Kansas students stand up to hate, bigotry in push to replace Klan leader’s name

By: - October 25, 2021 9:46 am

Kevinh Nguyen and Emma Simpson, seniors at Seaman High School north of Topeka, are among students speaking up in favor of renaming the public school district following the revelation that the namesake was a Ku Klux Klan leader. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kevinh Nguyen thinks of the Seaman public school district as a “gentrified apartment complex.”

The son of immigrants from Vietnam and senior at the high school just north of Topeka is among students who want to rename the district, following the revelation that its namesake was a Ku Klux Klan leader in the 1920s. It “hurts my heart,” he says in a recording of the Kansas Reflector podcast, to think about the Asian students who will follow him.

Fred Seaman’s name exclusively represents a white community, Nguyen said.

“It feels like the foundation to my education is always tainted, or that when I talk to students, they have this card over me that their district is built based upon that white students will have always an advantage over minority students, that whenever we ever we try to fight back, they always can rely on the Fred Seaman name,” Nguyen said.

Student journalists at Seaman High School produced stunning research last year that confirmed longstanding rumors about Seaman’s affiliation with the most notorious of violent, racist hate groups. Newspaper articles referred to Seaman as an “exalted cyclops.” His Klan affiliation had limited his political ambitions.

Now, community members outraged by Critical Race Theory and cancel culture have fixated their anger on preserving the district’s name. Strong opinions on the subject are evident in campaigns for school board seats, a Facebook group flooded with bigotry and heated school board meetings where attendees jeer concerned teenagers.

Students who prefer to sever ties with a known Klan leader have been personally attacked by adults in Facebook comments for sharing their views. Online slurs and hate spill over into high school hallways and classrooms.

Emma Simpson, a Seaman High School senior who joined Nguyen in the podcast discussion, said the decision to advocate for changing the school’s name is “about my morals.” As a white student, she could speak up for what’s right or be a bystander.

“This is a big deal because I think it’s about protecting our students,” Simpson said. “I think when you bring things like racism and homophobia and bigotry to light, it brings out more people who all of a sudden feel the need that they can speak up with hate. And a lot of my friends are people of color, and I feel like if I didn’t speak out, I wouldn’t be doing my job as their friend.”

Her poem “When Hate Enters the School” explores the way insults transform the focus of school life from education to survival. It includes these lines:

Classrooms become cemeteries filled with lost dreams.

Lockers deteriorate into coffins labeled with children’s names.

Names attached to faces that used to smile and look forward to the upcoming school day.

Nguyen and Simpson have promoted protests and helped circulate a petition in favor of the name change. Nguyen serves on an equity council with administrators, teachers and students to review school policies. He has spoken to the school board about his desire to change the name.

Their advocacy has provided an invaluable lesson in civics. But they struggle to understand the harsh criticism from community members. To the students, it seems like a simple request: They don’t want to be identified by a Klan leader.

“It’s like that sense of ownership that they own this community, and that they don’t want to lose this sense of identity in their community,” Nguyen said.

He doesn’t have much sympathy for community members who draw their identity from their high school’s name: “I’m not joking you: They’re concerned about the name on the back of their letterman jacket. And they said, ‘How are we going to replace the word ‘Seaman’ on the back of it?’

The debate stems from the October 2020 publication in the high school student newspaper of a story by then-seniors Tristan Fangman and Madeline Gearhart, who found evidence of Fred Seaman’s racist past in newspaper reports from Topeka, Atchison, Hutchinson and Kansas City that identified Seaman as a well-known Klan leader.

Gearhart also contributed to a story published by the Topeka Capital-Journal in February 2021 that provided additional historical insight. Seaman was born and raised in Ohio and held various positions in Kansas schools before moving to Topeka in 1916. He helped secure financing to build a school north of town, and became the high school’s first principal when it opened in 1920. He left in 1931 to be the principal of Onaga High School and died in 1948 in Arkansas at the age of 81.

Students responded by pressuring school leaders to change the name. That led to the creation of the Fight For USD 345 Kids private Facebook group, uniting community members who oppose changing the district’s name, teaching Critical Race Theory, or requiring students to wear a facemask at school.

“We want our schools focused on academics!” the page description says. “Leave the moral teaching to the parents!”

Inside the private group, community members speak out against “cancel culture” in rambling comments filled with grammatical errors and name-calling.

“Most of the hate and the backlash that we have received from other community members across the board has been on Facebook, just absolute negativity directed towards students and teachers,” Simpson said. “We’ve had teachers who have been questioned and attacked, their family members who have been threatened. It’s wild to me.”

Kansas Reflector obtained screenshots of some of the offensive comments.

Dalene Stadler: “Democrats solicist Marxist indoctrinated full of bs brats!!!!..who gives a s*** about you’re asinine documents…how about we concentrate on teaching our young about history.,the love for country ,respect for our flag ..Nd teach them racism is a woke excuse for all your stupid temper tantrums.”

Jeana White: “Don’t change the name. My 1968 Class had a black student as our class President .popular too.”

Brent Dorsey: “The only way it’s possible to have ‘equality of outcomes’ is to rob from one and give to another and how is that equality.”

David McMillin: “The gun show is in September…. There is a shooting range in Topeka….. Kansas is a conceal and carry state…. DO NOT BOW DOWN TO THE LIBERAL DEEP STATE……”

Brett Bitner: “WE, as the electorate, need to start jerking to leash. So far, the Board and politicians in general are not feeling the pain. They think they only jerk they’ll feel is not being re-elected; and they think they’ve got that sewn up. We need to show them there is other pain we can inflict. Time to get serious.”

Chris Travis and Donna McGinty are running for school board seats with platforms opposed to changing the district name.

Travis included this explanation on his candidate page on Facebook: “I am done standing on the sidelines watching our district representatives make bad decision that negatively affect my children, nieces, nephews, and their classmates with forced masking, BLM, critical race theory, racial equity, extra perks for the vaccinated, and other frivolous spending of taxpayer’s dollars that have no place in our district.”

In a video posted to her campaign page on Aug. 24, McGinty claimed she hadn’t visited with a single person who wants to change the name.

“If they push this through, this cancel culture at the local level, that will just be the start, be assured. So be a voice. Be a loud voice,” McGinty said.

Nguyen called it “cheap politicking.”

“Honestly, it sickens me, but you know, that’s just politics,” Nguyen said. “It is what it is.”

Simpson expressed concern for the prospect that these candidates could soon be in a position to determine policies that affect students’ lives.

“We want to care for our students,” Simpson said. “We want them to feel loved and protected. And we want that community feel. We don’t want racism, hate, bigotry. We don’t want our students to come to school fearing for their lives, jumping over those hurdles to get to their classrooms for them to be trapped in a box with nowhere to go.”

In the Facebook group comments, several people said students who want to change the district’s name are troublemakers. Connie Bailey called them “little jealous brats.”

Nguyen is leaning into the idea of creating “good trouble.”

“You can’t have change without struggle,” Nguyen said. “And then if you don’t struggle, you’re not going to have any change. So bet it, you know? It’s always that constant cycle where the youngers want to have something new and the olders don’t want to change.”

Simpson had to get used to the troublemaker label.

“We’re great kids,” she said. “We’re respectful, and we’re kind and we have really good grades, and we’re well-respected. Except all of a sudden when we’re starting to step out that door and speak out.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.