By facing more of its racist truths, Kansas — and America — could heal more of its divides

A Ku Klux Klan funeral at the Baptist Church at Sixth and Seneca Streets in Leavenworth, sometime between 1920 and 1929. (Kansasmemory.org/Kansas State Historical Society)

One night in January 1901, nearly 6,000 angry Kansans gathered outside the Leavenworth County Jail.

Inside was Fred Alexander, a Black man and a veteran of the Spanish-American War, who’d been accused of rape and murder of a white woman. Someone in the crowd used a sledgehammer to break into Alexander’s cell and “attacked him with a hatchet, inflicting serious wounds,” according to Christopher C. Lovett’s account in a 2010 Kansas History article.

“What happened next is open to debate,” Lovett wrote. “All accounts of the lynching of Fred Alexander derive from the (Leavenworth) Times and associated papers, which had reporters at the scene.” Other papers quoted from the Times, which, Lovett wrote, “had its own agenda, having promoted the lynching, and the proceedings were so ghastly that it appears the paper modified its account of what actually transpired.”

A century later, one account of Fred Alexander’s murder is among those compiled in “Lynching in America: Outside the South.” The report was published by the Equal Justice Initiative, which operates the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Here’s how it summarizes what happened after the mob dragged Alexander from his cell:

  The white mob mutilated Mr. Alexander. They castrated him, likely while he was still alive, and took parts of his body as souvenirs. The mob took the dying man to the ravine, chained him to an iron stake, doused him with 22 gallons of kerosene, and set him on fire before the massive crowd.   – Lynching in America: Outside the South

Fred Alexander’s lynching is the one most documented, but the EJI lists 19 lynchings in Kansas between 1882 and 1920. They’re not on the EJI’s website, but Jennifer Taylor, an attorney there, sent me what in-person visitors would see at a kiosk there:

“Our list and our numbers are always in progress,” Taylor said. “We’re always adding to them as we come across additional information and as people have additional information to offer to us.”

The EJI’s list relies on various sources, but mainly on newspaper accounts. Taylor said they know there are lynchings that never got reported.

“All of the lynchings that we’ve documented in Kansas, we have at least a last name for the victim,” she said.

In other cases, a newspaper story won’t even include the victim’s name. Instead, it will simply say something like, “A mob lynched a negro who was accused of …” whatever crime.

“For me and a lot of other people here, those are some of the most haunting pieces of information,” Taylor said, “because we aren’t even able to allow people to know who the person is and who they could have been important to.”

I’d called Taylor because, as I’ve been struggling with America’s deep divisions, I’ve been thinking about truth and reconciliation. This year, massive Black Lives Matter protests suggested more Americans are willing to face up to our legacy of systemic racism — but far too many others voted for a president who promoted white supremacy.

I’m old enough to remember, in real time, the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1990 and to have wondered, ever since, why something like that country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission couldn’t also help the United States heal from its founding sin of slavery. After more than 400 years, we’re obviously still roiling in its toxic legacy.

“Every country, every conflict is different,” cautioned Hannah Britton, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, who witnessed much of the Truth and Reconciliation process while doing her dissertation research and continues to work with organizations and activists in South Africa.

South Africa’s process was not perfect and is still incomplete, Britton said. However, she said, “the process of chronicling the truth of what happened is very, very important. It strips away denial.”

Britton and Elizabeth MacGonagle, a history professor and director of the Kansas African Studies Center, cover the truth and reconciliation process in various classes.

“It was about a two-year process where hearings were held,” Britton explained. “The commission traveled across the country. They met in communities, they heard from survivors and victims. Similarly, perpetrators came forward, members of security forces, as well as members of the resistance who had also engaged in political violence. They had to tell their story. And they were given amnesty if certain conditions are met.”

An illustration of Fred Alexander in the Leavenworth Chronicle, January 16, 1901. (Public domain)

It was on the nightly news, in people’s living rooms like the Vietnam War was for a generation of Americans, MacGonagle said.

It’s hard to imagine Americans participating in this sort of thing. But not everyone was on board in South Africa, either.

“There were different constituencies that came to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and some that refused,” MacGonagle said. “But more came than didn’t.”

Britton and MacGonagle said their students are open to these kinds of ideas, and easily make the connections between what they learn about Africa and what they see in other parts of the world, including the United States.

“It doesn’t take long for people to realize, you know, there are many ways for society to come to terms with itself,” Britton said.

Britton said “sites of public memory,” such as the EJI’s museum and memorial, or the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, can be places to start.

“We’ve already done that work,” MacGonagle noted. “Scholars, including many historians, have revealed these truths.”

There’s another small way to begin those truths in Kansas: the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project works with communities to put up markers “to memorialize documented victims of racial violence and foster meaningful dialogue about race and justice.”

So far, the EJI’s Jennifer Taylor told me, there are no such markers in Kansas.