Opinion

This Kansas community holds itself accountable for racial terrorism, despite national furor

October 28, 2021 3:33 am

Salina community members fill glass jars memorializing Dana Adams, who was lynched there in 1893. More than 65 attended the even Oct. 24 outside the New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

For one Sunday afternoon, Salina, Kansas, was more courageous than the rest of the United States.

The country was seething with anger over the false threat of Critical Race Theory and teaching America’s troubled past in schools, all while grappling with violent policing and dog whistle politics. Rage erupted in school board meetings and throughout social media. But in the small city of Salina, more than 65 people gathered to honor a victim of racial terrorism, both mourning and accepting the painful truth.

That Sunday afternoon, the ice-white sky was streaked with gray and the fall breeze persistent. Those gathered in the parking lot of the New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church forged ahead, warmed by their common purpose. Back in 1893, a Black man named Dana Adams, a Black man who wouldn’t leave the Union Pacific train depot when a white man told him to, was lynched by a mob in Salina.

The Rev. Delores “Dee” Williamston welcomed the crowd on Oct. 24. She was one of three, along with Sandy Beverly and the Rev. Martha Murchison, behind the memorial efforts. The three teamed up for “The Dana Adams Project 1893” after a local memorial service for George Floyd.

“We kept asking questions, we kept looking for resources, we kept on and kept on and kept on, and that’s what brings us here today,” Williamston said.

In front of the crowd was a long, narrow table. Wide dishes of soil sat on top, next to glass jars bearing Adams’ name. The earth had been collected from the site of Adams’ lynching.

“This dust held the blood and violence which ended the life of one of your beloved,” Murchison said in her opening prayer. “Today as we gather up this dust of life, we also gather up the stories we have told of days gone by. And we gather up the stories we have not told. Today we come to tell a story we have been slow to tell.”

Sandy Beverly, one of the driving forces behind the memorial effort, talks to the crowd at the New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church parking lot on Oct. 24. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

 

‘Entire communities implicated’

This soil collection service brought together faith leaders and town institutions, representatives from the Equal Justice Initiative and a Kansas-raised columnist, all to listen, learn and commemorate this man. In some ways it resembled a service I attended in Lawrence two weeks before. The glass jars were filled with earth, and the crowd was invited to both participate and ponder on justice so long denied.

But in other ways this service was different. Michaela Clark and Keiana West were on hand, for instance. Both are justice fellows at the Montgomery, Alabama-based initiative, and they gave the crowd a survey of its work.

At one point, Clark pulled back to give the wide-angle view of the scourge of racial terrorism that spread over the United States after the Civil War.

“We trace this history from Reconstruction to this period we identify as the era of racial terror lynching, from 1865 to 1950, in which over 4,000 Black men, women and children were lynched,” she said. “And these weren’t just the acts of a few vigilantes, but rather entire communities implicated in this violence.”

After the event, West noted that towns and cities — like Salina — enabled lynchings. These slayings were most assuredly not the work of a few bad apples. The terrorism required assent from multiple levels of power.

“They’re often public spectacle lynchings, and that the whole community was really complicit in it,” she said. “Whether law enforcement or city governments, senators, (they) were often parts of mobs. Even if they weren’t part of the mob, they didn’t protect Black people who were lynched, and they didn’t pursue or investigate lynchings and hold white mobs accountable.”

Michaela Clark and Keiana West, justice fellows at the Equal Justice Initiative, were on hand to provide context. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

 

‘Take care of a family member’

Yet if communities can bring lasting shame on themselves, they can also acknowledge that past and learn its lessons. You could tell this was a smaller town than Lawrence, one that prides itself on friendships and connections. I talked to a member of the crowd about my internship at the Salina newspaper two decades earlier, and we traded names of common acquaintances.

To this crowd, Dana Adams was no stranger.

They may have only learned his story recently, or they may have read it on a handout for the first time that day. But he was from Salina. He was their responsibility. Was there soul searching? Of course. But what I heard, saw and felt was a desire to make things right for this young man, even with nearly 130 years gone.

Williamston told the crowd about her trips to Gypsum Hill Cemetery, where a headstone for Adams had been placed on Juneteenth 2009.

“I would always stop and say, ‘We’re not done with you, Dana,’ ” she said. “ ‘You’re going to be remembered. We have not forgotten.’ His tombstone says: ‘Dana Adams, lynched by mob.’ We’re not done. We’re not done. And I also go, you know how you take care of a family member, I go over and I wipe off the stone to make sure it’s cared for.”

Now filled with soil, the jars bearing Adams’ name will go to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum as part of the Community Remembrance Project, as well as the Kansas African American Museum in Wichita and other state museums.

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‘Educate future Kansans’

As I drove back to Lawrence that Sunday afternoon, one point nagged at me. Too many of us are willing to give our ancestors a free pass. We imagine that racism and violence were a given in earlier decades and centuries. No one could have known these things were wrong, we reassure ourselves. They wouldn’t have done them otherwise.

That’s a self-deceiving lie. Racism and racist violence have always been shameful.

They were wrong in 1894, when Adams’ father sued the city of Salina for $5,000 in damages. He received a whole $2 in compensation. They are wrong now.

They were wrong two weeks ago, when I made the same point in my column about the Lawrence service. But watching otherwise rational Kansans defend keeping a Klan leader’s name on a high school this week makes it clear we can’t repeat this lesson often enough. Watching the nation convulse over the act of teaching our country’s sometimes-shameful past makes it clear that we all should educate ourselves.

On this afternoon, in this place, Salina led the way.

After the event, Murchison said, organizers took Clark and West to the lynching site and then the cemetery. They placed flowers from the service on Adams’ grave. The coalition hopes to put a historic marker memorializing the lynching in place next year, on Juneteenth.

“We are so grateful for the support of our community which helped make (Sunday) possible,” she said. “We shared stories about the people who helped, talked about Salina and Kansas history and our hope to educate future Kansans about our history.

“Overall, our mood was one of gratitude.”

After the ceremony Oct. 24, organizers took flowers from the event and placed them on Dana Adams’ headstone in Gypsum Hill Cemetery. (Martha Murchison)

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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.

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