Where hard conversations happen: Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site

I have spent three months trying figure out how to write about the amazing Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. Every single time I sit down to try to compose a narrative I start looking through the photos I shot. And each time I get to the picture of the hallway I fell my heart clench.

Every.

Single.

Time.

What you can’t tell in this photograph is the fact that these walls are actually screens playing videos, and you are experiencing what it was like to be a person of color trying to walk through a crowd of people screaming horrible things at you because you want to go to school.

Because there is sound. Because this is real footage of real people screaming horrible things and throwing rocks while young people were trying to walk to school.

The historic site calls it the Hall of Courage, and I can’t imagine the courage it took to walk through this real crowd. Because I wanted to hide from the videos.

 


The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site is housed in what was once the old all-black Monroe School. Out front, there is a photo of Monroe student Linda Brown, the namesake for the Brown v. Board Supreme Court case.

Built in 1927, Monroe Elementary served Topeka’s black community.

The national historic site does more than recount the story of the court case. It gives the court case context and engages visitors to understand how this monumental court decision fit into the larger story of equality.

Hands-on exhibits let visitors grapple with hard decisions.

Exhibits guide visitors through the turmoil experienced by most people of color. Photos, videos, sounds, and hands-on learning tools help visitors understand how conflicted people were about how to improve educational opportunities.

Do we want desegregated schools, or do we want better schools?

Do we sue?

Do we strike?

Is putting up a fight worth putting ourselves in danger?

One of the four dolls used in Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s famous “doll test” is on display at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. During the 1940s, four of these dolls–identical except for color–were shown to young children, who were asked to identify the dolls’ color and which doll they preferred. The majority of children preferred the white doll, a sign that even children under the age of 7 were instilled with the notion of inferiority caused by prejudice and segregation.

Other exhibits examine segregation and prejudice beyond the educational experience.  I did not know that there were times when immigrants from Ireland and Southern and Eastern Europe weren’t considered “white” until they were properly “Americanized” through the public school system.

Still more exhibits demonstrated how segregation penetrated every aspect of life. Need to use the bathroom? Need somewhere to sleep? Are you hungry? Your color will determine your options–if you have any.

You have ten seconds to figure out which of these activities were segregated somewhere in the U.S. Hint: All of them.

There are some quirks to the museum. Timelines are often text-heavy and sometimes don’t flow in the direction you expect them to, but make time to look at them. A few of the technology tools didn’t work as well as they should (a common malady in tech-heavy museums). However, read and explore as much as you can, because the content is incredibly thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Because I was born after Brown V. Board, it takes museums like this and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis to remind me how very recent and fragile these strides toward equality really are. I am in awe of the bravery and persistence and resilience of every single person who put themselves out there to fight for their rights.

And as much as I hated to face those angry people in the Hall of Courage, part of me wishes I could reach through the space and time and ask, “Do you still think you were in the right?”

This sign greets visitors entering the museum.

The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site is open year around. Admission is free and it is a kid-friendly site that welcomes field trips. Their staff members are incredibly kind and interested in helping you have a meaningful visit.

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How museum experiences can help you have tough conversations about family history

It doesn’t matter if you’re a historian, a genealogist, or an armchair history buff: when it comes to digging into your own family’s history, all researchers eventually slam headfirst into the Wall of Family Silence.

The Wall of Family Silence is that almost impenetrable barrier our own family members put up when we start asking questions about the experiences of our own people. And that wall–as formidable as any concreted, razor-wired, electrified barrier–will shut you down when you ask questions.

“I really don’t want to talk about it.”

“Oh, there’s really nothing to tell. My life isn’t that interesting.”

“It’s not your business.”

“I don’t remember.”

The Wall of Family Silence.


Years ago, a professor acquaintance and I were discussing the challenges of gathering family stories from immigrant family members.

“I just don’t know much about what life was like for my grandparents or great-grandparents,” I remember saying.

“You have to remember,” this acquaintance said, “that most of our immigrant ancestors didn’t give up everything they had because life was good and they were happy. Some of those memories are hard to talk about.”

The Wall of Family Silence.


Fast forward to 15 years later, when I am working in a local history museum and we’re developing an exhibit on World War I.

Our museum’s exhibit featured real helmets and uniforms visitors could try on. That steel helmet is even heavier than it looks.

I was visiting my maternal grandparents while this exhibit was going up, and I was telling them about how small the uniforms were, and how we learned many men from our county were rejected from service because they were malnourished.

Now, my grandparents weren’t old enough to experience the Great War. But they were around for the drawn-out aftermath and World War II, and they were experiencing it from present-day Croatia.

I was telling them about all of this to pass the time, to tell them about what I’m doing. But what I didn’t know is that telling them about my experience with the World War I exhibit was like leaning a ladder over the Wall of Family Silence.

My grandparents began to tell me stories about what it was like for them to grow up in a country in the middle of the mess. They told me about how it impacted their education, their opportunities, and the potential dangers. They told me about my paternal grandmother’s husband, who was tortured to death.

They told me a lot of things I had never heard before.

They never saw the exhibit. But my talking about the hard things our local people experienced during World War I was like giving my grandparents permission to talk about the hard things they experienced before and during World War II.

 


This summer, we installed an exhibit on the Home Front experience during World War II. I was telling my dad about it over dinner one evening.

“There was a POW camp in Ottawa,” I said. “A lot of those guys worked on farms and built good relationships with people in Franklin County.”

“My grandfather was a POW during World War I,” my dad said. “He and my uncle and a bunch of guys from our village were there with Tito. But Tito was just another guy back then, not the president of Yugoslavia.”

Another rope tossed over the Wall of Family Silence.


The ordinary and extraordinary experiences of our ancestors shaped the people who shaped us. All of our families have stories to tell. Some of those stories are hard to tell, and some of those memories are buried deep. Sometimes it’s hard to get family members to open up about their lives.

And that’s where a museum or historic site can be a magical place. Artifacts, photographs, exhibits, buildings–they stir memories. They acknowledge those personal stories are important. They create context.

They offer a safe conduit for a parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle to say,

“I remember this.”

“When I was a little kid…”

“This happened to me, too.”

“My grandmother once told me about the time when…”

“Did you know that when your dad was a little boy, he…”

Any museum might have an artifact or exhibit that will create a spontaneous account of family history. There are also many Kansas museums that delve into tougher topics. Here are a few to consider:

Miners Hall Museum, Franklin, Kansas

This museum focuses on the history of coal mining, immigrant families, and the rights of laborers. I visited a few years ago and even though my own family never lived in southeast Kansas, I could see elements of my family in their stories.

Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, Topeka, Kansas

When you walk in the front doors, you’ll see a sign that says, “Where Hard Conversations Happen.” This site looks at both the history of school desegregation and the fight for equality. I keep trying to blog about my experiences there, but I realize I’m still processing my visit, which was emotional and inspiring.

Strawberry Hill Museum, Kansas City, Kansas

Housed in a former church-run orphanage, this museum explores the history of the orphanage (created to care for children orphaned during the 1918 flu epidemic) and the history of the immigrant communities in the Kansas City area.

POW Camp Concordia Museum, Concordia, Kansas

Once a POW camp for German prisoners captured during WWII, this camp is an opportunity to understand a different side of the war experience. It’s on my list of places to visit.

Pawnee Indian Museum, Republic County, Kansas

This museum offers the story of the lives of the Pawnee. It’s an opportunity to learn how the Pawnee lived and how settlers of European descent altered their futures. It is one of my favorite Kansas museums.

Share your story! What museum or historic site experiences inspired your family members to share personal history?

‘Bender’ captures the surreal mystery of Kansas’ family of serial killers

Kansas true crime fans: it has finally happened. “Bender,” a movie about the Bloody Benders, is finally out.

Imagine if you were on a long and lonely trail in Eastern Kansas in the 1870s. You’re hungry, you’re tired, you’re alone, and maybe you haven’t seen another human being for days. And then you come upon a little inn along the trail and your weary self stops for some food and rest and company.

And while you’re waiting for your supper, your head is bashed in and no one ever hears from you again.

That’s the story of victims of the Bloody Benders, a family of serial killers that picked off one (usually male) guest after another, sacked their loot, then buried them in the inn’s Labette County, Kansas, garden.

And because it was the open prairie and fraught with danger, when a lone stranger went missing, his disappearance often went unnoticed.

Filmmakers John Alexander and J.C. Guest’s account of the story picks up at what turns out to be the beginning of the end for the Benders, when the disappearance of a father and daughter (murdered by the Benders) sent Dr. William York looking for them–a doctor whose family knew where he was and when he was expected to arrive. When Dr. York disappeared, a search was launched.

What happens to the Benders is never fully resolved.

When the vigilante search party arrived at the Bender Inn, what they found was an empty building and a garden full of bodies. The Benders, though, were long gone.

What the filmmakers do very well is capture the atmosphere of Kansas in 1873. Wide expanses of prairie grasses are both beautiful and anxiety-inducing. The horses plod along down the hint of a trail. Everything–and I mean everything–feels agonizingly far away. The characters never seemed more alone than when they came across a stranger on the trail.

“Bender” does take a few liberties with the story–Kate Bender’s brother was portrayed as a child instead of an adult–but it mostly stays true to the spirit of the Benders’ story. The historical film makes no excuses and offers no explanations. That, perhaps, is why the film is so haunting and still resonates with us today.

Any of us could find ourselves heading down the road, seeking shelter, only to knock on the wrong door.

More information:

Kansas film about notorious Bender family serial killers to make its debut Tuesday (Topeka Capital-Journal)

The Bloody Benders of Labette County (Legends of America)

Images of artifacts related to the Bloody Benders (Kansas Historical Society)

Smithsonian Water/Ways exhibit is now traveling Kansas #thinkwater

None of us can live without water, and a new traveling Smithsonian Institution exhibit examines the role that water plays in our lives. Water/Ways is part of Museum on Main Street, a program that brings big topics to smaller towns all over the United States.

The Smithsonian Institution’s traveling Water/Ways exhibit is as beautiful as it is informative.

Water/Ways is currently traveling through Kansas, Alabama, Tennessee and Virginia. It’s a beautiful hands-on exhibit that looks at all of the ways we need, use, and interact with water. Water decides where we live, what we grow, and even our recreation and spiritual activities. Too much or too little water can be devastating.

Learn things you might not have known about water. Endorheic watersheds are made of water that drains to a basin instead of a river or the ocean.

In Kansas, we’re constantly thinking about water. We get too much rain. We don’t get enough. Our rivers are up. Our water supply is low. Our water mains break. Our reservoirs silt up. Zebra mussels threaten our water towers. We worry we’ll deplete our aquifers.

The rest of the world is having conversations about these things. too.

This display helps you understand how much water it takes to produce everyday things, like apples, blue jeans, and cars.

The Water/Ways exhibit looks at where we find water on earth and how human activity impacts our water resources. Learn how much water it takes to grow an apple, built a car, or produce a pair of blue jeans. Try your hand at developing good water policies that protect our water supply while supporting cities AND agriculture. [Hint: It’s super hard.] Discover the water challenges faced by people, plants, and animals around the globe, and how living things have adapted to them.

Try your hand at creating public policy that will both protect the water supply AND meet water demands.

It’s a small but powerful exhibit.

In addition to the traveling Water/Ways exhibit, the Kansas Humanities Council has also awarded grants to numerous sites around the state to tell their own water story. [Disclaimer: The Old Depot Museum, where I work, received one of these grants!] The local stories are amazing and demonstrate how our own state can have very diverse water experiences.

The Smithsonian exhibit is on display at the Eudora Community Museum through August 6. If you can’t make it to Eudora in time, you can catch the exhibit in other Kansas locations through 2018.

There are also three local stories being told during the summer of 2017:

At the Mercy of the Kaw: Eudora’s Relationship with Water,” the story of Eudora’s relationship with the Kansas River (Eudora Community Museum, Eudora, Kansas)

Crossings: Getting Over, Around, and Through Water in Franklin County,” the story of the love/hate relationship between Franklin County and the Marais des Cygnes River (Old Depot Museum, Ottawa, Kansas)

Dam, That Took a Long Time,” the story of the construction of Wyandotte County Lake and Dam (Mr. and Mrs. F.L. Schlagle Library and Environmental Learning Center, Kansas City, Kansas)

Upcoming local stories look at floods, failed canals, desegregating swimming pools, and artesian wells.

This is a powerful traveling exhibit and worth seeking out before it leaves the state.

Mushroom Rock State Park

During last year’s trip through Northwest and North Central Kansas, we found ourselves detouring off of I-70 west of Salina to find Mushroom Rock State Park, a curious piece of Kansas geology and one of the Kansas Sampler Foundations 8 Wonders of Kansas Geography.

My husband, Jim, stands next to the most famous mushroom rock.

Much of Kansas was once covered in a sea, and that sea once had a sandy beach. When that sand was glued together with calcium carbonate, it created a hard formation called a concretion. The loose sand around concretions eventually erode away, but the hard lumps of glued-together sand remain, leaving behind unusual natural sculptures distinguished enough to make visitors stop and puzzle over them–large rock formations sprouting out of the Kansas prairie like, well, mushrooms.

Hence, Mushroom Rock State Park in the Smoky Hills of Kansas.

The concretions at this park have been getting visitors for a long time. The sands within them, which are part of the Dakota Formation, are left over from the beaches of the Cretaceous Period, which was 144 to 66 million years ago. Indians, explorers, trail riders, emigrant settlers–many people have stopped by to pay their respects to the mushroom rocks. Ellsworth County Historical Society recognized their importance and built a road to see them, and in 1965, Mushroom Rock became a state park.

The formations’ ability to fascinate visitors for centuries is documented by historic vandalism.

This free park is small–only 5 acres–and the concretions are accessible on foot, though the footpaths are narrow in places and were extremely muddy and slippery the day we visited. The formations are fascinating and beautiful, and I’m particularly drawn to the idea of connecting with centuries of visitors who stood in the same spots, staring at the same rock formations. It’s a quick, kid-friendly stop, too.

Pulpit Rock formation, which, incidentally, is on the opposite end of the park from Devil’s Oven formation.

The state website includes a downloadable guide, and because we found cellphone service to be spotty in the area, it is helpful to download it ahead of time. Although they’ll be fun to visit at any time, the park was especially beautiful in late May, when wildflowers are blooming all around the park.

Mmmmm Food: Eating in Kansas

During last year’s whirlwind tour of North Central and Northwest Kansas, we found some amazing food–the kind of amazing food that you think about and want long after you’ve been there. Today I found myself thinking about a chicken house we loved in Hays and trying to rationalize whether it made sense to drive almost four hours to get there just for dinner, so I thought I’d blog about three iconic Kansas eateries worthy of a stop.

Say Cheese!

Alma Creamery

Alma Creamery sits on the edge of Alma, the “City of Native Stone” in the Flint Hills that is lovely enough to explore just because it’s a neat little town. Alma’s cheese isn’t a secret–when I posted on facebook that we were pulling into the parking lot, many professed their love for this Kansas-made cheese and maybe just a little envy that we were visiting the Mother Ship.

Alma CheeseLocally made Cheddar, Colby, Colby Jack, Pepper Cheddar (my favorite Alma cheese!) line the shelves, and many of them come in snackable curds, which we snacked on for the rest of our trip. They also carry other Kansas-made products. And did I mention you can sample the cheese right there in the store?

Cozy InnA Cozy Run

You know it’s going to be an adventure when you post that you’re stopping at Cozy Inn in Salina and your friends are both expressing envy and giving you advice on how to minimize the onion smell in your car.

These aromatic burgers are packed with flavor, much of which involves onions. Lots of onions. I like onions. But even though we sat in the truck with the windows down (it was too rainy to sit out at the tables that day), the onions traveled with us for the next two days.

I liked those little burgers. Jim loved them. I have a feeling arguments over Cozy Inn Burgers are the kind of thing that end marriages. But everyone should try them at least once. Also, bonus points for the fabulous signage.

The Chickenette

I know I’m going to start a food war here–people are very particular about their fried chicken–but I’m just going come right out and say it: Al’s Chickenette in Hays had some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had.

It was the kind of food where neither Jim nor I could speak, because the experience was about the miracle of what was on our plates. Truly fabulous food, the kind you find yourself thinking about and worrying, just a little, about whether or not you can ever again score such a perfect meal.

Al's Chickenette in Hays, KansasBonus: another fabulous iconic mid-20th Century sign, complete with blinky lights.

All three of these stops had great food. But just as important is the fact that they had great service. If you find yourself wandering by, make a stop.

A Note About Food Allergies

Food allergies can limit my culinary adventures. All three of these locations were wonderful about answering my questions so that I felt confident in what I was eating. What’s more, all three of these places make their food on-site, which means they know what they’re preparing. If you or someone traveling with you has food allergies, these are places who will give you an honest answer about what’s in their food.

 

How a pair of Topekans became Public Enemies Nos. 1 and 2

Despite spending the better part of the past decade with my ear to the ground, listening for stories about Kansas’ most interesting crimes and criminals,  Ben and Stella Dickson–two bank robbers who would eventually make the FBI’s Public Enemies list–never blipped on my radar.

At least, not until this year, when I spotted Matthew Cecil’s The Ballad of Ben and Stella Mae: Great Plains Outlaws Who Became FBI Public Enemies Nos. 1 and 2 listed among the University Press of Kansas’ new releases.

Author Matthew Cecil’s fascination with the Dicksons stems from his childhood in Brookings, South Dakota, the location of one of Ben and Stella’s bank robberies. Cecil spends years tracing the Dicksons’ movements, from the bad luck and bad decisions that set them on their destructive path to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s obsessive need to take them down by any (legal or not so legal) means.

Benjamin Johnson Dickson was born in Topeka in 1911. His father taught chemistry at Topeka High School, and his household was, by all accounts, a warm and happy place where reading and education were highly valued. Ben was a Boy Scout who was commended for saving a woman from drowning in a local pond. He was both studious and a good athlete, and he became known for his skills as a featherweight boxer.

In 1926, when Ben was 15, he and some friends were arrested for joyriding in a neighbor’s car without permission, and Ben was sentenced to serve time in the Kansas Industrial Reformatory. This–and his skills as a boxer–put him on the radar of the Topeka police, and he became one of their favorite suspects for every crime. After a cab driver accused Ben of knocking him unconscious and stealing money and the cab (a crime he likely didn’t do), Ben’s life became a series of thefts, aliases, and stints in prison, including time in “The Walls,” the Missouri State Penitentiary.

Eleven years his junior, Stella Mae Irvin also hailed from Topeka. She was a typical teen until she was 15 years old, when she accepted a ride from a stranger and was violently raped and infected with gonorrhea. Treatment at that time was brutal and dehumanizing, and when Stella refused continuing treatment, she was referred to the Shawnee County Juvenile Court system.

By 1938, neither Ben nor Stella was in a good place. They met in Topeka (Stella was introduced to Ben as Johnny O’Malley), and eventually Stella would run away from home, meeting up with Ben in California. Ben and Stella married. In a matter of months, they would rob two banks (patiently waiting for the time-lock safes to open while determining whether customers inside could afford to give up a little cash), kidnap people (who were later compensated financially for their troubles), and steal (and wreck) several vehicles along the way. By April 1939, Ben was dead and Stella was left to answer for their crimes.

Cecil also documents the consequences of overzealous law enforcement. The descriptions of the Topeka Police’s gun “battle” with Ben at a motor camp–a gun battle that involved shooting in only one direction–are chilling, especially when, at that time, the Topeka police only wanted Ben for punching a guy in the face and stealing a car. Worse, though, is the FBI and Hoover’s almost desperate need to keep the bureau relevant in the public eye–even if it meant greatly exaggerating the threat the Dicksons posed to the public and inventing their own gun “battle” with Ben, which resulted in the bank robber being shot in the back, no weapon drawn, in St. Louis.

It’s hard to know what would have happened to Ben and Stella Dickson had Ben not been gunned down in front of a hamburger stand on April 6, 1939. Maybe they would have gone the way of Bonnie and Clyde and taken a violent turn. Or maybe, as the books and college pamphlets in their abandoned cars would suggest, they would have reinvented themselves and faded into obscurity. The question The Ballad of Ben and Stella Mae really asks, though, is who Ben Dickson and Stella Irvin might have become had fate dealt them a better hand early on.