Kansas was far from Dixie, but lynching of Black people tells story of white vigilante terrorism

Author documents 56 mob-rule hangings in Kansas from 1861 to 1927

By: - June 10, 2022 11:09 am
The Community Remembrance Project, a group of organizations in Douglas County working to honor three Black men lynched from the Kansas River bridge in 1882, collected soil from the site in 2021. On Friday, a marker will be dedicated to George Robertson, Isaac King and Pete Vinegar. (Equal Justice Initiative/Douglas County Community Remembrance Project)

The Community Remembrance Project, a group of organizations in Douglas County working to honor three Black men lynched from the Kansas River bridge in 1882, collected soil from the site in 2021. On Friday, a marker will be dedicated to George Robertson, Isaac King and Pete Vinegar. (Equal Justice Initiative/Douglas County Community Remembrance Project)

LAWRENCE — Author Brent Campney said the reputation of Lawrence as a safe haven for Black people after the Civil War wasn’t fully earned.

Campney, professor of history at University of Texas-Rio Grand Valley and author of “This is Not Dixie: Racist Violence in Kansas,” said a piece of evidence was the June 10, 1882, lynching of Pete Vinegar, Isaac King and George Robertson from the Kansas River bridge.

He said a group of about 40 white people ransacking the local jail and marched the men to the nearby river. Each had been arrested and jailed on suspicion of murder after a white man was found drowned. The community’s sense of justice avoided the judicial system. Confirmed guilt or innocence didn’t matter.

“Doesn’t mean everybody supported it, but nobody arrested anybody. Nobody was punished for the crimes,” said Campney, who argued a mythology developed in Lawrence that the worst acts of racism occurred elsewhere. “There was this belief among a lot of people who probably should have known better that everything was fine.”

Campney was invited to speak about lynching, mob action and racism’s other forms of public violence for an online presentation Thursday hosted by the Lawrence Public Library.

His talk served to precede the 7 p.m. Friday dedication of a historical marker next to Lawrence’s City Hall in honor of Vinegar, King and Robertson. In conjunction with the 140th anniversary of their murders, the Douglas County Community Remembrance Project will show the documentary “Then Three Were Gone” on Saturday afternoon at Watkins Museum of History in Lawrence.

Campney said the post-Civil War surge in lynching of Blacks in Kansas was initiated promptly in 1865 with the slaying of three men in rural Douglas County and peaked with nine executions in spring 1867 at incidents in Fort Scott and Dickerson, Wyandotte and Shawnee counties.

“Really terrible. Sort of unprecedented violence in those first two years after the Civil War,” he said.

Campney said his research had confirmed 56 lynchings in 41 incidents in Kansas from 1861 to 1927, but he’s convinced others occurred but weren’t sufficiently documented in news reports.

“Every single incident of African-Americas they lynched in Kansas, they were demonstrably innocent of the crime for which they were accused,” he said.

He said Black people were targeted by white mobs intent on imposing lethal violence against individuals to reinforce white supremacy and instill fear among Blacks in the community. Lynching of white people occurred in Kansas, he said, but those cases differed because they were considered an indictment of individuals rather than an entire race.

Skeptics of concern about Kansas lynchings have pointed to the much higher numbers in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and other southern states, but Campney said the lower figure for Kansas shouldn’t be dismissed. The message to Blacks in that era was that they could be subjected to informal justice of any kind and law enforcement officers wouldn’t put their life on the line to oppose white majority rule, he said.

Campney documented other forms of repression supported by white Kansans, including race riots, police violence, homicide, rape, property damage, mobbing or nonlethal lynching, and enforcement of sundowner edicts to keep Blacks out of certain cities and towns. He relied on newspaper accounts as a key source of evidence.

He said a dispute at an 1895 baseball game in Garnett between Black and white teams led to the bludgeoning death of a Black man. The killer was placed on trial, but acquitted. In 1869, he said, whites forced all Black residents of Hays to move out of town. He said Hoisington and Liberal aggressively enforced sundowner policies. Cities large and small had profound racial strife in Kansas, he said.

Campney recalled that his first lesson in American history after moving from Canada to Detroit as a teenager was about the abolitionist John Brown, who operated in Kansas.

Brown came to prominence while opposing establishment of Kansas as a slave state, but was executed in 1859 after inspiring an attempted slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, prior to the Civil War.

Some white community leaders in Kansas pushed back against lynch mobs after the Civil War, he said, because the publicity wasn’t good for business in their cities and towns. Blacks hid fugitives from mobs and worked to oppose violent racists by influencing public opinion and seeking action by the courts.

“There are a lot of Black heroes,” Campney said. “There are very few white heroes.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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