Lawrence seeks justice for three men lynched 138 years ago at Kansas River bridge

An illustration used in the Lawrence Branch NAACP's presentation to the Lawrence City Commission shows how Isaac King, George Robertson and Pete Vinegar were pulled from the Douglas County jail and lynched at the Kansas River bridge in 1882. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Ursula Minor is president of the Lawrence Branch NAACP. This column follows a Kansas Reflector column on efforts to memorialize lynching victims in Salina.

Isaac King, George Robertson and Pete Vinegar did not receive justice in 1882. In the 138 years that have passed since they were dragged from the Douglas County jail at night and lynched from the Kansas River bridge, they have not received justice.

Their names, however, are remembered on a column at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial is composed of more than 800 hanging columns, one for each of the counties in the United States where a lynching occurred between the years 1877 and 1950. Douglas County, Kansas, is etched into one of those columns. The names Pete Vinegar, Isaac King and George Robertson are etched into that column.

A cold afternoon at the beginning of 2019 is when I met with Kerry Altenbernd, a retired librarian and historic preservationist who is most well-known for his portrayals of John Brown at educational and history events around the country, about a potential project that the Lawrence Branch NAACP could become involved in. Kerry had done some preliminary research on the lynchings that occurred in Douglas County and the opportunity for a marker to commemorate the lives lost, but the project had yet to gain momentum. From that lunch meeting, the Lawrence Branch NAACP became involved with bringing a historical marker, part of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project, to Lawrence and Douglas County.

On the grounds outside the Memorial building in Montgomery lie duplicate copies of each of the etched columns. The Lawrence Branch NAACP, along with other community organizations, have adopted this project to bring a two-sided historical marker and eventually this duplicate monument to Lawrence.

The EJI does not have these duplicate monuments available to claim just yet. Soon, local communities will be able to claim their county’s monument and have it installed locally. For now, two projects are active: The historical marker project and a soil collection project, where soil from the site of the lynchings is to be kept in glass jars, one for each victim.

To help facilitate the application process, Altenbernd joined the Lawrence Branch NAACP and became chairman of the Community Coordination and History Committee. After our application was approved by the EJI, we then formed the EJI Lynching Memorial Project Coalition. The process to bring justice for Isaac King, George Robertson and Pete Vinegar could now truly begin.

Kerry Altenbernd, who portrays John Brown at educational and historic events, joined the Lawrence Branch NAACP to chair the Community Coordination and History Committee. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

Altenbernd and I presented to the Lawrence City Commission for approval to place the historical marker on City Hall property. At their meeting on Sept. 1, the Lawrence City Commission voted unanimously to approve the proposed site for the Douglas County lynching historical marker.

The approved site has an unobstructed view of the stone pier that is the only remaining part of the bridge across the Kansas River from which Isaac King, George Robertson and Pete Vinegar were lynched on June 10, 1882. Additionally, the site of the former jail, from which the three men were dragged, is across the street in Robinson Park.

Through our process, we have gained community organizations to join us in the Community Remembrance Project Coalition. Presentations have been made across Lawrence to bring awareness to the lynchings and to the project.

After our presentations, we would often encounter lifelong residents who had never heard the story of the lynching, who did not know this had happened in the free state we as Lawrencians take so much pride in. The story has been forgotten for too long.

A map used in the Lawrence Branch NAACP’s presentation to the Lawrence City Commission shows how Isaac King, George Robertson and Pete Vinegar were pulled from the Douglas County jail and lynched at the Kansas River bridge in 1882. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

We are dealing with both historical legacy and current reality. Racism and racial inequities have resulted in generational trauma in our communities past and present. Lawrence has many African American residents who hold stories about racial injustice in Lawrence’s past and present.

It is important to bring the past to the forefront, address it, talk about it, and work together to gain insight and resolution. We must confront and acknowledge the truth about our past before we can overcome it.

The Community Remembrance Coalition’s current projects include setting up a racial justice essay contest, working on project to collect soil near the Kansas River bridge, finding descendants of the three men who were lynched and finalizing the text that will go on the two-sided historical marker.

If you would like to join the coalition, please send an email to [email protected].

By bringing the marker and eventually the monument to Lawrence, we hope to finally gain justice for Isaac King, George Robertson and Pete Vinegar.

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