Kansans hoping to spur community dialogue about the legacy of the state’s racist violence often find themselves standing alone. Some of their neighbors say no good can come from revisiting history. But in places as varied as Hays, Wichita, Liberal and Ellsworth, some are using their voices to chart a path toward acknowledgment and even reconciliation.
The day before Demetrius and Nuchelle Chance moved across town with their five kids to a new neighborhood in Hays, their 9-year-old son rushed through the door crying.
“He was like, ‘I hate it here, I want to go home,” says his father, Demetrius.
The youngster told his dad that a group of kids had been taunting him in the street outside his house, and one of them called him the n-word. It was the first time he had been the target of a racial slur.
“For him to be that young and to feel that low about himself and to feel angry and sad and not understand what that word actually even means … that’s one of those situations where it’s very disheartening,” Demetrius says.
Hays is a town of about 21,000 people – roughly 88% white and 1% Black. Since moving from North Carolina in 2018, the Chances say they have faced the spectrum of prejudiced reactions because of the color of their skin – from encountering microaggressions and stereotypes to being falsely accused of robbing a store.
“It’s not just the n-word,” says Demetrius, a community advocate who founded a local mental health organization. “It’s being called ‘colored’ and then told to, ‘Get outta here. Leave here. You don’t belong here.’”
But when the couple has tried to start conversations about racial issues, it has often led to pushback. Nuchelle Chance, who teaches psychology at Fort Hays State University and serves on the local school board, says her life has been threatened when she’s posted about racial justice issues on social media.
“Honestly, people like myself, we are growing weary,” Nuchelle says.
The Chances say that discussions about racism are often viewed as stirring the pot, rather than attempting to heal wounds.
“It’s, ‘Oh, we don’t want to address that issue, because it might make somebody uncomfortable,’” Demetrius says. “That’s the culture here: You know things are going on, but you stay quiet.”
That hasn’t stopped them from working to shift that culture. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, they helped organize the town’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations. This past spring, they led a march at the university to denounce discrimination on campus and facilitated a university panel on how to stand up for the rights of marginalized groups.
They also founded an ongoing monthly gathering in Hays that offers people of color a safe place to express themselves. Demetrius says the group not only allows people to bond with others who have endured their own pain and trauma, but it also empowers each member to be themselves.
“You start being able to think in terms of prosperity and in terms of uniqueness,” he says. “Because now I’m not alone. … I have people that not only look like me, they’ve been through the same things I’ve been through and they’re backing me.”
Across the state, community leaders such as the Chances are taking it upon themselves to expand the ways people think and talk about race at the local level. But as they push to start tough conversations about how Kansas communities can reckon with racism and become more welcoming places, they fight an uphill battle against a history of prejudice that goes back to the 19th century.
The Legacy of the ‘Sundown Town’
The lack of diversity in places like Hays today can partially trace its roots to the towns’ origins. In the decades following the Civil War, hundreds of towns across the Midwest – including Hays – used violence and threats to prevent Black Americans from settling or visiting. They became known as sundown towns because it was dangerous for African Americans to be seen there after dark.
In Kansas, the list of sundown towns spanned from Neodesha in the southeast to Ellinwood in the center to Liberal out west. But perhaps no place in Kansas was more synonymous with racist violence at that time than Hays.
“Hays City is probably the single best example of a sundown town,” says historian Brent M.S. Campney.
In the first half of 1869 alone, lynchings and riots in Hays claimed 11 Black lives, according to Campney’s research for his book “This Is Not Dixie.” During the town’s largest episode of racist violence that year, newspapers reported that townspeople killed six soldiers stationed at Fort Hays and two of the town’s barbers.
The killings ended up effectively driving any remaining Black civilians out of Hays. And that was the point of racist violence, according to Campney.
“The highest level purpose (of racist violence) was ensuring white dominance,” he says, “and creating a state where Black people were sort of shunted to the side.”
In its early years as a territory and state, the number of people living in Kansas exploded. Between 1860 and 1880, its population increased nearly tenfold, fueled largely by people arriving from Europe and the eastern U.S. to seek a better life on the Plains. With the promise of open farmland and new opportunities, Kansas welcomed immigrants at a faster rate than any other state.
Thousands of Black settlers from the South began making their way across Kansas to build new lives on the frontier as well. But in many places, they didn’t receive the same welcome as European immigrants.
The town of Beloit in north-central Kansas, for example, responded to the news of incoming Black homesteaders by passing a municipal ordinance that banned African Americans from living there and even threatened any travelers who might pass through on their way to settlements farther west. In December 1855, supporters of the anti-slavery Free-State Party ratified Kansas’ short-lived first constitution in Topeka, which included a 1,287 to 453 vote to ban free Black people from the territory.
Many sundown towns did not officially enforce racial discrimination. And yet, the towns remained white. Campney says that illustrates the distinction between Jim Crow laws, like the one that the Kansas Legislature passed in 1879 allowing larger cities to operate segregated elementary schools, and Jim Crow practices, like the threats of racist violence intended to prevent African Americans from feeling safe enough to put down roots in parts of Kansas.
“In the small towns of Kansas, you don’t really have any kind of segregation because Black people in general just don’t come to those towns,” Campney says. “So, it really does play itself out very, very differently than, say, the civil rights movement in the Deep South.”
From 1861 to 1927, Campney’s research shows that Kansas mobs lynched at least 52 Black men in cities from Wichita and Lawrence to Great Bend and Pittsburg. That’s a far cry from the hundreds of lives lost to lynching in Southern states such as Georgia and Mississippi. But because of the relatively small percentage of African Americans living in Kansas at that time, Campney says the murders still sent shock waves through the state’s Black communities – a message just as impactful as the racist violence that scorched Dixie. So, when news spread to Hays of a lynching in Lawrence, or vice versa, the threat of racist violence felt close to home.
“Essentially, the entire Black population of the state is experiencing these events,” Campney says.
And the racist violence happening in Kansas at that time wasn’t limited to lynchings. Campney’s research shows that threatened lynchings, mob violence and other forms of homicide impacted the lives of Black Kansans in hundreds of towns in every corner of the state.
But that harsh reality has often been papered over in the state’s history in favor of the Free State narrative that centers on the abolitionist movement of John Brown.
“(White Kansans) really sort of liked the idea of Kansas as a haven from the racism that defines other states,” Campney says. “And so they so often use that as a way of disguising the racial violence in their own midst.”
For people of color living in former sundown towns today, that blithely sunny version of history can add insult to injury. Nuchelle Chance says that some whites’ aversion to acknowledging the past makes it all the more difficult to help them understand the throughline between that history of racist violence and the injustices that her family experiences.
“The fact that my Black son is still going to be more likely profiled because he has brown skin and dreads, that is still indicative of the energy that supported sundown towns,” Nuchelle says.
The Power of Acknowledgment
Facing the uncomfortable truths of Kansas’ past and connecting those events with present injustices can be the first steps toward reconciliation. For places like Hays, one way to spark meaningful dialogue could be to follow the lead of other towns that have brought community members together to memorialize the victims and address the legacies of racist violence.
“It’s not only about the horrors of the past but the extent to which they still shape our present,” says Staci Pratt, a founding member of the Community Remembrance Project chapter in Kansas City, Missouri.
Community Remembrance Project events are part of a nationwide series of collaborations between community leaders and the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization based in Alabama working to end mass incarceration and racial inequity. The remembrance project helps facilitate conversations that explore connections between the past and the present – at the sites where lynchings took place. Some communities erect plaques that tell the story of a victim’s life. Others collect a jarful of soil from the lynching site and display it with the victim’s name at museums, such as the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City.
Pratt has helped towns across Missouri organize remembrance events since 2018. She says there are challenges to fostering dialogues about racism in predominantly white places, especially if the subject has been swept under the rug for a long time. But she’s seen reason to hope.
She was recently part of a remembrance event in Springfield, Missouri, which, like Hays, is now 88% white. Pratt says there had historically been “a lot of pushback” in Springfield, an area of vicious Civil War battles, against the idea of acknowledging that three Black men were lynched outside its courthouse. But when it came time for the event in 2019, a different mindset emerged. A crowd of nearly 200, including city leaders, came together to honor those three Black victims in the same courthouse square where they had been killed.
“That people in power are willing to acknowledge what happened is a profound change,” Pratt says. “That was not where the community was even just a few years ago.”
Pratt views Springfield as one example that other towns could follow as they start their own journeys. If the focus remains on what community members can do locally to make their town the best place it can be for everyone, it can empower people to take ownership of the conversation.
“If we have to acknowledge our own history locally – not far away – and really embrace it, then there’s an internal shift in our own understanding of who we are and our own ability to create change,” Pratt says.
A Tiring Fight
Some towns are seeing progress in their journeys of addressing and healing racial injustice, and some are just getting started. Others have been reckoning with racism for decades.
Wichita, for example, has a rich history of Black culture that spans 150 years. And it continues to be home to one of the state’s largest African American populations, roughly 11% of the city’s nearly 400,000 people. So the city’s past and present racial dynamics look different from a place like Hays.
As the local economy boomed in the 1950s and 1960s, Wichita’s Black population grew more than threefold. Discriminatory policies, however, created de facto segregation that restricted African Americans to certain neighborhoods north and northeast of downtown.
When the civil rights movement came into prominence, the city was as segregated as many in the South. It was also home to one of the country’s earliest lunch counter sit-in protests. And as recently as the spring of 1980, hundreds of police officers and civilians clashed in response to officers reportedly harassing and throwing a Black man to the ground near 21st Street and Grove Avenue. The tumult ended up engulfing the neighborhood near the incident for hours and resulted in dozens of injuries.
The Rev. Robert Johnson has pastored Saint Mark United Methodist Church, the largest predominantly Black congregation in Wichita, for the past five years. He believes starting meaningful conversations about racism and reconciliation is as important now as it’s ever been.
“I think a lot of pain and anger in the African American community is related to a lack of acknowledgment on behalf of America and of our states, and of our white brothers and sisters to acknowledge that certain things have happened and that they are painful,” he says.
This year, he helped Kansas Interfaith Action hold a virtual vigil for lynching victims as part of an annual meeting between the advocacy group and state legislators. A clergy member read aloud the names of the victims and the Kansas towns where their lives were taken, and said a prayer for each one.
“As we went down the list, the tears started,” says Johnson, who serves on the interfaith board. “For me, as an African American person who grew up in the Deep South … I found myself just feeling grief over the stories (of racist violence) I’ve heard all my life.”
Johnson has worked to start deeper conversations about race in his own neighborhood, too. Shortly before the pandemic, he organized a panel discussion that brought together more than 100 people from his church and a nearby predominantly white church to discuss racial reconciliation. He plans to turn that discussion into a series as pandemic restrictions ease, and he’s hopeful it can be one avenue for introducing more Wichitans to the ways that racial dynamics continue to impact Black Kansans in hurtful ways. But he knows that will take time.
“That’s not going to happen in a couple of conversations,” Johnson says. “It’s not going to happen in a workshop.”
In Wichita and elsewhere, Johnson believes that highlighting positive stories about racial reconciliation could help open the door to more dialogue. He has compassion for white Americans who feel sick of talking about racism, since the discussion usually focuses on how badly members of their race have treated people of color over the years.
He draws a comparison that countless couples can grasp: “If every time my wife talks to me, she’s telling me about how horrible I am at managing the finances, then when she says, ‘Can we talk?,’ I’m gonna be like, ‘Heck, no.’”
He’s also finding ways to build longer-term bonds that reach across lingering barriers of segregation in his city.
“Dr. (Martin Luther) King used to say, ‘People fear each other because they don’t know each other.’”
Johnson says his church is in the process of partnering with another mostly white church in town to form a number of small spiritual development groups that connect people from both congregations. The idea is that the groups can share meals, volunteer in the community together and just spend time getting to know each other, all for the purpose of building deeper relationships across racial boundaries.
“That takes courage,” he says. “(But) if we see it happening, then that will give all of us courage to cross the boundaries, to engage in these kinds of relationships.”
Other cities in Kansas have undergone recent shifts in their racial dynamics. That’s the case in Liberal.
In a sense, you could say Liberal has come a long way from its sundown town origins. But just because it’s more diverse than many other Kansas towns doesn’t mean it’s immune to the challenges of addressing racism locally.
“Half of the people (here) are kind of closed off … and don’t want to actually admit that there is racism in this town,” says Jernell Martinez, who grew up in Liberal and just finished her first year at the local community college. “The other half do see it and believe that we could fix it.”
Martinez counts herself as one of those who believes they can make a difference. But she calls it “isolating” to be a Black Latina student who’s personally confronting such a complex, systemic problem. She says other young people around her often feel too overwhelmed or discouraged to get involved.
“A lot of times, I get tired because I feel like no one else wants to fight this fight,” Martinez says. “Especially when you’re in such a small community, many people see it as, ‘I’m not doing anything. I’m not helping anybody.’”
So Martinez has focused on what she can do, beginning with Liberal High School. Three years ago, she started the school’s first Black Student Union chapter, an organization that empowers Black students and fosters conversations about the Black experience among students of all races. She also pushed the high school to begin teaching classes that celebrate African and African American literature.
She says there are still days when she feels exhausted and wonders if her efforts are worthwhile. But then she takes a step back and remembers why she became an activist. For her, it’s fighting to make Liberal a better place for her younger sister, who is now one of the leaders of the Black Student Union that Martinez founded.
Her message for other leaders across Kansas working to address racism in their communities? Don’t give up.
“It’s OK to stand alone,” Martinez says. “As a leader, you want to be always fighting for that. If you really believe in it, always fight for that.”
‘It’s not who we are anymore’
At the time of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that Demetrius and Nuchelle Chance led last June, Shaun Musil was the mayor of Hays. As people gathered peacefully with homemade signs along one of the city’s main thoroughfares, he and the police chief went there to talk with demonstrators. Musil says it wasn’t about taking sides, but to make sure everyone in his town remained safe.
“If it’s an issue, we need to address it,” Musil says of racism in the northwest Kansas town. “I don’t know how, but I’d like to be one of the ones who helps.”
Musil, who’s now a city commissioner, says approaching discussions about racism from a platform like his can be rife with pitfalls. He describes the quandary facing public officials as a “lose-lose” situation, because no matter what they do, they’ll be criticized. He says many people who don’t see or experience racism firsthand don’t think it’s a big deal. So they question why a town would spend much time delving into past and present racism and its effects.
Musil thinks racial issues do sometimes get blown out of proportion nationally, often by the media. But he doesn’t want to question a person’s personal experience if they say they’ve encountered racism in Hays.
“I’m not living in their shoes,” he says. “I’ll never know the life they live.”
When it comes to revisiting racist violence from the town’s history, Musil agrees that it’s important to acknowledge the cruelty that happened. But he’s not sure how productive it can be to dwell on that past. He would prefer the town be known as the friendly place he believes it’s become.
“Of course it’s wrong, but that was the 1800s,” Musil says of the town’s history of racist violence. “It’s not who we are anymore.”
Located about an hour east of Hays, Ellsworth County shares similar demographics: 91% of its roughly 6,000 residents are white.
Ellsworth sits in the center of Kansas. And in many ways, it fits comfortably in the center of Kansas’ ethos. The county sprang up around a frontier Army outpost in the 1860s. The town quickly made a name for itself as a cattle drive destination, and roughly 85% of the county’s land continues to be used for agriculture.
Like many small towns in Kansas, it’s a place where conversations about race could be easily swept under the rug. Stacie Schmidt, who runs a county program to develop local leaders, is trying to change that.
Schmidt was born and raised in Ellsworth County. Last June, following the death of George Floyd, she put together a virtual forum for people in Ellsworth to talk about systemic racism. Inspired by the potential of that first talk, Schmidt enlisted facilitators from Kansas State University to lead a series of community discussions on racial equity called Courageous Conversations.
The series ended up spanning seven sessions from last fall to this spring, covering topics from empathetic listening to anti-racism. Schmidt and the facilitators set up ground rules for participants that helped to encourage understanding and minimize heated arguments. She intentionally chose not to record the sessions to allow a space where people could share their thoughts freely. The idea was to create a book club of sorts, where neighbors could walk through the discussion together.
“The purpose of these kinds of conversations is to create a sense of empowerment in our own community for issues on a global level,” Schmidt says.
Her desire to address racism in Ellsworth is also a personal one: She’s the mother of two multiracial children. And as they’ve grown, they’ve begun to have more talks about race at home. One occurrence was when her 16-year-old son came home curious about a Confederate flag he saw waving from a car in town.
“It’s made me more sensitive to the issue because of those conversations in my own household.”
She also views reckoning with racism as something that could help save the town she grew up in. Like much of rural Kansas, Ellsworth County has been fighting to keep residents, especially young people, from moving away. The most recent census data shows the county lost more than 6% of its population in one year.
People in small towns who want to avoid difficult discussions about race in the hope of maintaining the status quo, she says, are blind to the harsh reality facing rural America.
“They don’t recognize that in 10 years, if we don’t change the trajectory, we won’t have what we have right now,” says Schmidt. “So there’s not a choice. It’s either we adjust our adaptability to diversifying the population, or we lose population.”
But as the community discussions delved deeper into issues of racial bias, she says, some participants became uncomfortable.
“Instead of accepting the fact that we may have racial tendencies, and adjusting our attitude or our language or our culture, we want to defend and deny.”
She says the number of people engaging in the sessions steadily dwindled. By the end, the remaining participants were all people who cared about Ellsworth County but didn’t live there anymore.
“The fact that people would rather drop out than dive into that discomfort says that we’ve got a lot of work to do yet,” Schmidt says.
She also heard from some members of the community who were less than thrilled that she was encouraging conversations about white privilege and systemic racism in their town.
“A couple of people did confront me and say I was putting my job in jeopardy,” says Schmidt, who also works as the county’s economic development director. “I recognized there was a real risk to what I was doing.”
Still, Schmidt plans to launch another season of Courageous Conversations later this year and will poll the community to determine the topics those sessions will cover. She wishes the first series had produced more success stories, but she hasn’t given up on advancing difficult conversations in her hometown, even if it’s just one small step at a time.
“Can I really say if I made a difference or not? I don’t know,” Schmidt says. “If one person has one minor takeaway from this … that’s a win.”
- How would you characterize the challenge facing Kansans who want to discuss the legacies of racist violence in their communities? What interpretations do people in their communities have about such efforts?
- Some of the individuals profiled in this article report feeling weary, alone or less effective than they wish. What leadership lessons, if any, do you see in that dynamic?
- What would be the value of talking more about the state’s history of racist violence? What would the risks and downsides be?
- How would you frame for others the purpose of having/not having conversations about any incidents of past racist violence in your own community?
David Condos covers western Kansas as a reporter with High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. Based in Hays, Condos has had stories air nationally on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Here & Now” and has been published in newspapers nationwide. After growing up in Nebraska, Colorado and Illinois, he graduated from Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.
A version of this article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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