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This is the year of anniversaries for Kansas and Topeka. Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka began the end of legal segregation. One hundred and fifty years ago, the Kansas Territory was established, and Topeka became the free-state capital battling against pro-slavery LeCompton. Two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark made their way through the area. And this year, 50 years after Brown, a bizarre special election put in place Topeka’s first black mayor, James McClinton. It is these kind of coincidences that help explain Kansans’ faith, patience, and humility. God seems to have a plan for us but, being a busy deity, can only pencil us in at half-century intervals.
While there are few intellectual activities dodgier than trying to intuit the divine hand in human history, just consider this for a moment: At the two most crucial junctures in the fight for racial equality, the abolition of slavery and the end of Jim Crow, Kansas served as the first battleground—the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and Brown in 1954. The current exhibit at the Kansas Museum of History, “Willing to Die for Freedom,” is a great refresher on the fight for freedom during Kansas’ earliest days.
Still considered a flyover state by coastal elites, Kansas began as a rest stop for weary Easterners dreaming of Western gold. As anyone who has driven across Kansas knows, it takes something out of you, and that’s at 70 mph. (I’ve met many Easterners who get a haunted look in their eyes when I mention I’m from Kansas.) The 90,000 gold-rushing “forty-niners” were driving covered wagons along the Oregon Trail across the Kansas plains. Wherever they stopped (usually at river crossings), a settlement sprang up to serve them: Topeka began along a bend in the Kaw River. The problem was, until Congress recognized Kansas as a territory, all these settlements were illegal.
The problem for Congress was maintaining the balance between free and slave states in order to preserve the Union. Because the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had settled the issue for a generation, set the northern boundary for future slave states at Missouri’s southern border, both Kansas and Nebraska would have had to be admitted as free states. The new compromise Congress reached, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, pushed the issue back to the citizens of each territory, making them decide whether to be free or slave. The assumption was that Nebraska, a northern state, would vote free, but Kansas, just west of slave Missouri, would go slave, thus preserving the balance.
As we’re rediscovering in Iraq, it’s best not to make any assumptions when pushing democracy on a people who are unready for it. The fate of the nation rested on what Kansans decided, and so outside forces converged, like in Iraq, to help swing the issue. The fight that ensued earned the territory the nickname “Bleeding Kansas.” The final vote went against slavery, the South seceded, the North attacked, the South lost, slavery was abolished, Jim Crow arose, and the stage was set for Brown.
The exhibit does an excellent job of portraying the conflicts within Kansas’ free-state movement. Only a small number of free-staters were Yankee abolitionists, like John Brown, who believed black people were equal and should be free. The majority were conservative Midwestern farmers and tradesmen who hated slavery because slave plantations were large, which drove up the price of land, and filled with slave labor, which drove down wages. This group didn’t just want to ban slavery; they wanted to ban blacks from immigrating to Kansas. As Samuel Adair, John Brown’s brother-in-law, said, “They hate slavery, but they hate the negro worse.”
My favorite bit of trivia from the exhibit is the origin of the state’s (and Kansas University’s) mascot, the Jayhawk. Free-state Kansans called the pro-slave Missourians “Border Ruffians.” The Missourians called us “Jayhawkers,” after a mythical bird that survives by stealing from other birds. The Jayhawk mythology will ring a bell for any Tarheels fan who remembers how KU’s former basketball coach Larry Brown, who along with Oliver and John make up Kansas’ Holy Brown Trinity, stole Danny Manning away from North Carolina and began KU’s basketball dynasty. (Larry hired Manning’s underemployed father as an assistant coach.)
Having fairly well exhausted Topeka’s civil rights and Civil War attractions, I decide it is time for a road trip. Because I’ve long held the theory that I would have been a much healthier, happier person if I’d been born after the invention of GPS, mapquest.com, and in-car DVD players, I’ve enlisted my parents to accompany me for an anthropological experiment. The re-enactment is fairly precise: Dad is driving, Mom is riding shotgun, and I’m in the backseat. The only person missing is my sister to complain bitterly that I’m on her side.
Our first stop is supposed to be Constitution Hall in LeCompton. It’s a 20-minute trip, and the first 18 are perfectly peaceful, absolutely unlike any car trip from my childhood. But then we hit a snag: a massive detour that makes my Internet directions useless. After 20 minutes of backcountry twisting and turning, the tension level has risen to the point where my father can no longer pretend he doesn’t hear my mother muttering, “There’s another gas station you could stop at and ask for direction if you weren’t so bullheaded.”
“We’re going in the right direction,” Dad says tersely.
“Oh, good,” Mom shoots back. “Where have I heard that before?”
Dad doesn’t reply, which is the correct tactic. The correct answer, however, is Mount Rushmore (1979), the Grand Canyon (1981), Branson, Mo. (1983), the St. Louis Arch (1985), and Chicago (1986, 1987).
We manage to miss Constitution Hall and end up at the Territorial Capital Museum instead, which, even for the Polly family, is quite a feat. LeCompton is the size of a postage stamp. I’ve always wondered what happens to towns that pick the wrong side of a fight. Based on evidence of LeCompton, they end up with populations of less than 1,000, no interstate highway exits, and an obsession with their past.
The Territorial Capital Museum is dedicated to LeCompton’s history. Its Bleeding Kansas-era exhibits mix with varsity lettermen jackets from the 1980s. At first I think that the curator, Vicky Leochner, is flustered because a New York journalist has walked into her little museum, but it turns out my father operated on her.
Compared to the limestone Capital Museum, the white clapboard Constitution Hall (1854) seems fragile, which is appropriate since it is the oldest wood building in Kansas. It was in the second-floor hall that Missourians stuffed the ballot boxes for a slave Kansas: The state’s population was 2,500, but 6,000 votes were cast. President Franklin Pierce recognized the LeCompton constitution as a way to keep the South inside the Union, but the 1855 Statutes (“The Bogus Laws”) were so harsh—it was a capital offense to own a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin—they enraged free-staters in Kansas and across the nation and shifted the tide away from the pro-slavery forces.
The most (in)famous free-stater was the fiery abolitionist John “Osawatomie” Brown. I knew I was taking a risk when I added the John Brown Museum to the itinerary, because Osawatomie is nearly two hours away, and the Web site only gives a mailing address, which might differ from the physical location. It does. And as we pass the John Brown Memorial Park because my Internet directions lead to a P.O. Box several blocks away, Mom starts in on me and my new-fangled technology. By the time we return to the park and find the museum, the semantic sparks are flying.
We were not “lost.” We were “turned around.”
“Well, Mr. Intellectual, how many times would we have had to drive past this park before we qualified as ‘lost’?”
“Twice? That’s a hoot. What fancy Ivy League dictionary did you get that definition of ‘lost’ from?”
My state of mind is similar to John Brown’s when he arrived at this log cabin owned by his brother-in-law Samuel Adair, pulling a wagon filled with guns and knives. “From this fact,” the museum’s curator tells me in understated Kansan fashion, “we gather John Brown had violence in mind.” During his trip from New York through Missouri, Brown had freed 12 slaves, making him an honorary Jayhawker. As well as being an abolitionist, Brown also believed in women’s suffrage and temperance, making him right on two out of three issues.
The situation in Kansas further radicalized Brown. In response to a pro-slavery ransacking of the Lawrence Hotel, where the abolitionist offices were located, Brown and his gang captured and then executed five pro-slavery men. The Pottawatomie Massacre, as it was called, caused an official break between Brown and Adair, a Congregational minister.
Unrepentant, Brown wrote after the massacre, “God has made me an instrument for killing men, and he will use me to kill a good many more men.” Following his defeat at the Battle of Osawatomie, Brown decided the only way to end slavery was to start a slave revolt in the South. Unfortunately, he picked Harpers Ferry. Poor planning and the slaves’ failure to revolt led to Brown’s capture and death sentence. His last words were prophetic: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away except with Blood.” The unofficial anthem Union soldiers sang as they went into battle started with the line, “John Brown’s body lies a’mouldering in the grave.”
In honor of John Brown’s memory, we dart over the Missouri border on the drive back, and my father, wielding his mighty credit card, liberates several Brooks Brothers suits for me from an outlet store. That evening we dine at Boss Hawg’s at 2833 SW 29th Street, Topeka’s best BBQ restaurant. I had forgotten how happy traveling with my parents makes me.