Story By Amy Geiszler-Jones - Photography By Kacy Meinecke
Some people don’t think of Kansas as a destination site to learn about pivotal milestones and people in American history. But it should be, says Mark McCormick, executive director of The Kansas African American Museum in Wichita.
An effort to do just that is in the works, thanks to a nearly $135,000 federal grant, a newly hired program manager at TKAAM and a statewide partnership among 10 sites – including Wichita – that will comprise the Kansas African-American History Trail.
Inspired by a trip to Alabama that highlights its role in civil rights history through memorials and storytelling in Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery and elsewhere, McCormick started delving into Kansas history that goes even further back.
He came across documents compiled by Angela Bates, the director of the Nicodemus Historical Society, that listed various sites of interest tied to both Kansas and African-American history throughout the state. Nicodemus is a National Historic Park site as the oldest and only remaining African-American settlement west of the Mississippi River, founded when former slaves came to Kansas for a new life.
Those documents formed the basis of TKAAM’s successful grant application to the Institute of Museum and Library Services to create the Kansas African-American History Trail, which will be unveiled in 2018 with a year-long series of events.
“I have her (Bates) to thank for plowing up the ground,” says McCormick. “I didn’t have to break a lot of new ground.”
In October, Jo Bogan, who has decades of business management and teaching experience, was hired to coordinate the trail project, its website and the marketing materials. Born in Wichita, she spent several years of her childhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Most of her adulthood has been spent in Wichita, a place that, she says, has “fed” her interests, her education and her career.
“I love everything about this job,” she says, about being the trail’s program manager. “First of all, I love history. I listen to NPR all day long. I watch the history channel. I was reading slave narratives when I was 12 years old.”
Much of her time since October has been spent visiting and learning about the historical significance of each partnership site. Sometimes she spends part of the drive envisioning what life was like back then, what fed those early pioneers in prevailing. Sometimes she gets chills as she tours the sites, she says, as her mind wanders back to those times.
“I feel like I’m on hollowed ground in some of those places,” she says. “Every site I go to, I hear another story about our history.”
“Our” history, Bogan and McCormick make clear, isn’t that of one race, but rather of one country.
McCormick often calls Kansas the “indispensable” state in American history. He ticks off what he means by that: abolitionist John Brown’s stand that some say led to the start of the Civil War, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling, America’s first lunch counter sit-in by young African Americans wanting service at Wichita’s Dockum Drugstore, the fact that one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s lawyers was born in Wichita and more.
Until this grant, which was awarded this past summer, Kansas hasn’t had the infrastructure to pull all those historical contributions together to form a themed approach to those sites, McCormick says.
Both McCormick and Bogan say this trail should be seen as significant.
“We’ll elevate the idea of history and – like Taylor Branch (a prominent American historian) says – the language of civics,” McCormick says.”It’ll make us better if we know our history.”
“I’m excited and I hope people will realize the value and relevance of this history,” Bogan says. “I want people to be elevated and educated.”
Kansas African-American History Trail sites
• Baxter Springs – post-Civil War settlement of freed slaves connection
• Fort Scott – birthplace of author, photographer, musician and film director Gordon Parks
• Fort Riley – exhibits honoring the Buffalo Soldiers, who were African-American soldiers stationed with the 9th and 10th Calvary Regiments
• Kansas City – Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
• Lawrence – walking tours related to Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, who was raised there, and the Underground Railroad
• Leavenworth – Buffalo Soldier monument and Richard Allen Museum. Allen was a former Buffalo Soldier.
• Nicodemus – oldest and only remaining post-Civil War African-American settlement west of the Mississippi River
• Osawatomie – John Brown Museum
• Topeka – Monroe Elementary School, a National Historic Park site because of its role in the landmark school desegregation case
• Wichita – The Kansas African-American Museum
Upcoming events at The Kansas African American Museum
• “From the Heartland: The Kansas Heritage of President Barack Obama” exhibition through April 22
• Rescheduled Martin Luther King Jr. program featuring Wiley Choir, April 1, at St. Mark United Methodist Church, 1525 N. Lorraine
• “The Legacy of the Kerner Report,” an exhibit recognizing the 50th anniversary of the investigation of causes of the 1967 U.S. race riots, April 29 through August 19
• “Black Women Photographers” exhibition, August 26 through October 21
• Works of artist Samella Lewis, a display from TKAAM’s permanent collection, October 28 through January 20.
For more information about the museum, visit tkaamuseum.org.