The Klan’s racist legacy taints Seaman schools. Students have set an example for us to follow.

October 26, 2021 3:33 am

Members of the Ku Klux Klan carry a flag at a gathering in the 1920s. (KansasMemory.org/Kansas State Historical Society)

A quick piece of advice to those in the Seaman School District: Supporting a known Ku Klux Klan leader isn’t a good look. And attacking students who want to change their district and school name to something less racist?

That’s downright vile.

Fred Seaman, who founded Seaman High School and was its principal from 1920 to 1931, was also a big name in the Topeka chapter of the Klan. His pursuit of statewide office likely fell short because of that affiliation. None of us should feel ashamed to say his membership in the notoriously racist white supremacist organization was bad. Regardless of what he may have done to serve his community, his name should not appear on a modern school building serving students and families of all races, ethnicities and religious backgrounds.

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)

The two Seaman students interviewed by Kansas Reflector editor in chief Sherman Smith for Monday’s podcast make the case for changing the name clear. Kevinh Nguyen and Emma Simpson are driven by the moral imperative of improving the world around them for their friends, classmates and future generations.

“This is a big deal because I think it’s about protecting our students,” Simpson said.

One of adults’ favorite pastimes is to find fault with teens. They’re addicted to their phones and video games, we grumble. They’re not civically engaged and don’t know anything about history or government, we complain, as though we didn’t watch marathons of “The Real World” and tend to our Tamagotchi.

Nguyen and Simpson are more than engaged. They’re putting their civics lessons to work in the real world. The student journalists who uncovered Fred Seaman’s racist past a year ago are likewise tenacious investigators who served their school community with integrity.

“Just participating in our events and our name change today, I know I have the tools equipped to do whatever I need to do in the future,” Nguyen said.

Students across Kansas should be encouraged to follow their example. Perhaps other school names need investigating. Perhaps the Native Americans who lived here first have special claims to school land. Who knows what inquisitive young minds might uncover?

If adults were at all serious about their civic-minded complaints, these teens’ work would have been welcomed with open arms and praise. Adults and fellow students would have rushed not only to change the tainted name of school and district, but also to create a “responsive and caring culture” where every student feels worthwhile and valued.

Instead, a torrent of hatred and venom has flowed.

In March, Seaman High School students organized a demonstration against its name.
(Natalie Nixon)

Adults have vented in private Facebook groups. School board candidates are running on platforms supporting the name of an “exalted cyclops” in the Klan. This all happens to coincide with a nationwide attempt by conservative forces to take over nonpartisan school boards after a year filled with manufactured anger over closings and mask mandates.

“Based on what I’ve witnessed at the school, I know that if I were to get interracially married, and if I were to have kids that I would not want them going to Seaman High School based on the bullying that I’ve witnessed,” Simpson said. “I wouldn’t feel safe with my kids there.”

How proud Seaman High School and Seaman School District officials must be to hear that. While the district has tackled the issue forthrightly, toxic grownups have given teens a living, breathing, corrosive example of present-day racism.

Those of us who write and follow current events for a living want to believe that people are more than their most problematic beliefs. We put our faith in nuance and subtle shading.

But Fred Seaman was no Thomas Jefferson or even Robert Byrd. If he ever publicly atoned for his membership in the Klan, we have no record of it. So we should be willing to say, without hesitation, that Seaman held shameful and racist beliefs that strike at the core of our country’s founding ideals. The district should be glad to be rid of his name.

What’s more, the adults among us who accept and defend the name of a known Klan leader are acting in a shameful and racist way. Tradition does not erase hatred. The teens of today know that, and they’re showing us a better way.

“If you come at everything with an open mind, and you’re willing to listen, and you’re willing to learn and kind of go that extra mile to really understand what it is you’re fighting for, that’s gonna get you a lot farther than if you’re just listening to what mommy and daddy are saying,” Simpson said.

If you’re defending the Ku Klux Klan, in 2021, you’re not winning.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.