LAWRENCE — Author Brent Campney said Lawrence’s reputation as a safe haven for black people after the Civil War was not entirely deserved.
Campney, a history professor at the University of Texas-Rio Grand Valley and author of “This is Not Dixie: Racist Violence in Kansas,” said one piece of evidence was the June 10, 1882, lynching of Pete Vinegar , Isaac King and George Robertson of the Kansas River Bridge.
He said a group of about 40 white people ransacked the local jail and marched the men to the nearby river. Each had been arrested and jailed on suspicion of murder after a drowned white man was found. The community’s sense of justice shunned the court system. Confirmed guilt or innocence didn’t matter.
“It doesn’t mean that everyone supported him, but no one stopped anyone. No one was punished for the crimes,” said Campney, who supported a mythology developed in Lawrence that the worst acts of racism happened elsewhere. “There was this belief among a lot of people who probably should have known better that everything was okay.”
Campney was asked to speak about lynching, mob action and other forms of public violence of racism for an online presentation Thursday hosted by the Lawrence Public Library.
His speech served to precede the Friday 7 p.m. dedication of a historical marker next to Lawrence City Hall honoring Vinegar, King and Robertson. Alongside the 140th anniversary of their murders, the Douglas County Community Remembrance Project will show the documentary “Then Three Were Gone” Saturday afternoon at the Watkins Museum of History in Lawrence.
Campney said the wave of black lynchings in post-Civil War Kansas kicked off quickly in 1865 with the murder of three men in rural Douglas County and culminated in nine executions in the spring of 1867 in counties incidents. of Fort Scott and Dickerson, Wyandotte and Shawnee.
“Truly awful. A kind of unprecedented violence in these first two years after the civil war,” he said.
Campney said his research confirmed 56 lynchings in 41 incidents in Kansas from 1861 to 1927, but he is confident that others occurred but were not sufficiently documented in the news reports.
“Every incident of the African Americans they lynched in Kansas, they were demonstrably innocent of the crime they were charged with,” he said.
He said black people were being targeted by white mobs determined to impose lethal violence against individuals to bolster white supremacy and strike fear among black people in the community. Lynching of whites happened in Kansas, he said, but those cases differed because they were seen as an indictment of individuals rather than an entire race.
Skeptics concerned about Kansas lynchings pointed to the much higher numbers in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and other southern states, but Campney said the lower Kansas figure shouldn’t be discounted. The message to black people at this time was that they could be subject to informal justice of any kind and that law enforcement officers would not put their lives on the line to oppose white majority rule, did he declare.
Campney documented other forms of repression supported by white Kansans, including race riots, police violence, homicide, rape, property damage, moral harassment or non-lethal lynching, and enforcement of edicts at sunset to keep blacks away from certain towns and villages. He relied on newspaper accounts as his primary source of evidence.
He said an argument at an 1895 baseball game in Garnett between black and white teams resulted in the sudden death of a black man. The killer was tried, but acquitted. In 1869, he says, white people forced all black residents of Hays out of town. He said Hoisington and the Liberals aggressively enforced sunset policies. Cities large and small had deep racial conflicts in Kansas, he said.
Campney recalled that his first American history lesson after moving from Canada to Detroit as a teenager was about abolitionist John Brown, who operated in Kansas.
Brown rose to prominence opposing the establishment of Kansas as a slave state, but was executed in 1859 after inspiring an attempted slave rebellion in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, before the Civil War .
Some white community leaders in Kansas rebuffed lynching mobs after the Civil War, he said, because publicity was not good for business in their towns and cities. Blacks hid fugitives from crowds and worked to oppose violent racists by influencing public opinion and seeking action in the courts.
“There are a lot of black heroes out there,” Campney said. “There are very few white heroes.”