The hidden history of Kansas is the story of enslaved people. Let’s say their names.

August 15, 2021 3:33 am

The Shawnee Indian Mission, from 1839 to 1862, was a manual training school for children from the Shawnee, Delaware, and other American Indian tribes, and is now a state historic site. Its founder was Thomas Johnson, the namesake of Johnson County, who held at least seven enslaved individuals at the mission in the 1850s. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

Shawnee Indian Mission is a bit of the 1850s frontier in the midst of one of the richest suburban neighborhoods in the country. Just a block away is the buzz of traffic on Shawnee Mission Parkway, and the homes in the area cost more than most of us can afford. But for $5, Wednesday through Saturday, you can visit the historic site with its three original brick buildings and its 12 pastoral acres and imagine what life might have been like for the missionaries, the Shawnee and Delaware children who boarded at the school, and travelers on the Santa Fe Trail, which ran just a few hundred yards north.

Are you descended from an enslaved person in the Thomas Johnson household? If so, you’re directly related to our state’s territorial history, and the Kansas Reflector would like to share your family’s story. Email us with details at [email protected] with “Hidden History” as the subject.

What you can’t do, unless you already know about them, is imagine what life must have been like for the enslaved persons who helped build the mission and were bound to Thomas Johnson, the Methodist preacher and pro-slavery advocate who founded the school.

These enslaved persons aren’t mentioned in the 2015 video shown to visitors. Only one of the interpretive displays mentions them. By one account, it says, Johnson “owned at least six slaves at the mission,” with perhaps another 10 who were children of the enslaved. The display includes a reproduction of an 1856 bill of sale, from David Burge to Johnson, at Westport, Missouri, of an enslaved girl named Martha, of about 15 years, “sound in body and mind and a slave for life.”

The Kansas State Historical Society, which owns the site, doesn’t know what became of Martha or the other enslaved individuals, according to Patrick Zollner, director of cultural resources. The site administrator, Jennifer Laughlin, also said she did not know.

The North Building at Shawnee Indian Mission at Fairway, Kansas, built in 1845, was the school and dormitory for American Indian girls. It was part of a sprawling, 2,500-acre manual labor training school for American Indian children founded by Methodist minister Thomas Johnson, a slave holder who was a leading pro-slavery advocate during Bleeding Kansas — and for whom Johnson County is named. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

In the video shown to visitors, one commentator describes Johnson as a “well-intentioned man who became a controversial figure.” The controversy theme is repeated in the site’s exhibits. But that downplays the part Johnson played in the territorial madness of Bleeding Kansas, the violent period which preceded the Civil War. Johnson was not just an enslaver, but a leading pro-slavery advocate who used the mission to host the first territorial legislature, a pro-slavery “Bogus Legislature” that would have Kansas admitted as a slave state — and would have criminalized anyone who spoke publicly that slavery should be outlawed in the state.

The history is complicated, and frankly wicked, and it has plagued the way the state has interpreted the site since purchasing it in 1927. Newspapers at the time reported the acquisition, but many delicately alluded to its pro-slavery history. The Sunday Morning Herald of Fort Scott, in October 1927, was generally positive about the acquisition but mused about the “peculiar composition” of the first territorial legislature. Slavery had often been called the “peculiar institution” in the 1800s, a piece of polite verbiage employed to hide legions of wickedness.

History is a story we tell ourselves to make sense of the past. The facts do not change, but language and interpretation does. If they didn’t, we would always be mired in the mindset and morality of the past. The way I write about the history of enslaved persons and First Nations people has changed in the past year, as it has for most journalists. It is a good change, because I have come to agree that even by using the word “slave” in modern accounts to describe an individual, one is giving some legitimacy to the idea that one human being can own another.  A degree of discomfort in dealing with these matters is, I think, proper.

At no time since the Civil War have Americans been forced to face uncomfortable and even horrifying facts than in the past year. In addition to 2020’s summer of George Floyd, there have been discoveries this year at boarding schools in the United States and Canada of hundreds of unmarked graves of First Peoples children. The Shawnee Indian Mission is attempting to address the latter, at the urging of tribal leaders, with a ground-penetrating radar survey of the mission’s cemetery. The cemetery is separated by a few blocks from the historic site and is locally known as Johnson Cemetery, because that’s where Johnson and some of his family are buried.

The results of the cemetery survey are expected this month, Laughlin said.

Laughlin, who is employed by the city of Fairway — which partners with the state and a local historical society in operating the site — said there are no plans to change the video or the interpretive displays, because that would be up to the state.

The interior of the East Building at the Shawnee Indian Mission state historic site has several exhibits explaining life at the mission during the 1840s. This building, part of a 2,500-acre boarding school complex, was the site of a chapel and classrooms, and American Indian boys slept in the attic. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

The children at the Shawnee Indian Mission belonged to tribes that were removed from the eastern states. Under the Jacksonian removal policy, the Shawnee and Delaware nations, and many others, were forced west, beyond the states, to unorganized land that had been acquired through the Louisiana Purchase. This was supposed to be a “permanent Indian frontier” and it ran from Minnesota to Texas. It didn’t last, however, because after the Mexican-American War of the 1840s, and subsequent land cedes, the idea of Manifest Destiny took hold and the tribes were moved once again, many to Oklahoma.

But during the era of Jacksonian removal, the federal government paid religious organizations to establish schools on the frontier to teach Christianity and manual labor skills to American Indian children, and the Shawnee Indian Mission was among these. Johnson had come from Virginia, with stops in Missouri and Arkansas, and he first established his Methodist school in 1830 at Turner, Kansas, but moved it by 1839 to what is now Fairway, where it operated until 1862. At its peak, it boarded 150 children. Johnson was paid thousands of dollars over the years to run the school. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act replaced the Missouri Compromise, which had prohibited slavery in new states (except Missouri) above the line of latitude that is at the top of the current Texas panhandle. The Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed new territories to decide for themselves, which set the stage for Bleeding Kansas.

The Methodist Church split over the question of slavery, and Johnson went with the church’s southern faction.

The abolitionist frontier press was particularly tough on Johnson. “The labor (at the mission) is principally performed by slaves,” reported The Herald of Freedom, Wakarusa, in 1857. “The Rev. Thomas Johnson, who is the general superintendent and conductor of the establishment, has become a wealthy man and a slaveholder.”

Johnson did use some enslaved persons for work at the mission, according to historians, and allowed his political ambitions to undermine the tribes the mission served. “The history of the Shawnee Mission Labor School was a curious mixture of piety, profiteering and politics,” wrote historian Kevin J. Abing, in his 1995 dissertation at Marquette University, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Johnson was an advocate of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Abing said, which resulted in the eventual removal of the tribes from the area.

Even though he was a leading pro-slavery force, Johnson changed his allegiances­­ to the Union — conveniently enough — at the start of the Civil War. After handing over control of the school to his son, Alexander, Johnson moved to a large colonial-style mansion called Davenport House near Westport. He was shot to death by a group of men who came to his door the night of Jan. 2, 1865. Their motive was unknown.

The East Building at the Shawnee Indian Mission at Fairway, Kansas, was the site of the first territorial legislature, in 1855. Thomas Johnson, a Methodist minister who founded the mission, was an ardent pro-slavery advocate who hosted the assembly, known as the “Bogus Legislature,” which attempted to establish slavery in Kansas, criminalize helping fugitive slaves, and punish even advocating for abolition in Kansas. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

I contacted a half dozen individuals — politicians and community leaders — about the legacy of Johnson and the hidden history of the individuals he enslaved, but either did not receive answers to my queries or was referred elsewhere. Historians were more direct, and were sympathetic, but had little new information.

“Normally, we would recommend searching the census records,” Zollner, the state historical society’s cultural director, said in an email, “which you have already done, so I’m not sure where else to look.”

The 1855 territorial census, in handwritten script, lists six enslaved individuals in the Thomas Johnson household: Jackson Dempson, 40; Charlotte Dempson, 40; Joseph, no last name given, 21; Jane, no last name given, 21; and Ceasar and Cemantha, minor children.

The state historical society does have a mention of Jackson Dempson, in a memoir left by Johnson’s son, Alexander, and which is quoted by scholar and “Kansas History” managing editor Kristen Epps in her 2016 book, “Slavery on the Periphery.” Epps writes that Dempson was purchased at auction at Plum Creek, Missouri, and later hired out as a cook on Missouri River steamboats.

Epps said recently she, too, does not know what became of Dempson.

Kenyatta D. Berry, host of PBS’ “Genealogy Roadshow” and contributor to the New York Times’ 1619 Project, says it’s important for descendants of both enslavers and the enslaved to know their family histories. Slavery, Berry says, is America’s original sin and only by facing the truth do we advance as a nation. (Submitted)

In frustration, I asked my wife, Kim, to whom I should turn for wisdom about the challenges — both practical and moral — of researching those persons formerly enslaved by Johnson. She quickly suggested Kenyatta D. Berry, host of Genealogy Roadshow, contributor to the 1619 Project, and author of “The Family Tree Toolkit.”

Berry replied within the hour.

“These were human beings,” Berry told me. “Their story needs to be told and they need to be remembered in a way that they are not just listed in an estate schedule after a table or a chair. We need to understand our history so that we don’t repeat it.”

Berry had suggestions for researching the enslaved, including following up on Johnson’s known friends, associates and neighbors. The answer may be hiding in plain sight, in a census or probate record, in a stack of letters or a family Bible.

“It’s really important to share these stories and for people to reconcile with the fact that human beings were bought and sold every day,” Berry said. “It’s a tough thing to talk about, but it needs to be talked about, because in my opinion the foundation of what plagues us when it comes to racial issues comes down to slavery.”

It’s easy to dismiss someone if you think of them as less than human, she said.

“As someone who is descended from enslaved people, I have no shame in that, because I’m here because they survived,” Berry said. “For folks whose ancestors were enslavers, that’s just a part of history, and it’s better for them to discuss it than to hide it. Those documents that you have, that others may have, they relate to families that enslaved other people, but they will help us find our people.”

It is important when doing such research, Berry said, to understand the complexity of individuals. She said she feels that way every time she visits Monticello and considers the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, who did some great things but also enslaved people.

“It’s important to make people uncomfortable,” she said. “You don’t just tell the parts you want to hear. In learning this information, I’m not passing judgment on someone. I couldn’t go through the records of slave trading firms if I passed judgment on these folks, because that judgment leads to anger and frustration — and I feel that way sometimes — but when you’re doing this kind of research, you have to find the facts and let people make their own decisions.”

The Shawnee Indian Mission should find a way to talk about Johnson that addresses factually and fully the complexity, contrast, and contradictions of his legacy. The enslaved helped build the mission, but are excluded from their contribution to territorial Kansas history, or the prosperity that followed. The mission is located in a community, Fairway, that is 95% white, according to the 2010 census, and in a county that is among the 100 richest in America. The average new home price in Johnson County is $550,000.

Black residents in the Kansas City metro area, including on the Kansas side, remain “separate but unequal,” according to a 2019 study from the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, having just 73% the equality of whites.

The West Building is the oldest of the three buildings still standing at Shawnee Indian Mission state historic site, and was used in 1855-56 as offices for the first territorial legislature, known as the “Bogus Legislature” for its pro-slavery stance. Thomas Johnson, a Methodist minister who founded the mission, held at least seven enslaved persons during the 1850s, but the fates of these individuals is unknown to the historic site’s partners, including the Kansas State Historical Society. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

Standing on the broad north lawn of the Shawnee Indian Mission site, you can see beyond the Catholic high school next door to the tops of the trees beyond, about where the Santa Fe Trail ran, a half-mile away. The trail now runs through the private backyards of some of those expensive Johnson County homes.

The history of slavery at the site is noted, as is the pro-slavery territorial legislature, but consequences are more than a matter of place and date. What is missing is evidence of the lives of the enslaved. The mission was the first school in Kansas, and endured for more than a generation with a significant portion of its people in slavery. The children of the Shawnee and the Delaware and other nations suffered, no question. They weren’t even allowed to speak their native languages in school, only English. But the enslaved at the mission could not join in those lessons, and were forbidden by law from even learning to read or write.

Changing the name of Johnson County is impractical. Not only is it already on too many maps, legal documents, and postcards, it also wouldn’t change the history of slavery at the mission. But there should be something, a street or a park or a community center, named Dempson.

Or Martha. Charlotte, Joseph or Jane. Ceasar or Cemantha.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than 20 books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.