The admission of Kansas to the Union as a free state in 1861 was one of several factors that led to the American Civil War. From its beginning as a territory, Kansas has been a battleground over civil rights. As Commentator Rex Buchanan discovered, some of the state's civil rights history is now on display in the nation's capital.
Commentator Rex Buchanan is a writer, traveler and director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey. He lives in Lawrence.
A few weeks ago I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Almost exactly one-year old, it’s an incredible place, architecturally impressive with almost-overwhelming exhibits and displays. The collection includes everything from Nat Turner’s Bible to Chuck Berry’s Cadillac, all telling the story of the African-American experience in this country.
As I turned a corner on one of the museum’s floors, I came face-to-face with a startlingly familiar feature: a replica of a full-size, bright yellow and brown historic highway sign from Kansas. It looked like the markers you see all along the highways in the state, the ones that tell a paragraph-long story about a local historic event.
The one in the museum was titled simply “Nicodemus,” part of an exhibit about all-black towns in the country. You probably know the story of Nicodemus, a community in Graham County in north-central Kansas that was created by black settlers in the 1870s. The first all-black settlement on the Great Plains, the town is now a national historic landmark.
Not far from that highway sign in the museum was an exhibit on the civil rights movement. It included, not surprisingly, a display about the Supreme Court’s Brown versus Board of Education decision in 1954. That decision, which outlawed separate but equal educational facilities, is commemorated at a national historic site in Topeka.
But then I saw something from Kansas in the museum that did surprise me a little. It was a photo and description of a 1958 sit-in at the Dockum drugstore in Wichita. Most people know about sit-ins and protests at drugstores and restaurants in the 1960s, attempts to end segregated services. Probably the best known sit-in occurred at a Woolsworth’s lunch-counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960.
The one in Wichita was two years earlier. After black students showed up for a month, asking to be served at the drugstore’s restaurant, the owners gave in, paving the way for desegregation, not only at that drug store, but in other places in Wichita and the rest of Kansas.
Right after I visited the museum, I listened to a podcast featuring Kansas historian Virgil Dean. Called the Free State Myth, the podcast reflected on that Wichita drugstore sit-in, along with other stories related to race in Kansas. Because of our early history as a free state, Kansans like to think of their state as progressive, a pioneer on the right side of history.
But that podcast and the exhibits at the National Museum make it clear that it’s not so simple. We could probably look at Brown versus Board of Education and the Dockum drug store sit-in as victories, but they were only victories because there were problems to be dealt with in the first place.
Recent events have made it strikingly clear that racial issues continue to divide this country in a fundamental way. The new museum on the mall describes that divide, how it came to be. And it serves as a reminder that, for better AND worse, Kansas is part of that story.