Kansas and African Americans

To a greater extent than possibly any other Midwestern state, African Americans were a key element of early Kansas history. Prior to the Civil War, the people settling Kansas wanted to create a free state, where African Americans could be safe. Neighboring slave state, Missouri, was just as determined in their efforts to spread slavery to the new state. This led to armed conflict even before the Civil War, and the state became known as “Bleeding Kansas.”

But Kansas was a safe, or at least safer, place for African Americans, both those escaping slavery and those already free, and after the Civil War, there was a major influx. A number of all-African American towns were created, of which Nicodemus is the only one remaining. The famous Buffalo Soldiers were brought together at Fort Leavenworth, KS, to form the 9th and 10th Cavalry. It was the Native Americans who called the African American cavalry troops Buffalo Soldiers, though the reason is not certain. Some say it is because of the similarity of their hair to the curly coats of the American buffalo (aka bison), some say it was because of the buffalo robes they wore in the winter, and others that it was because they fought as fiercely as a wounded buffalo. Whatever the real reason for the name, the Buffalo soldiers established a reputation as being among the best troops in the West.

Knowing this history of Kansas and African Americans, I had arranged to visit The Kansas African American Museum (TKAAM) while in Wichita. This museum is a relatively recent project, but the building that houses it is on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1917, the Calvary Baptist Church became a cornerstone of the city’s African American community. When it ceased to operate as a church, it was seen as the ideal location for commemorating the history of African Americans in Kansas and across the U.S.

Because I was doing some actual research in town (working on a new book—so stay tuned), I had been offered a guide. I had the great good fortune to spend my time at the museum with Dr. Lona Reeves, who was delightful, knowledgeable, and happy to share from her vast store of insights and experience.

We started on the ground floor, which is mostly reserved for events. However, the walls are hung with artwork by contemporary African American artist, and at the back of the room, there are displays of objects—mostly wooden carvings—from Africa. Then we headed to the second floor, where photographs and biographies are hung all the way around the perimeter, recounting people and events of significance, largely but not only from Kansas.

Because of the move of so many African Americans to Kansas, among those biographies there was a remarkable range of famous people who were born in or moved to or lived in Kansas at some point. Hattie McDaniel, who was the first African American to win an Oscar, was born in Wichita. George Washington Carver moved to Kansas at age 13. Photographer and first African American Hollywood director Gordon Parks was born in Kansas, as was Charlie “Bird” Parker. Famously associated with Harlem, Langston Hughes lived in Lawrence, KS, for many years. Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka, KS. It was lovely seeing so many “firsts” and remarkable accomplishments memorialized.

There were a fair number of things that were new to me. I learned that Ronald Waters helped stage the first successful sit-in—which was done in Wichita well before the more famous one that occurred in North Carolina. (The down side of remoteness is that heroic actions may not get noticed by major media.) Buffalo soldier Ruben Waller was born into slavery, gained his freedom, had a successful military career, and lived to 105. Oscar Micheaux, the first African American movie maker, produced a movie in answer to the racist film “Birth of a Nation.” One of my favorite surprises (being primarily a food historian) was Junius Groves, who was an agricultural scientist and entrepreneur who was once known as “the potato king of the world,” and who became one of the wealthiest African Americans in the U.S.

At one spot, Lona Reeves pointed to a photo and told me the man pictured was a relative. It was Bass Reeves. I was happy to be able to tell her that I knew who Bass Reeves was, thanks to The History Guy on YouTube. Dr. Reeves was delighted to learn that there was a video recounting this history. Here’s the video I had seen—relating the tale of this real-life Lone Ranger. (And also making it clear that a lot of cowboys were African American.)

After my tour, I met with Ted Ayres, who told me about the Kansas African American History Trail project that he coordinates. Hoping to get more people, including African Americans, interested in this history, museums and historic sites on the “trail” issue “passports,” which get stamped each time you visit a new location. Like so many people who want to reach a larger audience, they have turned to the Internet, and here is a video (the first of two) to introduce people to the idea of the History Trail.

Vastly more could be shared—but I figure I need to leave something for you to discover on your own. But now I have my History Trail passport with the first stamp on it.

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Filed under Culture, Food, Midwest, Travel, Video

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