hope that men will honor themselves by releasing . . . the inalienable rights of woman."

In the summer of 1859, Nichols was the only woman invited to Wyandotte for the convention that produced the state's constitution. Her input is why Kansas had one of the most liberal constitutions in the nation, Averill said.

Because of her, Kansas had the first state-run university in the world to allow women to attend classes alongside men; Kansas women had their rights protected in court before other states saw the need; and Kansas women were allowed to vote in school district elections nearly half a century before the 19th Amendment was passed, guaranteeing women the right to vote.

Kansas' list of historic heroines included many others:

During the late 19th and early 20th century, Carry A. Nation from Medicine Lodge became the leading figure in the nation's prohibition movement.

Kansas, in 1881, would become the first state to constitutionally prohibit the manufacture and sale of alcohol — and the last to repeal it, in 1948.

The Populist movement was sparked in Kansas. The grassroots movement began with dissatisfied farmers protesting banks, railroads and the wealthy.

Wichitan Mary Elizabeth Lease became a forceful spokeswoman for the Populist Party during the 1890s, although she later turned her back on the party when it would not support a woman's right to vote or support her in her run for president of the United States.

Wichitan Jane Brooks was wife of a prominent attorney and president of the Kansas Equal Suffrage Association. After attending the National American Women's Suffrage Association conference in 1919 in St. Louis, she came back to Wichita and founded the nation's first chapter of the League of Women Voters.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable stories of the rise of social movements is one from southeast Kansas at the turn of the 20th century.

In December 1921, between 2,000 and 6,000 women — some pregnant and others carrying small children — marched 63 miles to protest unfair labor practices and laws regarding hazardous working conditions, poor pay and discrimination.

They faced down the state militia, a machine gun detachment and 100 armed, deputized men.

At the time, the mines in southeast Kansas produced a third of the nation's coal.

"Think about the amount of courage it took for these women to stand in front of the militia when shots were fired," said Linda Kroll, speaker, historian and educator for Pittsburg. "These were people who believed in democracy. It was, for them, a much bigger issue than simply getting the food on the table."

Out of this movement came an eight-hour work day and child labor reform.

A continuing struggle

Kansas' struggles over human rights are ongoing.

In the 1970s, Kansas gays and lesbians began to march and champion their rights.

In 1977, Wichita passed one of the few civil rights ordinances in the country protecting gays, putting the city on the map when singer Anita Bryant and her Save Our Children organization challenged it.

The amendment barred discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.

Seven months after it was passed, it was repealed when Wichitans voted to overturn it, 47,246 to 10,005.

In San Francisco, when news spread of what Wichita had done, more than 1,000 demonstrators staged a march to Union Square chanting, "Wichita means fight back."

Kansan Gilbert Baker designed the rainbow flag in 1978, representing the diversity of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community.

Colleen Didler, a lesbian who has lived in Wichita, remembers the 1970s and how friends lost jobs and were evicted from apartments.

Some left Kansas for the protection and anonymity of larger cities on the east and west coasts.

But others stayed.

"We were fighting for equal rights at the time," Didler said. "You didn't tell anybody that you were gay, especially where you worked."

In 2005, nearly 73,000 gay, lesbian and bisexual people lived in Kansas; 2010 Census figures show same sex-couples living in every county.

Nevertheless, Kansans voted overwhelmingly in 2005 to insert a gay marriage ban into the state constitution.

"We are still in the Bible Belt, and I don't think we will ever get to the place where two people of the same sex will be married or joined together," Didler said.

In 1973, the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision galvanized both sides of the debate over abortion rights.

During the summer of 1991, Kansas became the center of the clash between competing cultural values: the right to life and the right of women to control their own bodies.

Thousands of demonstrators came to Wichita to make their opposition to abortion known in Operation Rescue's "Summer of Mercy." They were greeted by thousands of equally passionate counter-protesters.

"Kansas is unique because these things are more visible here," WSU's Price said. "These things exist elsewhere, but they exist here stronger because people think Kansas is an ideological battleground — from John Brown and Carry Nation to the ... Operation Rescue people. They come here because they think this is going to be a place to rattle the cages and people will flock to their causes."

Why Kansas? Because Kansans historically seek reform and change.

The Populist movement was a reaction of the agrarian West to the industrial East, Averill contends.

The rise of the labor movement in Kansas was a reaction to big corporations and banks.

The rise of the tea party movement is a reaction to government and taxes.

"Why Kansas?" Tidwell asks.

"You look at these activities and Kansas has always played a role in defining and redefining what America is and has been."

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