African-American

Minority Migration in Wabaunsee County, Kansas: A Dark History

-by Greg Hoots-

Warning to the reader:  This article contains offensive language which is only presented here in direct quotes taken from Wabaunsee County newspapers, all of which were published and are in public domain.  While I have substituted “the N-word” for the common racial slur, it appears unabridged in the attached newspaper articles.

It is not a rare occurrence for a researcher and writer of history to uncover uncomfortable truths from the past that many folks would prefer be forgotten.  British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  While there is truth in Churchill’s observation, perhaps a more significant danger lies in the reality that those who do not understand the past, cannot even understand the present. Such is the case with our study of the history of slavery and racial prejudice in the United States, where revisionist history is written and rewritten with every generation, massaging the truth about the past in an effort to make it more palatable today.

Slavery: Lives in Chains

Just as many of the cornerstones of our democracy were set by British colonists, relying on English common law, the institution of slavery in America can be traced to European origins. While slavery in America developed into an institution deeply rooted in racial prejudice, targeting people of African descent, in the 15th and 16th centuries, slavery was a spoil of war where vanquished opponents were imprisoned and then, enslaved or sold.  The enslavement of indigenous cultures by conquering armies is well-documented, and many Native Americans were similarly defeated, imprisoned, enslaved, and sold to sugar plantations in the Indies.

The justification for the enslavement of entire cultures was simple: victors in battle had the power to enslave their enemies for life, and they did.  There was no Geneva Convention.  Might made right. Such was the case in the early 1600s when Portugal engaged in war with the indigenous kingdom of Ndongo, now known as Angola.  Approximately 50,000 native people were captured by the Portuguese and were enslaved and sold around the world.  An anecdotal story recounts the fate of 350 prisoners who were captured and loaded onto a Portuguese slave ship bound for the new world.  In route to their destination, the Portuguese ship was overtaken by two English private ships, and the British ships seized a number of the slaves before landing in the Virginia colony with their cargo. For the next two-hundred years, cargo ships and pirate ships brought thousands of African prisoner-slaves to the English colonies where they were sold.

Ships that flew the colors of Britain, Spain, Netherlands, Portugal, and other nations which had naval fleets carried goods between Europe and the New World, and oftentimes the line between a legitimate shipping enterprise and piracy was blurred. It became routine and accepted in the civilized world that merchant ships would capture members of indigenous tribes, abduct them against their will, and transport them thousands of miles to spend the remainder of their lives in slavery. It wasn’t long before the shipping enterprises realized that the most valuable cargo that they carried were slaves. Ship manufacturers began designing specialty ships that hauled no cargo except slaves.

This etching of the British save ship, the Brookes, demonstrates the conditions that slaves were “stored” while crossing the ocean.

Between the years 1525 and 1865, 12.5 million Africans were captured by force, abducted from their homes, and shipped to the Americas.  Of that number, almost two-million of the kidnapped Africans died before arriving in the New World. Of the 10.7 million slaves that survived the voyage to the Americas, many were sent to sugar plantations in the Caribbean Sea nations, while some were sent to enslavement in South America.  The balance, some 388,000 men, women, and children were enslaved in the American colonies and later, the United States. While that seems to be a relatively small number, it’s important to remember that the population of the nation was equally small at that time.

A series of events occurred around the year 1800 which changed the organization of slavery in America and harkened a new era of homegrown slavery in the United States. In the wake of the Revolutionary War, the northern states began to abolish slavery, one by one. Between 1774 and 1804, all of which would become the Northern states abolished and outlawed the practice of slavery.  None of the southern states followed suit.  In the South, slavery was an economic issue, and the morality of the institution was not of any consideration.

In 1807, the Slave Trade Act was enacted which took effect on January 1, 1808. While the practice of owning slaves in America remained legal, the importation of slaves from other countries was banned, and that prohibition was similarly enacted by all of the European nations. Insofar as many of the slave-trading ships were nothing but rogue pirates, slave traders continued to attempt to sneak their ships into friendly ports in the Americas. The new law said that slavery was perfectly legal in America, but that the slaves could not be imported. That meant that all new slaves would be babies born to slave women in America after 1807. Babies born to a slave were slaves and the property of the mother’s owner.  Babies born to a slave woman who were fathered by a white man were still slaves.  Babies born to a white mother and a black slave father were free!  Suddenly, it became very important to slave owners that their female slaves be pregnant all of the time. There was money to be made.

In the late 1780s the new Southern states were being organized and admitted to the union, and it was apparent that the region’s climate and terrain offered great opportunities in agriculture.  In that era, most agricultural enterprises were labor-intensive in design, thus slavery became an integral part of the region’s economy and way of life.

In 1794 the invention of the cotton gin changed life in the South. Cotton had never been a viable crop because of the amount of time and labor required to remove the seeds from the cotton upon harvest. The cotton gin allowed amounts of cotton to be cultivated far in excess of what could have ever been processed before the machine’s invention. Thus, in the South, cotton became king.  The amount of the cotton which could be processed was limitless, and huge cotton plantations were established across the South.  This growth in cotton farming necessitated a large labor force to plant and harvest the crop. That is where slaves came into the equation. The nearly free labor which came with the use of slaves made rich men of the plantation owners.

The “new South” opened with the admission of a handful of southern states in the 1790s, and a huge exodus of slaves and plantation-owners began from the “old South” into the new southern states, ripe for settlement. One last obstacle in the development of the South was the presence of the “five civilized tribes” of Native Americans who lived in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida. The Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole and the Cherokee had lived in the South for hundreds of years, and they were so civilized, in fact, that the five tribes owned almost 5,000 Black slaves by the beginning of the 19th century.  In 1830, the U. S. government became committed to the removal of Native Americans from all lands east of the Mississippi River, and from 1830 to 1835, nearly 100,000 Native-Americans and their African-American slaves were removed from America’s South and moved to Indian Territory in today’s Oklahoma.

With the Native Americans gone, the rich, fertile farmland in the south was open for settlement, and when the farms were established, they favored the development of huge plantations, built and farmed with the blood and sweat of African-American slaves for the profit and benefit of the rich, white, plantation owners.

America was a divided nation, and in the South, the common belief asserted that slavery was fundamental to the economic survival of the southern states.  Federal lawmakers passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1794 which allowed owners of slaves and their agents to pursue runaway slaves into free states and return them to their slave owner. In 1850 that law was expanded to levy heavy fines for anyone who aided a runaway slave. The reality of the Fugitive Act was that bounty hunters went to free states and abducted free Blacks or any African-Americans that they could find, taking them to the south and selling them into slavery at auction.

Slaves had no freedom; slaves were deprived even the most basic of human rights. They were forced to work without pay, housed in the most primitive buildings, were subject to beatings and even death at the hands of their masters with no consequences for the white owners. Female slaves had no control over their own bodies or reproductive choices. All decisions concerning slave women’s reproductive rights were made by their white owner. It was not illegal or even considered immoral for a white slave owner to impregnate his female slaves. There was no law against rape of a slave woman by a white man.  Slaves could not marry.  Slaves could not attend school. Slaves could be sold and families divided, never to see each other again.

This map, titled, Slave Population of the Southern States of the United States bears a date of September, 1861. It specifies the percentage of slaves in every county.

Such was the state of affairs in America on May 30, 1854, the day that the Kansas-Nebraska Act became Federal law. Prior to 1854, there had been parity in the admission of states to the union; when a free state achieved statehood, a slave state became part of the union at the same time. With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the stage was set for the admission of at least two more states.  Disagreement was bitter in Washington and across the country as to whether Kansas would be admitted as a slave state or a free state.  In the end, the legislation gave the decision-making as to the status of slavery in Kansas to a vote of the residents of the Territory.

While that compromise seemed to be equitable, both parties to the dispute attempted to move the weight of the decision to their side of the scale. The inevitable battle of principle, with both sides believing in the rightness of their position, spilled onto the streets and the countryside of eastern Kansas as leagues of farmers from Missouri sent their friends and relatives to Kansas to settle and gain the right to vote for slavery, while bands of abolitionists from the New England states sent large companies of settlers to “the Free State” to ensure that Kansas was committed to freedom from slavery. It was a recipe for political and social confrontation, as the seeds of the Civil War were sown in the Kansas Territory.

The interest of Missourians in the political and social organization of the new state of Kansas should be no surprise.  Their interest in Kansas politics had its roots in the pocketbook.  The pro-slavery movement was based on the assertion that the agriculture business, the primary force in the nation’s economy, was dependent on human slavery to be successful. Admitting Kansas as a free state threatened Missouri farmers in the sense that they believed that their slaves would be influenced by former slaves in Kansas, causing those in servitude in Missouri to revolt and flee.

The first Territorial election was held in 1855, and the polls were overwhelmed with pro-slavery forces along the border with Missouri, and a pro-slavery Territorial legislature was elected. Anti-slavery forces only won in single election district, located where Fort Riley stands today. Two years later, voters elected a new anti-slavery Territorial government, and in 1859, the anti-slavery Wyandotte Constitution was approved by a two-to-one margin.

On February 20, 1860, slavery was abolished in the Kansas Territory over the veto of Territorial Governor Samuel Medary. Despite the abolition of slavery in Kansas, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 still was the rule of law, and even free Blacks had to fear being captured by slave-hunting vigilantes. The United States congress approved the admission of Kansas to the union as a free state on January 29, 1861 in a fierce floor battle in which Southern legislators walked out of the session when the vote was taken.  The days of debate and compromise were over; two and a half months later, the Civil War began.

By the Numbers

In 1854, the Kansas Territory was opened for white settlement; and by 1855, 33 counties were created in the Territory, including Richardson County (renamed Wabaunsee County in 1859), its eastern border only twenty miles from Topeka. When the final Territorial census was conducted on June 1, 1860, there were no African-Americans in Wabaunsee County. The same census revealed there to be 106,579 white people, 625 free colored, two slaves, and 189 Indians in the whole Kansas Territory. It’s significant to note that the 189 Native Americans listed on the population schedules only included tribal members who were living among whites in the Territory and none who were living on the various Indian Reservations.

A group of Native Americans pass through Alma in this view from Matt Thomson’s, Early History of Wabaunsee County.

When the original 33 Kansas counties were created in 1855, there were two sections of tribal reservations which existed within the borders of Richardson County. A narrow section of the Kaw Reservation extended across Wabaunsee County in the southwest corner of the county, running half the width of the southern edge of the county.  The Potawatomi Reservation was located in the northeast corner of the county, encompassing all of what is now Maple Hill and Newbury Townships and comprising almost 20% of the county’s entire area.  When the 1860 census of Wabaunsee County was executed, there were 1,023 residents of the county, most likely making the white settlers an ethic minority.

This map, titled Sketch of Prehistoric Village Sites on Mill Creek, Wabaunsee County was drawn by J.V. Brower in 1898. It demonstrates that the indigenous cultures lived along the streams, much like the white settlers did later.

There was no safety in numbers for the Kaw, nor for the Potawatomi. As the five civilized tribes had been moved on the Trail of Tears from their homelands in America’s South, the time came for the Kaw and the Potawatomi. By the late 1860s the pressure was enormous to remove the two tribes and open their lands to the every-increasing numbers of white settlers.  By June 1, 1870 when the national census was taken, there were no remaining Kaw tribe members living in Wabaunsee County, and there were 93 members of the Potawatomi tribe living in Newbury Township.  The aspiring settlers could wait no more, and the entire county was open to white settlement. In 1880, there were 36 Native Americans holding onto their property in Wabaunsee County, but by 1900, all of the Native Americans living in Wabaunsee County were gone.

In 1865, a post-war wave of homesteaders began to arrive in Wabaunsee County. Included in that group of settlers was the Boydston-Nichols-Allen family, African-Americans from Platte County, Missouri who arrived in Wabaunsee County in late 1865 or early 1866.  The patriarch of the family, James Boydston, had purchased his own freedom and had moved into Kansas by 1862. Members of the three families each homesteaded land in Wabaunsee Township.  Dicey Nichols, arguably the matriarch of the family, was the first Black female homesteader in the county’s history.

One of the reasons that the earliest Black settlers came to Kansas from Missouri was the considerable slave population in Platte County, Missouri which bordered Leavenworth County, Kansas, divided only by the Missouri River. In 1860 there were 3,469 slaves in Platte County and a similar number, 3,156 slaves in Jackson County, Missouri.  While many “Exodusters”, Black settlers from Tennessee, began to arrive in Kansas in 1879, scores of African-American settlers from western Missouri were able to move to Kansas within a year of the end of the Civil War.

By June 1, 1870, the date on which the U.S. census was recorded, there were 80 African-Americans residing in Wabaunsee County. One quarter of all of the Blacks living in Wabaunsee County in 1870 were members of the Boydston-Nichols-Allen family.  Almost one-third of the Blacks living in Wabaunsee County in 1870 listed their place of birth as Missouri.

The 1880 census, dated June 1, 1880, reveals 640 African-Americans living in Wabaunsee County, and of that number, 244 individuals list their place of birth as Tennessee.

The number of Black residents in Kansas increased by 250% from an 1870 population of 17,108 to an enumeration of 43,107 African-Americans in 1880. The Black population in Wabaunsee County for the same period of time showed an increase of a whopping 800%, more than three times than the growth of the Black population in State as a whole.  There are a couple explanations for the increase in numbers.  One might assert that large numbers of Blacks were members of the construction crew which built the MAB Railway across the county in 1880; however, a very close examination of the 1880 census reveals that the vast majority of workers who constructed the railway were white men.  There were, in fact, only nine African-American men who were identified in the 1880 census as working in a single, segregated, Black railroad construction camp in Wabaunsee County.

Other reasons accounted for the large growth in the African-American population in Wabaunsee County.  One reason, of course, was the large influx of Black settlers who came to Kansas as part of what was known as the Exoduster movement between 1879 and 1881.  Thousands of Blacks from Tennessee traveled north to St. Louis and then west to Kansas City and Kansas beyond, prompted by the migrants’ hope to find freedom and independence in the Free State.  A former slave, Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, worked tirelessly to promote Kansas as a destination for freed slaves from Tennessee to begin a new life.  Many responded to his promise of prosperity in Kansas and streamed into the mostly unsettled land.  In response to the overwhelming influx of migrants, Kansas created the Kansas Freedmen’s Relief Association in 1879 to provide assistance and resources to the throng of new African-American settlers to Kansas, most of whom were financially needy.  Wabaunsee County was one of the destinations for hundreds of Black settlers from Tennessee.

Still, the Exodusters did not settle just in Wabaunsee County, which fails to explain the large relative number of Black immigrants which arrived in that county between 1870 and 1880.  A good argument can be made that the huge increase in numbers was because the African-American families who settled in the county were parts of large family units, many of whom were left behind in the first wave of immigration.  Within ten years, many of the early settlers’ extended families had arrived in Kansas to homestead land next to their relatives.  The Gardenhire family, the Boydston family, and the Davis family are all examples of Wabaunsee County Black migrants who came as a group or followed earlier family members to Wabaunsee County between 1870 and 1880.  Many freed slaves who had remained in the South found life in the Reconstruction era to be nearly as bad as the years of slavery.  For freed slaves living in Missouri, Kansas was not so distant of a destination, and the promise of freedom and free land to homestead had great allure.  The Blacks were not afraid of hard work or tribulations. They had worked hard for generations as slave farmers. They only sought that which they had never experienced, freedom.

When examining the decline in the Black population in Wabaunsee County, a plummet which began after 1900, one will notice a significant change in the demographics of the Black population when comparing the 1880 population to that of 1930.  In 1880, there were 640 African-Americans in Wabaunsee County, largely living in family units.  53.3% of all of the Blacks listed in the 1880 Wabaunsee County census were eighteen years and younger and living with their parents, grandparents or other family members.

By 1930, the total Black population had shrunk to only 390 citizens, and only 144 of that number were children eighteen years and younger. In fifty years between 1880 and 1930, the African-American population of Wabaunsee County declined from 640 to 390 residents; Wabaunsee County was becoming a place where fewer and fewer African-Americans and particularly, African-American children, were living.  In 1930, there were 197 fewer Black children in the county than there were in 1880, a decline of 58%.

In 1900, there were 752 African-Americans living in Wabaunsee County.  In 2000, there were 31 Blacks living in the county.

This graph shows the change in population of African-Americans in Wabaunsee County, Kansas.

In Wabaunsee County between 1880 and 1930, the white population increased by 29%. During the same time frame, the Black population decreased by 39%.   To assert that the decline in the African-American population is in any way mirrored by a similar decline in white Wabaunsee County residents is revisionist history and bad math.

The Media

The reality of life for Blacks in Wabaunsee County in the late 1800s and the first half of the 20th century was one of acceptance of racial bigotry and second-class citizenry; it was a way of life in Kansas and Wabaunsee County.  Racism was systemic in every facet of life for Blacks in Wabaunsee County. One of the biggest offenders in promoting racial stereotypes and in demonstrating boldfaced bigotry was the media. African-Americans were portrayed in the Wabaunsee County newspapers as being ignorant, low-class, lazy, and comical.  Even the more sophisticated writers of the day often opined with extremely racist views. To make matters worse, in Wabaunsee County in 1910, the only source of news or opinion were the local newspapers.  Placing ideas in print gave them legitimacy.

An editorial concerning Blacks in the South and the temperament of African-Americans in general, was published in The Alma Enterprise of September 20, 1889. The author’s name, only listed as S. A. F., claims, “The moral character of southern society is above the breath of suspicion. In no section of the Anglo-Saxon race is the purity of the family so carefully guarded as in the aristocratic and middle classes of the south.  Scandal has scarcely a place in history, and no crime is so quickly and emphatically punished as one against social purity.

Among the negros, marriage is little more than a form, illegitimacy is so common as to cause no remark. One negro often “takes up” consecutively with two or three women without marriage, an Aunt Maria often leaves the “no-account old man” to take up with a dusky brother.  No attention is paid to the violation of law in this matter, and this condition of things is getting worse every year, and what will be the end is hard to surmise.”

When this above article was published in 1899 in The Alma Enterprise, there were 33 African-American families living at Alma, which included 78 children.

The Alma Enterprise of September 21, 1923 continued to demonstrate an amazing degree of racial prejudice, ignorance, and confusion in its comments on the dangers of interracial marriages. “Does the mixture of different races of men lead to greater or less vigor and vitality? Most European peoples are the product of many strains and it would be difficult to say whether it would be better for the French, English and Germans to marry within their own groups…Prof. S. J. Holmes, biologist in Hygeia, concludes that some such marriages would result well, others ill.  But the question of inter-marriage between distinct races such as negro and the white or the white and the Mongolian is a subject still confused.  Measurements of recruits during the Civil war showed that the mulatto was inferior physically to both whites and negroes. Professor Holmes says, while mental tests as well as experience in life, seem to establish that the mixture of black with white results in a mental level that is intermediate between the races and higher in proportion to the admixture of white blood.”

Apart from their deeply prejudiced published editorials, The Alma Enterprise often published extremely racist “jokes” which bore no truth in fact, portraying Black males as being criminals and cowards.  Two examples, seen below, one dated 1917 and one from 1924, are typical of the fare seen in Wabaunsee County papers.

The Eskridge Tribune Star-Eskridge Independent of August 21, 1921 discusses the relative consumption of watermelons when comparing races.

Shortly after the end of World War I, The Alma Enterprise of November 14, 1919 published a racist joke which discounts the bravery, courage, and sacrifice demonstrated by African-American troops during that conflict.

The Alta Vista Journal of April 20, 1922 thought it was funny to portray African-Americans as being unable to understand even the basics of finance or banking.

The overtly racist cartoon seen below appeared in the September 28, 1906 edition of The Alma Signal, titled, “The Hoodoo Coon and the Black Cat.”  It’s significant to note that the last frame of this cartoon shows the African-American servant being chased by two white men, one of whom is firing a pistol at the Black man, while the gun-toting pursuer is shouting, “Lynch him.” The servant’s only crime was spilling the white man’s jug of whiskey.

The” Hoodoo Coon” comic is discussed in Africology: The Journal of Pan African Studies in March of 2017, where Kofi Barima notes, “Appearing weekly and syndicated in several newspapers, the series “The Hoodoo Coon and the Black Cat” offers tremendous access to the ways the American press casted Black people. Mistah Jones the main character, along with the other cast, blackness was exaggerated using the tar black complexion typical to how most whites portrayed Black people. This series with its overemphasis on docility, comicalness and unsophisticatedness buttress the national and international white supremacists’ opinion regarding Black people to be unserious, idle and intellectually inferior.”

The Alma Signal dated May 17, 1923 announced improvements of an Alma Township road in the Loire Creek area which bisected a cluster of Black farms, noting, “The road gang finished working on the “N-word” branch road Friday.”

If one searches the Wabaunsee County newspapers between 1900 and 1924, the “N-word” appears 391 times. The word, “racist” appears zero times.  It was pretty clear to members of the Black community that many of the white folks in Wabaunsee County considered them “the N-word” of low intelligence and low worth.

Not only did whites routinely refer to African-Americans as “the N-word”, everyone, including the whites, knew that the term was extremely derogatory. Another “joke” which appeared in the July 21, 1911 issue of The Alma Enterprise, not only justifies the use of the “N-word” when referring to Blacks, but the fictional story also asserts that Blacks would accept the derogatory term’s use in exchange for money.  Remember, if you will, the entire story was fabricated from whole cloth by whites in an effort to discount and degrade Blacks.

Justice: Separate and Unequal

The quality of justice is measured not by its weight, but by the evenness of its distribution.  Unfortunately, in Wabaunsee County, particularly in the years between 1880 and 1950, the distribution of justice was very uneven, defined largely along racial lines.  One of the most common crimes prosecuted in that era was for violation of the prohibitory law, frequently in the form of the sale of beer, often 2% strength, or more rarely, the sale of a half-pint of hard liquor.  Many of the white residents who were residing in Wabaunsee County in that time period were first-generation immigrants from Germany. Many of them liked beer. And a chaser.

In A Flint Hills Story, authored by Victor Palenske in 1973, he recalls life in Alma, Kansas in the 1910s. “Although Kansas was dry it was possible to have kegs of draft and barrels of bottled beer shipped in from Kansas City (Beer was not packed in cases then). The express trucks at the Rock Island depot were piled high with empty kegs a couple of times a week for shipment back to K.C. The story was told of a man sitting in a passenger coach of a stopped train, observing the many kegs, remarked that he thought that Kansas was dry.  The conductor supposedly answered, “This is not Kansas, this is Alma.”  A part of Alma’s Fourth celebration was the private beer party in artist August Ohst’s tree-shaded yard at the west edge of town. We boys were always in attendance for a little while, and even were rewarded with a sip or two of beer, which was something for us.” Palenske’s recollection bore not a trace of exaggeration.

A number of prominent white Alma men enjoy beer and card-playing at Liederkranz Park in Alma. Identified from left are Huber, Sheriff Frey, Albert Copp, John Degenhardt, Aug Utermann, Eugene Schmitz, and Louis Undorf.

Routinely, both Caucasian and African-Americans in Wabaunsee County were arrested for violation of prohibitory laws; however, the white offenders paid a fine and went on their way, while the Black bootleggers were fined and sentenced to confinement in the County Jail.  Johnny McMahan, a beloved white Alma joint-operator and businessman, was so well-liked in Alma that attempts to convict or even fine him were met with a hung jury, and prosecutors soon lost interest in pursuing “Johnny-Mac”. African-American “bootleggers”, like Bill Page of Eskridge, Kansas, were pursued, convicted, and sentenced to jail terms repeatedly.  In the twenty years between 1895 and 1915, the Wabaunsee County Attorney’s office pursued Page relentlessly, and it was written in the newspapers of the day that Page had spent half of that twenty years in the Wabaunsee County Jail.  His only crime was selling beer.  That was his profession, a beer distributor. At one point, Wabaunsee County Attorney Fred Seaman ordered Page to leave the county, lest he and his wife be jailed, and Bill Page and his family moved to Osage County for almost a year to escape that fate.

Page was vilified by County authorities and press, alike.  In the August 10, 1916 edition of The Alma Signal, the paper reprints an article from the Alta Vista Journal, referencing Bill Page, “Bill Page, the notorious “N-Word” of Alma, whose record as a bootlegger and law violator is blacker than his skin, has five true blue friends in Alta Vista, at any rate he received five votes here at Tuesday’s election.”  Neither paper hesitated for a second to use the “N-word” when describing Page or any other Black person in their newspapers.  Such was life in Wabaunsee County in 1916.

The Wabaunsee County Courthouse, seen in this 1910 postcard, featured “the rock pile” enclosed by a 10-foot fence is visible at the back of the building.

In 1905, the county opened the “rock pile” where offenders were forced to work for their fine and court cost by breaking limestone rocks into gravel with a sledgehammer. A large yard enclosed by a ten-foot fence was attached to the rear of the courthouse.  Curiously, the only men ever sentenced to the rock pile during its ten years of infamy were African-Americans. Wabaunsee County officials discovered that operating the rock pile was a costly and ineffective tool.  The men in the rock pile had to be continuously supervised, and the amount of gravel produced was negligible, while the cost of providing continual outdoor guards was great. A half-dozen men escaped from the rock pile during its decade of operation, and a wheel barrow or two of gravel was produced. Finally, the rock pile was abandoned.

Lynchings in Alma

A new challenge to justice in Wabaunsee County history arose in the 1890s in the form of vigilante law where the threat of violent lynching was an ever-present danger for Black men.  Three cases of threatened or attempted lynching occurred in Alma between 1894 and 1916. All three of the targets of the lynch mobs were Black men.

The first was the case of Alma homesteader, Thomas McClain, one of the earliest of the Tennessee African-American immigrants to Wabaunsee County.  McClain arrived at Alma prior to 1875, as he married Laura Davis Buckner in Alma that year.  McClain homesteaded 80-acres of land located just a mile and a half west of Alma.  Laura gave birth to seven children at the McClain homestead.

The remains of the Tom McClain homestead are located a mile west of Alma, Kansas.

In 1890, at the age of 40, Thomas McClain had lived most of his adult life in Wabaunsee County, and he was well-known and liked. That year, the Republican caucus which met regularly to advance their party’s candidates in various elections, were having trouble with one of their own.  The job of Alma Township marshal was held by William Lyons, who was also the Alma City Marshal. There was some division within the Republican Party as to whether it was proper that he collected a salary for both jobs. The caucus was divided whether to allow Lyons to remain Township Marshal, and when a vote was finally taken, the forces in opposition to Lyons advanced a “joke” candidate, none other than Thomas McClain, elected as the Republican candidate by a single vote. The newspapers laughed at the situation. The headline in The Alma Enterprise, dated November 7, 1890 proclaimed, “WE CROW WITH THE REST, Tom McClain Elected Constable of Alma Township by a Rousing Republican Majority.”

The Alma Signal of November 1, 1890 reported under a headline titled, “That Black Skin,” saying, “The city marshal is reported to have said after the close of the caucus on Saturday last that he was beaten by a “N-Word.” Tom McClain has black skin it is true, but it appears that a majority of the voters in that caucus preferred his services to any that might be rendered by the present city marshal in the capacity of constable.”  Slightly more than half of the Republican caucus thought it was a pretty funny joke, as well. In the end, Lyons simply ran for the position as an Independent, defeating Tom McClain soundly in the general election. The Signal went on to note that “Wm. Lyons has stated that his friends insist that he shall run.  We presume then that he is willing to be placed in the hands of his friends, who, we suppose considered McClain’s race in the caucus a sham.”  Thus, ended Tom McClain’s short political career in Wabaunsee County.

Tom McClain’s life continued as normal; his primary activities included farming and caring for his family. In late 1893, the McClains moved to Vera where Tom constructed and opened a blacksmith shop. Then, on the night of March 17, 1894, masked robbers broke into the home of the Muehlenbacher family on Illinois Creek, southwest of Alma. The robbers shot and killed Peter Muehlenbacher and wounded his nephew, young John Louis Schepp, and robbed the family.  After being shot in the back, J. L. Schepp was able to discharge one shot at the fleeing robbers, wounding one member of the gang.

After the murder-robbery, Jerry Carpenter and his brother, Chris, soon arrived at the latter’s residence on Missouri Street in Alma, where Jerry exhibited a serious gunshot wound.  While the two brothers were nursing Jerry Carpenter’s wound, they were observed by Alma businessman, John “Johnny-Mac” McMahan.  He reported his sighting to the Sheriff, and the Carpenter brothers were promptly arrested.

Tom McClain was arrested a day later for first degree murder, as it was claimed that he had heard (from the Carpenters) that they planned to rob the wealthy Muehlenbacher family.  McClain had dismissed the statements as “just talk,” and had not reported them to anyone. Once the Carpenters were placed in the jail, a sheriff’s officer was positioned where he could listen to the brothers, and he claimed that one said, “If Tom McClain doesn’t talk, they have nothing on us.”

McClain petitioned the court for a change of venue, as his name and the Carpenters’ had been splashed across the local papers in association with the crime.  The motion was denied.  Jerry and Chris Carpenter were quickly tried and convicted by a jury of twelve white men of first-degree murder and sentenced to die by hanging after serving a period of one year of hard labor in the penitentiary in Lansing.

The McClain case was a more difficult prosecution. A. H. Case was McClain’s attorney, while George Cornell was the prosecutor.  There was the testimony of the jailer who had overheard the somewhat ambiguous conversation of the Carpenter brothers. On the other hand, there was further testimony that three black men were seen near the railroad tracks just north of the Muehlenbacher ranch, and that was enough in the minds of many Alma residents to proclaim Tom McClain’s guilt. When the case went to the jury, the first vote was reported to have been ten for conviction and two for acquittal.  The jury asked for clarity on the judge’s instructions with regard to an accused person’s responsibility to report a crime that had not yet been committed.

Judge Thomson was clear in his instructions: “Mere knowledge by a person that another intends to commit a crime does not make such a person a participator in such crime subsequently committed, unless in addition to having such knowledge he actually aids, abets, counsels, assists or otherwise encourages the commission of such crime. So, if you believe from the evidence that Jeremiah Carpenter committed the crime alleged in the information and before its commission, defendant McClain knew of the plans and purposes of Jeremiah Carpenter in relation thereto, but otherwise gave no aid, assistance or counsel thereto, and did not abet the same nor otherwise encourage the plan to commit the offense nor the perpetrator thereof, then Thomas McClain would be not guilty of the offense charged against him and in such case you should acquit.” 

The McClain jury deliberated for hours, while the Chris Carpenter jury had brought back a verdict of guilty in twenty minutes. Alma locals were impatient; rumors swirled that if the jury did not do their job, others would. The all-white jury of twelve men deliberated for eleven hours until one-by-one the ten men who had first voted a guilty verdict changed their verdicts. Tom McClain was acquitted of first-degree murder.

There was considerable outrage about the verdict.  The Alma Signal called the judge’s instructions, “a too liberal construction of which seems to have misled the jury…The jury in this case seemed to place greater reliance in the instructions than on the evidence.”  Sentiment in the barber shop seemed to run heavily against McClain, and rumors did abound, saying that Thomas McClain would be lynched and hanged, since the courts had failed to do so. The next day, Thomas McClain disappeared, never to be seen in Wabaunsee County again.  In the 1900 census, Laura McClain listed her marital status as widowed.

The Alma Signal of April 19, 1912 ultimately made note of the death of Tom McClain. “It is reported that Tom McClain, the colored man who was well known here prior to 1894, died in Topeka at the home of his son, Bill, about four or five weeks ago.  Tom disappeared from Alma the day he was acquitted for complicity in the murder of Peter Muehlenbacher, which occurred the night of March 17, 1894.”

The next Black man who faced the threat of lynching was Dick Williams who was ultimately convicted along with James Render in the June 28, 1899 murder of Calvin Burger and Harry Tandy, two young men from Missouri who reportedly were considering settling in Wabaunsee County.  Tandy and Burger had been lured into the illegal card game at McFarland, and at some point, the two men were attacked and each killed from a blow to the head. The killers took cash and a watch from Tandy and robbed Burger of his money and his shoes.

That very night, Williams and Render met at the McFarland stockyards, both wearing blood-stained clothes, and the men boarded a freight train bound for Topeka. The two men first went to Crook Wright’s shop where Williams pawned Harry Tandy’s gold watch.  The men were traced to a barber shop across from the Rock Island depot where Render had changed shirts and had disposed of his blood-stained one. The men had apparently boarded a train from Topeka to Kansas City where Williams had attempted to dispose of his blood-stained pants.

Sharp detective work led authorities to both men, and when Dick Williams was taken into custody, he was wearing Burger’s shoes which were later identified by the dead man’s mother. Williams had offered to cooperate with investigators, and it was reported that he drew a map which led the authorities to discover Calvin Burger’s body.  The following day, June 9, 1899, Dick Williams was returned to Wabaunsee County to face murder charges.  When the sheriff and Williams arrived at the Rock Island depot in Alma, they were met by deputies and an angry mob of 200 men who were shouting, “hang him, hang him”.

What happened after that is most reliably told by The Burlingame Enterprise of July 13, 1899 which included an interview of Wabaunsee County Attorney Carey Carroll led by the headline, “Attorney Carroll Relates the Manner of the Alma Lynching.”  It details the events of July 8th, “Carey Carroll, county attorney of Wabaunsee county, was at the Copeland hotel last night conferring with Governor Stanley and Chief Ramsey about the course to be pursued in regard to the trouble at Alma.  Mr. Carroll was not present at the lynching, but has thoroughly investigated the matter.  He told the story in this manner:

When the afternoon train pulled in, a crowd of several hundred people, many of them women and children, were waiting at the depot.  The sheriff noticing that mischief was afoot, quickly loaded Williams into a ‘bus and drove rapidly towards the courthouse.  The people at the depot ran after the ‘bus, and before the court house was reached, an enormous crowd was following.  At the opposite corner to the jail, an organized mob of men were waiting, expecting that the sheriff would walk up from the depot with the prisoner.  Seeing themselves foiled in the first arranged project they rushed to the jail, bent upon securing the prisoner. 

Sheriff Treu grabbed Williams and carried him bodily up the stairs of the court house and shoved him into the door.  One of the deputies inside rushed Williams through the corridor to the rear part of the building, where the county jail is placed.  A wooden partition divides the cells from the corridor.  The deputy pushed the Negro through the door and told him to keep it shut.  The deputy then began to unlock the cell, but all of a sudden, the mob got into the corridor and beat down the wooden door with a sledge hammer.  With the same instrument, one of the mob struck the Negro on the head.  The Deputy was picked up and thrown out into the corridor.  The Negro was bound and dragged out of the jail and up the street.  He was beaten and pounded by the crowd, but did not know anything about his treatment.  The blow from the hammer had stunned him.

The rope was thrown over a telegraph pole and many a willing hand pulled at it.  The Negro swung mid-air for about six minutes.  Everyone thought that the prisoner was dead.

Alma’s African-American band is seen in this view, circa 1900. It was the telephone pole behind the fourth man from the left where a Black man was lynched and hung in 1899.

City Marshal Pippert broke through the crowd and cut the rope.  A physician came with the marshal and they wrapped Williams in a blanket and carried him down to the jail.  As soon as the mob understood that the Negro was not dead, it again formed and went down to the jail.  The physician came out and persuaded the men to go away, telling them that Williams could not possibly survive.  About 10:00 o’clock at night a third organization was formed and again they demanded the Negro, but were again persuaded to go away.

Williams was unconscious through all the turmoil.  The blow on the head from the sledge-hammer, though not sufficiently heavy to kill him, stunned him so that he did not regain consciousness until 10:00 o’clock yesterday morning.  Throughout the night, he had a high fever, and was constantly delirious.  He kept calling his girl and his aunt and various relatives.  Though very weak from the rough handling he received, Williams was quite rational and sane yesterday. 

A large patch of hair and skin is torn off from the back of his head.  He has bruises and wounds all over his body, although no bones are broken.  The doctors are expecting him to entirely recover.

Sunday night a guard of twenty men patrolled the jail, to prevent another attempt at lynching. This guard was maintained throughout yesterday, and will be on tonight.  Their orders were to shoot on the mob if necessary. 

A large welt about an inch thick is described around Williams’ neck. This tells him more plainly than anything about the horrible ordeal through which he went. But the whole matter is blank to the prisoner.  The blow from the hammer was merciful. 

Mr. Carroll then produced a written confession from Williams.

Williams said that he and “Denver Kid” and the murdered unknown white man who was found Saturday went out together to a farm to steal chickens.  “Denver Kid” and this unknown man went after the chickens, while Williams remained behind.  Soon after the “Denver Kid” returned, but without the man, and Williams says the “Denver Kid” committed the murder. 

The officers suspect that others were implicated in this affair, and undoubtedly have good reason for thinking so. 

Carroll, in relating the story, started to mention the name of the suspected accomplice, but was stopped by Chief Ramsey. Some important developments are promised. 

When asked whether efforts would be made to capture and convict the lynchers, Mr. Carroll said, “The guards are too busy just at present to investigate, and besides, it would be impossible to identify or convict any of the lynchers.”

At the conference with Governor Stanley earlier in the evening, the executive promised a reward of $250          for the capture of the supposed accomplices.  The notice will be posted today.  Mr. Carroll is busy looking up evidence against the murderers, and has no doubt but that conviction will result. The preliminary hearing will occur next Saturday at Alma.

Then, at the close of the interview, County Attorney Carroll made a stunning admission which seemed to be a pitifully racist effort to explain the mob’s actions. “The unusual excitement and frenzy of the mob had its source in a murder which occurred some years ago,” said Mr. Carroll. “Peter Muehlenbacher, a rich old farmer near Alma, was killed by three Negroes.  The murderers were captured, and two of them convicted, while the third was acquitted.  Since that time, a feeling has been prevalent that if such a thing again happened, it would be dealt with in a different manner.  The result was not different than was expected.” It appears that County Attorney Carroll believed that the Alma lynch mob deserved a mulligan since they had missed an opportunity to hang Tom McClain.

It didn’t take long before Dick Williams’ accomplice, James Render was arrested in the murder of Tandy and Burger. Render was arrested in Topeka; however, the authorities in Shawnee County were reluctant to send the accused man to Alma for fear that he, too, would be lynched.  Ultimately, Render was held in the Shawnee County jail and not moved to Alma until the day before his trial.

Alma became notorious in the press as articles about the lynching and the surrounding events were syndicated and appeared across the nation.  Many of the reviews were not complimentary. Some seemed to be, making their message even more ominous. Council Grove’s The Weekly Guard of July 21, 1899 reads, “The murder below Alma and the lynching at Alma has caused quite a commotion in this neck of the woods.  The peace loving Germans of Alma are determined to rid the country of the worthless negroes that have so much murder, robbery, and human blood on their hands.”

Dick Williams and James Render stood trial in Alma on October 30, 1899 for the murder of Calvin Burger. Both men had pleaded not guilty, but their only defense was their own testimony in which they blamed the crime on two other men, Bill Collins and Souse Hawkins who they claimed had killed Burger and had forced Williams to witness the killing at gunpoint.  The accused men’s testimonies were successfully impeached by prosecutors, and by noon, both men had been convicted of the murder of Calvin Burger.  Immediately after that conviction, the two men were tried for the murder of Harry Tandy.  When read the charge, each of the two men pleaded guilty to Tandy’s murder, and the men were sentenced to death by hanging, to be imposed after each had completed one year of hard labor at the Kansas State Penitentiary at Lansing.  The jury reached their verdict on the Burger murder at noon, and by 1:30 pm, the sheriff and prisoners boarded a train to take both men to prison. There was no mention during the trial of the lynching and hanging of Dick Williams.

The lynching sparked quite a reaction across Kansas, marked by various comments posted by newspaper editors on their editorial pages. The Leavenworth Times leveled considerable disapproval of the mob action in Alma, remarking, “it is an outrage which no language is strong enough to condemn: that a number of the people should have broken open the prison, violated and spurned the laws made by the people of this state and committed the abominable offense of attempting to murder this untried person…One report from Alma says that ”no arrests will follow yesterday’s daylight attempt at lynching.”  We hope for the sake of justice and the honor and good name of the state that there is no truth in that report.  The people engaged in the lynching can be easily identified.  They ought to be brought to account and punished according to the law for the crime of attempted murder.” The Alta Vista Journal was less noble in their predictable comment on the incident. “It would seem that with a sledge hammer blow on the head and six minutes hanging, the mob at Alma might have at least given that coon the impression that he had been roughly handled.” It is important to note that not a single individual was ever arrested, much less tried in court, for their part in the attack on the courthouse or the subsequent assault on Dick Williams with a hammer and rope. Lynch mobs were given a free hand to operate in Alma.

The third attempted lynching in Alma occurred in 1916 when longtime Wabaunsee County teamster, Edgar Jackson was being held on charges of rape.  The story reads like a chapter from Harper Lee’s famed novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Black men in America had long been subject to a separate set of rules from whites when it came to their interactions with white women.  “Surviving Segregation: First Hand Accounts from Kansas and Missouri” published by the Topeka Capital-Journal for Freedom’s Struggle, 2016, addresses the unwritten rules that Blacks had to obey. “In addition to discriminatory laws, blacks understood the “etiquette” between blacks and whites and the punishment that would be inflicted if the rules were broken…The rules included: A black man couldn’t touch the body of a white woman, even a handshake, because he risked being accused of rape. Blacks had to use courtesy titles, such as Mr. or Miss, when addressing whites. Whites often addressed adult black men as “boy.” A white person could cut in front of a black person waiting in line. A black person could never claim or demonstrate they knew more than a white person.”

The first mention of Edgar “Bud” Jackson’s legal problems appeared in the November 8, 1917 edition of The Alma Signal, “Edgar Jackson, a colored man living at Paxico is under arrest charged with having forcibly raped Mrs. H. M. Hackler, a respectable married white woman, the mother of two children who lives in Kaw Township on a farm with her husband. 

Edgar Jackson, a Paxico Teamster, stands in the doorway of Pride’s Livery Stable at Paxico, circa 1910.

She says Jackson came to her home before noon and remained for dinner, claiming he was waiting for a man that was to meet him there with a team of mules. After dinner, H. M. Hackler, the husband, went to the field to husk corn; soon after this Mrs. Hackler says Jackson grabbed her and after a desperate struggle, this good woman was seriously injured, and then forcibly ravished…

Indignation is reported as running very high against Jackson and veiled threats are heard on every side against him.  The penalty for this crime is not less than 5 nor more than 21 years in the penitentiary.”

The November 9, 1917 edition of The Alma Enterprise told a somewhat similar story, “Bud Jackson, a Paxico colored man, was arrested on Monday afternoon by Sheriff Addie on complaint of H. M. Hackler on the Goldgrabe farm north of Paxico, who charged him with assaulting and raping his wife on Friday afternoon, Nov. 2.

Hackler says that Jackson came to his house while he was out in the corn field and committed the crime on Mrs. Hackler…Mrs. Hackler is a slight woman and has two children, one a baby.”

The Alma Enterprise of November 23, 1917 reported on Jackson’s preliminary hearing, “A goodly number of Paxico people were up Friday afternoon to attend the preliminary of Bud Jackson charged with an assault on Mrs. H. M. Hackler.  Only enough evidence was presented to make sure of holding Jackson over for trial.

The State asked that Jackson be put under $5,000 bond to appear for trial at the February term but “hissoner” Judge Coyne thought that some more would not hurt, so he bound him over under $7,000 bond. There seems little doubt but that Bud will remain in Alma.

Six cars of Paxico men drove to Alma that night, apparently with some idea of taking the law into their own hands.  They first called on Dr. Noller and demanded the keys to the jail.  He advised them to see Sheriff Addie who told them to go home and think it over and come back in the morning.  They went home and failed to come back.”

Bud Jackson decided not to wait for his trial scheduled for the February session of the court.  The prospect of standing trial where the only two possible outcomes were to face a penitentiary sentence or face a lynch mob, Jackson decided to escape from jail. The jailers left Jackson out of his cell at nights so he could fire the furnace in the jail basement, and on the night of November 27, 1917, Jackson dug a hole through the loosely laid limestone wall of the jail, assisted by someone who dug from the outside.

The Alma Enterprise of November 30, 1917 reported on the escape, “You might not think he is worth it, but Bud Jackson is now valued at $400.  He escaped from the county jail sometime Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, the county offered $250 for his capture and the state added $150 more, making him worth $400 to whoever finds and brings him in.

Jackson made his escape by digging a hole through the west wall of the jail.  He evidently had help from the outside, as some signs plainly show. He had a broken piece of a pump handle to aid him in digging through the stone wall.  He was not confined in a cage, being left out in the corridor to keep up the fire. It was an easy job to dig out.”

The Wabaunsee County jail was located on the west end of the courthouse. It was from this building that Bud Jackson escaped.

Bud Jackson disappeared, never to be seen in Wabaunsee County again. No one ever collected the reward for Jackson’s capture.

In the Schools

Racial prejudice and hatred are not congenital character defects. Racism is often learned at home, passed from one generation to another.  A far more offensive source of racial hatred was that which was learned in the public schools. and such was the case in Wabaunsee County and other parts of Kansas in the first half of the 20th century.

Of the first-generation African-American immigrants who settled in Wabaunsee County between 1865 and 1890, most were freed slaves. As a result, they had been deprived of any education, and virtually none could write, while a few could read at a very elementary level, having secretly learned the skill on their own. During the years prior to 1865, Black slave children were not allowed to attend public schools.

The first wave of Black immigrants came to Kansas seeking freedom, and they had a desire to start families of their own on their own land.  Many early immigrant Blacks had large families, and it was this second generation of African-Americans, many of whom were born in Kansas, who took great pride in their education.  Numerous empirical examples exist of Black children who excelled in Wabaunsee County public schools, along with many who attended college after high school.

Despite their considerable motivation and success, Black children faced racial prejudice in the public schools.  At the beginning of the 20th century, there were nearly 90 school districts in Wabaunsee County. Most of the districts operated a single one-room school.  “Local control” was not the catch-phrase of the day, but that theory was the basis of the operation of the small districts.  One-room school teachers often defined the rules and accepted norms for the operation of their school. Some local teachers exhibited poor judgement and a pronounced racial bias in their instruction.

A good example of this offensive instruction was the instruction given to white children as to how to portray Blacks in the performance of minstrel shows. Minstrel shows are a completely American form of entertainment, first performed in the 1830s by Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a white actor who donned blackface applied with burnt cork, and created a character named Jim Crow, who stereotyped the Black man as lazy, stupid, and generally worthless.  His act gained popularity among whites in the South and then across America.  Minstrel shows with groups of actors impersonating Blacks served to establish and reinforce negative stereotypes of Blacks and made racial injustice a laughing matter.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote of the insidious nature of the minstrel show in 1848 in his newspaper, The North Star, describing the minstrel show actors as “the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.”

To teach young children how to portray Blacks with racial stereotypes in school plays is sickening. However, that was the case.  Children at Hinerville District 15 were photographed in “blackface” at a minstrel show held at the school in 1922.

The “Negro Minstrel” given by students of Hinerville School District 15, Gladys Young, teacher, 1922.

Further examples of the teaching of racial prejudice in the schools abound. District No. 3 advertised a Pie and Box Social on January 20, 1922 where students from that school performed two plays, one titled, “The Mischievous ‘N-Word’” and “All a Mistake.”  The advertisement reminded, “Ladies please bring pie or box.”

Charles Curtis Gardenhire, the only Black student in this school photo attended rural school District #3.

This obviously was not an isolated incident. A year later, District 66, located north of Paxico, advertised their pie and box social which included a play performed by the students entitled, “The ‘N-Word’s’ Night School.” The Alma Signal of April 5, 1923 advertises the event, urging, “Everyone welcome.”

Frankly, the donning of blackface to belittle and demean Blacks was not an exclusive act performed by Wabaunsee County’s children.  The adults behaved with equal disregard for Black residents of the county.  The Alma Rotary Club held a minstrel show in the 1940s at the Alma High School, depicting Blacks as foolish half-wits.

This minstrel show, performed by the Rotary Club of Alma dates from the 1940s.

Unfortunately, some Black children faced racism much more directly.  The October 21, 1910 edition of The Alma Enterprise, reports on an unruly spectator at the Alma vs. Eskridge high school football game, who shouted racial slurs at a Black Alma player, Shirley Richard Gardenhire. An Alma newspaper man reported on the fracas and defended the character of the Alma player, “…the ancestry and breeding of the fellow who gets out on the side lines and bawls “kill the ‘N-Word’,” will not usually bear very close scrutiny and might even suffer when compared to that of the colored man.  Gardenhire is a good clean player, and there is not a more peaceable or good-natured boy on the team.”

The Alma football team poses for a photo at the high school. At the far right is standout player, Shirley Richard Gardenhire.

Daily life for African-American children in public schools was one where they were taught to accept racial prejudice as being normal.  Insofar as the vast majority of the 90 school districts in Wabaunsee County only operated a single one-room school each, the concept of “local control” was at the very grass roots. While schools in rural areas could never afford to operate “separate but equal” schools for Blacks, separation of the races within a single classroom wasn’t a rare occurrence.

The 1905 Paxico, Kansas 1st grade class poses beside their school. Notice that the Black students were separated from white students. Notice that many students wore no shoes.

It is not a great surprise that the schools taught the Klan mantra.  School officials at the highest level were active members of the KKK.  Eskridge Superintendent of Schools G. A. Brown, who led the Eskridge schools from 1909 through 1913, was an avowed Klan member.  The Eskridge Tribune Star and Eskridge Independent of October 18, 1923 reports on the activities of the “Reverend Brown” (After Brown’s four-year stint as Superintendent of Schools, Brown became a reverend in Neodesha, Kansas, where he authored his KKK book). “The Rev. G. A. Brown, former superintendent of the Eskridge High school has written a book entitled, “Harold the Klansman,” a 70,000-word novel, containing a wholesome love story, humorous incidents and portrays characters who are types of those found in every village and city.  The principals of the Ku Klux Klan of today are thoroughly and clearly explained.”

The Klan

The seeds of racial prejudice and white supremacy were well-sown in Wabaunsee County by the end of World War I.  For more than 30 years, Blacks in the county experienced second-class citizenry, spawned by the bitter racial hatred fomented by white supremacists.  The county’s newspapers had long been filled with racial slurs and bigoted characterizations of African-Americans.  Justice in the county was a two-faced system, one for Blacks and one for whites.  The Wabaunsee County Attorney, himself, had given racist mobs the right to lynch Black men without the fear of being prosecuted for their actions.  The schools, despite the claim of being “integrated,” reinforced the “white is right” doctrines, teaching students that Black children were just “the N-word.”

It was behind this backdrop that the Ku Klux Klan began expanded its national organizational campaign of racial hatred and violence into the Midwest, and specifically into Kansas. The December 26, 1919 edition of The Alma Enterprise was a bellwether of the deep racial division which existed in Kansas, providing a fertile ground for the KKK to take root and grow.  The headline proclaimed, 11,000,000 Colored People, and reads, “To begin with, there are 11.000.000 colored people, including negroes, Indians, Chinese, etc.  Then there are 14,500,000 people of foreign birth among us.  In addition to these, there are 14,000,000 children of foreign-born fathers and mothers and 6,500,000 children of foreign-born fathers and native vice versa.  When all of these have been deducted from the 100,000,000 only 54,000,000 remain of full white native ancestry.”

The local newspapers chronicled the movement of the Klan across America and then across Kansas, as the national organizers took aim at rural Kansas for their membership drives.  They were embraced by the local citizens and newspapers of Wabaunsee County, as they spread their message of white supremacy across the map. By 1922, the Ku Klux Klan had arrived in Wabaunsee County, as they began to organize local leaders who would become the backbone of the racist organization in the county.  Out-of-town organizers were embraced by the residents of Wabaunsee County, and the numerous rallies held across the county were well-attended and produced many new Klan members who signed membership cards and ordered their signature white robes and pointy white masks.

The Alma Signal of August 2, 1923 reported on the establishment of the Klan’s organization in Eskridge. “From several sources the last few days it is learned that the Ku Klux Klan organized in Eskridge territory a week ago today, and it is reported that over 200 farmers and townspeople joined the organization. It is said that a firey [sic] cross was lighted in a pasture not far from Eskridge where it was plainly visible from the main part of town, the white robed guards were stationed all around the meeting place and only those intending to join or members were permitted to pass.” The story continues in an effort to make light of the terrorism inflicted on Eskridge children, especially those who were African-Americans. “The story goes that several of the young chaps of the town with some colored boys thinking a flying machine had come down, started towards the firey cross, but when they discovered what was going on, beat a hasty retreat; especially the colored boys.”

Klan members held meetings, lectures, and rallies at the City Park in Eskridge, the High School in Harveyville, the Masonic Lodge in Alta Vista (where members climbed into a rear window to access the meeting room to hide their identities), the Woodman Hall at Snokomo, and in the county courthouse courtroom in Alma.  The Ladies Knights of the Ku Klux Klan held a rally to bring women into the ranks of the KKK, holding a meeting at the Strand Theater in Eskridge on August 28, 1924. Support for the Klan reached a feverish pitch throughout Wabaunsee County.

Alta Vista, Kansas barber, Bat Nelson poses by his car, ready for a parade. He wore white clothes at night as well, as Nelson was the Exalted Cyclops of the Alta Vista Chapter of the KKK.

In the Klan’s newspaper ads and in their speeches, the organization was a master of the dog-whistle style of incitement, making the untenable seem normal.  In The Jayhawker American of October 25, 1923, the Klan published “Principles of the Ku Klux Klan and Klan Women.”  The first “principle” listed is “The tenets of the Christian Religion.”  The second principle is more straightforward, “White Supremacy.”

The Klan continued its reign of terror in Wabaunsee County through the mid-1920s while the organization attempted to control the entire Kansas government.  In 1924, Klan members controlled the Kansas Senate while holding only a very slim minority in the House of Representatives.  Both the Democratic and Republican candidates for Governor in 1924 were endorsed by the Klan.

In 1925, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the Klan was an illegal and unlicensed corporation in Kansas, and was thus banned from conducting business.  It was neither the hatred spewed by the group, nor the reign of terror which was its stock in trade, that was the downfall of the Klan in court.  It was, in fact, the white robes and pointy white masks that were the downfall of the Klan in Kansas.  Each member purchased the costumes from the Klan in Georgia, while the organization was unlicensed to do business in Kansas.

While the Klan’s organization had ceased to exist in the state by 1930, the racial prejudice and ignorance expounded by the KKK were not similarly excised from the hearts and minds of the white citizens of Wabaunsee County, nor the State of Kansas.

Conclusion

The half-century of systemic racism and second-class citizenry which existed in Wabaunsee County between 1880 and 1930 was not without consequences.  A new exodus of African-Americans from Wabaunsee County continued without abatement.  The numbers of Blacks living in Wabaunsee County plummeted every year during the 20th century until a meager 31 African-Americans remained in Wabaunsee County by the year 2000.  The number of Blacks in the county shrunk to far less than the State or national averages, as Blacks left the Wabaunsee County, never to return.

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1 reply »

  1. I appreciate your article documenting the racism that existed openly in Wabaunsee County throughout its history. Unfortunately, it didn’t end anywhere in Kansas when the KKK was outlawed in 1925. As someone once stated, racism and slavery are America’s “original sin”. The only way to purge ourselves of this monstrosity is to acknowledge that it (racism) existed and still exists today – almost everywhere in the U.S. in some form. Each of us carries some type of prejudice – whether based on race, religion, economic “class”, etc. It’s important for each human to look inward to examine their own beliefs and actions and change ourself accordingly. If not, we are doomed to continue this plague upon freedom.

    Like

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