Category Archives: Kansas People

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.

Advertisements

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)

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.

 

Diphtheria, the O’Marra Family, and the Rest of the Story

In 2011, I wrote about the O’Marra family, who lost eight of their nine children when a particularly awful strain of “black” diphtheria hit their household in 1903. Their story touched my heart, and it turns out that it touched the hearts of a lot of readers out there, too. Of all of the stories and places I’ve shared, the O’Marra’s story is the most read, most shared, and most discussed.

But many of us wanted to know what happened afterward. What happened after the diphtheria outbreak and the newspaper stories? What happened to the O’Marra family? What happened to Lizzie, once the middle child in a family of nine, and now the only remaining child?

Margaret O’Marra Miller, a descendant of the O’Marra family, reached out to me to tell me more about her family and offer some insight into the rest of their story.

Lizzie wasn’t an only child for long.

Lizzie and her baby brother, John.

Lizzie and her baby brother, John.

Nearly 25 years after the birth of their oldest child, James and Anna O’Marra became parents for the tenth time. John was born in 1906 and would never know eight of his nine siblings. But John would grow up to be healthy and happy and live the life of a farmer. He married and became the father of three children, including Margaret Miller, who told me that John’s lineage now includes 54 descendants. He died in 2000, just a few months shy of his 94th birthday.

Nearly fourteen years older than her baby brother, Lizzie left the family farm not long after John was born.

“Lizzie was a happy-go-lucky person,” Miller told me in an interview last year. Her life wasn’t always easy–Lizzie married, had two children who died young, then divorced. But she kept moving on with her life, leaving the farm to work at a restaurant in Richmond, Kansas, and then a motel in Louisburg, Kansas. She died in 1962 from complications during surgery to remove colon cancer. Yet, despite the loss and hardships, Miller said that Lizzie had a good life and made the most of it.

James and Ruth Ann (Anna) O'Marra.

James and Ruth Ann (Anna) O’Marra.

What happened to James and Anna, the parents who lost almost everyone dear to them?

Born in Ireland in 1855, James came to Kansas by way of Boston and Drexel, Mo. He settled in the Anderson County community of Emerald in 1882, where he met and married Ruth Ann Gillespie, who had been living in Westphalia, Kansas. They moved to Hartford in 1884 with their first-born son, William. William was 21 when he and seven of his siblings died of diphtheria in 1903.

“Grandma never complained,” Miller said. It would have been easy to feel sorry for herself, but she didn’t, and she and her husband both found strength in their faith. After her family’s plight, however, she exhibited a an extraordinary level of compassion for those in need, and she regularly took in those who were too sick to look after themselves.

James and Anna lived in their old house right up until the end, living a hardworking, old-fashioned life. James died in 1938. Miller said that her grandmother never had electricity installed in “the big house,” as the old house was known, and used candles for light right up until her death in 1954, at the age of 92.

I think the reason the O’Marra family’s story resonates so much with modern readers is that we understand theirs was not an isolated tragedy. Somewhere in our family lines, our ancestors all faced this kind of loss to some degree. Children died of so many diseases that we can either prevent or treat today. We exist because those who survived managed to keep moving forward. Many of our great-great-great-greats buried their children. Many of them found the strength to move on.

In just a few days, people all over the globe will be watching the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which commemorates the attempt to deliver serum from Anchorage to Nome during a 1925 outbreak of diphtheria that threatened the lives of many Native Alaskan children. Many of those dog sled race watchers will find their way to the O’Marra family’s story when they search for information on diphtheria. Then they will understand why those 20 mushers and 150 sled dogs would work so hard to sled the 674 miles of Iditadrod trail,