Kansas: Every 50 Years, It Makes History

Roundup: Talking About History

Matthew Polly, in Slate (May 6, 2004):

This is the year of anniversaries for Kansas and Topeka. Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court's decision in Brownv. 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."

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