"This is Not Dixie:" The Imagined South, the Kansas Free State Narrative, and the Rhetoric of Racist Violence

Emory University
Published September 6, 2007

This essay explores how white Kansans employed images of the "South" and its association with racist violence in constituting the identity of Kansas as the "Free State" from 1865 until 1914. It argues that prevailing assumptions about the South offered a sectional imaginary through which white Kansans interpreted the racist violence in their own midst. On the one hand, the South, and the violence that occurred there, provided a means to obscure, dismiss, and justify incidents in Kansas, allowing commentators to cultivate a sort of historical amnesia, to deem each subsequent episode an anomaly, the exception that proved the rule of Midwestern virtue. On the other hand, the idea of the South constituted a powerful enticement for resistance to racist violence among white Kansans fearful of becoming associated with it. The essay relies primarily on the analysis of contemporary white state newspaper coverage of racist violence.

Brent M. S. Campney
Emory University
University of Texas, Pan American
University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley


Emporia, Kansas, 1909, Library of Congress American Memory Archive
Emporia, Kansas, 1909
Library of Congress American Memory Archive

The South "is as much a fiction, a story we tell and are told, as it is a fixed geographic space," argues Tara McPherson. "If one is to understand the many versions of the South that circulate throughout US history and culture, one has always to see them as fundamentally connected to, and defined in relation to, the non-South."1 Rather than elucidating any "real" South, McPherson explores the "imagined South." Similarly, geographer Doreen Massey argues that places are products of human thought and action rather than products of nature, and reproves "all attempts to institute horizons, to establish boundaries, to secure the identity of places."2 Places are, in short, "open and porous," "mental territories" constructed through a multiplicity of relations with "other" places.3

For all its sensitivity to spatial and temporal variation, the literature on white-on-black violence has emphasized the American South. Although whites brutalized African Americans throughout the country, a prevailing impression remains that this was "largely a southern phenomenon and needs to be understood within the southern context."4

White southerners certainly earned their association with racist violence, employing countless acts of terror to enforce white supremacy. The idea that racist violence was overwhelmingly "Southern," however, has hindered a comprehensive appraisal of it in other sections of the United States. In a study of all-white "sundown towns," sociologist James W. Loewen marvels at the degree to which scholars have insufficiently recognized racist violence elsewhere. "Over and over I tell historians and social scientists about my research, and they assume I'm studying the Deep South," he reports. "Even when I correct them, the correction often fails to register. I tell a sociologist friend that I've just spent months researching sundown towns in the Midwest. Ten minutes later he has forgotten and again assumes I have been traveling through the South."5

If the South has been branded the primary repository of white-on-black violence, the "imagined Midwest" has occupied a different position in American history and culture. In the late nineteenth century, according to geographer James R. Shortridge, "two concepts — pastoralism and the Middle West — which initially were similar in several respects, rapidly intertwined and soon became virtually synonymous," creating an image of the Midwest as a land of "bucolic virtue, of sturdy, thriving agrarians inhabiting a blissful Middle Landscape."6 In addition, "two pairs of bonded concepts: slavery and labor, equality and race," forged during the Civil War and nurtured thereafter, evolved into a second image "of the Midwest as a land of freedom."7 Both images bolstered the still influential Turner thesis which characterized the Midwest as a place of equality where social status was fluid, where individuals achieved through hard work and ability, and where the challenges of the frontier left little space for bigotry.8

These images are so pervasive that historians sometimes represent a Midwest fundamentally incompatible with racist violence even as they explicitly document evidence to the contrary. In his study of a mob killing in Indiana in 1930, James H. Madison marshals considerable evidence to suggest that racism and racist violence have been central themes in Indiana's history. Yet, in his analysis, he remains committed to the idea that racist violence is somehow incongruous in America's heartland, and that, through this incongruity, the true pathology of American racism becomes evident. "Grant County was an ordinary place," he writes, "a place that celebrated as its heroes its ordinary people, the pioneers who built farms and homes on the flatlands of the Midwest." Nevertheless, Madison concludes, there remained whites even "in this ordinary place in America's heartland who continued to believe in 'us' and 'them.'"9

Birdseye view of Topeka, Kansas, circa 1850, Library of Congress American Memory Archive
Birdseye view of Topeka, Kansas, circa 1850.
Library of Congress American Memory Archive

As Shortridge has demonstrated, Kansas has constituted the heart of the Midwest historically and geographically. In the 1880s and 1890s, Kansas and Nebraska were first designated the "Middle West," "not in relationship to the 'Far' West, as is commonly believed, but as part of a north-south ordering of space on the plains frontier," a moniker used to distinguish "the comparatively settled and stable 'middle' states both from the frontier 'North West' in the Dakotas and from the culturally different 'South West' in Texas and Indian Territory." Though popular conceptions of the geography of the "Midwest" did shift, Kansas always remained at "the core of the Middle West."10

Like the Midwest generally, Kansas has been identified with pastoral virtue and racial harmony. Unlike its sister states, however, Kansas was literally defined by race at its inception. Beginning with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, it became the site of a struggle between northern and southern settlers over the extension of slavery. Although some northern white settlers opposed slavery on moral grounds, most "free soilers" — drawn from Old Northwest states such as Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio — opposed it on economic grounds, arguing that it choked out land and opportunity for whites. Some midwesterners also favored exclusion rather than live with African Americans. As Eugene H. Berwanger has illustrated, "a large group of settlers was more anti-Negro than antislavery."11 While northern settlers were divided over many issues, they were pushed into an uneasy Free State alliance by what they viewed as the heavy-handed effort of pro-slavery advocates — primarily Missourians — to impose the "peculiar institution." "Slavery's establishment was to be accomplished by disregarding the 'wishes' of the majority of white settlers, thereby enslaving voters to the proslavery agenda," writes Nicole Etcheson. "These events united free-state settlers in the conviction that their political rights and liberties were being trampled by a government determined to impose slavery upon them."12

John Steuart Curry's 1941 mural, Tragic Prelude, embodies the Free State narrative.  At thirty-one feet by eleven-and-a-half feet, it hangs in east wing of the Kansas State Capitol, image courtesy of Digital History.
John Steuart Curry's 1941 mural, Tragic Prelude, embodies the Free State narrative.
At thirty-one feet by eleven-and-a-half feet, it hangs in east wing of the Kansas State Capitol.
Image courtesy of Digital History.

In the aftermath of the territorial conflicts and during four years of Civil War, white Kansans began to reshape the memory of the Free State struggle, framing it as a struggle not only for white political and economic freedom but for the liberation of African Americans as well. "While recalling events in the territory from 1854 to 1860," notes Berwanger, prominent actors in these events "ignored other issues, stressing the struggle over slavery and describing their efforts as a valiant attempt to prevent the fastening of Negro servitude on the territory."13 With violent abolitionist John Brown as their symbol, they spun a romantic narrative throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century that rehabilitated racists as righteous soldiers in a struggle for human dignity. As Michael Lewis Goldberg argues:

Yankee Kansans believed their state's founding was a profoundly moral act, the triumph of freedom and progress over the barbarity of slavery. Northerners who had rushed to settle Kansas in the years before the Civil War had done so to halt the expansion of slavery. . . Free State settlers had suffered like martyrs at the hands of Southern proslavers, whose marauding ways had inspired the national epithet Bleeding Kansas. But in the end, through the perseverance of the Free Staters and the will of God, the righteous triumphed and were rewarded. The lesson of this story, oft repeated, was that Kansans, compared with their relatively benighted counterparts in other states, now possessed a certain moral superiority.14

Kansans embraced the Free State narrative. Scholars might underscore "the bald fact that local and personal economic objectives had commonly overshadowed the national and moralistic antislavery crusade in governing the behavior of individual colonists," notes Robert Smith Bader, but "the general populace did not overly concern itself with such refinements. It loved to tell and retell the heroics of the Free State champions."15

Regardless of the Free State narrative, there was systemic and enduring racist violence in Kansas in the fifty years after the Civil War. In total, 603 separate incidents were identified in the sample of white newspapers used in this study. Of these, thirty-seven were mob killings, accounting for fifty-three victims, and four were race riots. The others were more common types of collective and individual violence, lethal and non-lethal. Because these incidents were common, they typically received little detailed newspaper coverage. The total number of violent incidents identified in the sample undoubtedly represents only a fraction of those which actually transpired.16

These 603 incidents do suggest geographical continuities between the pro-southern enclaves of the territorial years and the racist violence of the postbellum period. Many of the incidents of racist violence throughout the study period took place in counties such as Atchison, Leavenworth, Wyandotte, and Bourbon County, which bordered western Missouri and/or the eastern Kansas River Valley, and which claimed large numbers of white settlers originally from Missouri. An observer underscored this continuity two years after the Civil War when a mob killed two African Americans in Wyandotte, remarking that "when lynching does become necessary in Kansas, we should prefer some other class than the conservatives of Kansas City, and the border to take it in hand" [italics in original].17

However tempting, it is an oversimplification to suggest a clear-cut relationship between the geography of pro-slavery settlement and racist violence because African Americans tended to cluster in the 1860s within the state's larger urban centers in the Kansas River Valley counties and continued to reside overwhelmingly in these same places throughout the study period, even as the state expanded rapidly to the south and west. The primary catalyst for racist violence appears to have been localized white fear over rapidly growing and/or increasingly concentrated black populations, a fear which flared wherever these demographic conditions presented themselves, including cities that were not even settled during the territorial struggles, such as Coffeyville, Salina, and Wichita.18 This catalyst was, perhaps, most evident in Lawrence, the capital of territorial abolitionism twice sacked by pro-slavery Missourians and most closely associated with the Free State narrative after the Civil War. Notwithstanding this history, palpable fear clearly motivated white Lawrencians to unleash a wave of racist violence when a mass migration, known as the Exoduster movement, swelled the city's black population in 1879 and 1880. The objective of this violence, which included the mob murder of three African Americans in 1882, was to control the swelling black population, as a white merchant acknowledged after a threatened mob killing in 1883, when he worried that "'there has always been a very large negro population in Lawrence, and it seems to be on the increase.'"19

This essay explores the ways in which white Kansans employed images of the "South" and its association with racist violence in order to constitute the Free State identity from the end of the Civil War until World War I. It argues that prevailing assumptions about "Dixie" functioned as a durable framework through which white Kansans understood the racist violence in their own midst. On the one hand, the "South," and the bloodshed that took place there, provided a means to obscure, dismiss, and justify incidents in Kansas, enabling commentators to cultivate a sort of historical amnesia, to deem each successive episode an anomaly, the exception that proved the rule of midwestern virtue. On the other hand, the idea of the "South" constituted a powerful incentive for resistance to racist violence among white Kansans fearful of becoming associated with it.

The essay is based primarily on an extensive analysis of incidents of racist violence identified in contemporary white newspapers representing the predominant Republican affiliation of most Kansans at the time and published in the major cities of six counties representative of the three regions in the state between 1865 and 1914. It is supplemented by reference to other white newspapers published near locales where incidents occurred, and to white Kansas newspaper coverage occasionally reprinted in the state's black weeklies.20

Primary Materials

Click each city to view headlines and article excerpts from local newspapers.

Image Map

"The South," the "Free State," and Racist Violence

Atchison, Kansas, 1901, Library of Congress American Memory Archive
Atchison, Kansas, 1901
Library of Congress American Memory Archive

Those white Kansans who crafted the Free State narrative, principally urban middle-class professionals, newspaper editors, and politicians concerned about the state's reputation, presented it as a foil to the "Negro-Hating South" where "black men have no rights which white men are bound to respect."21 While theirs was a truthful, if occasionally hyperbolic, assessment of white racism and violence in the South after the Civil War, Free State proponents often linked it to the more dubious claim that racist violence was largely confined to that section of the nation. The Topeka Daily Capital articulated this when it condemned a Georgia mob that tortured and burned-at-the-stake Sam Hose, a field hand, in the spring of 1899. "The sickening story of recent lynching bees in Georgia has no parallels in the history of civilization, outside of the southern states of this Union," it concluded. "The vengeance of the southern whites on negro ravishers shows that the elemental man, or the elemental savage, is still there."22 Kansas newspapers reported the savagery of southern race relations during and after slavery, and reflected the acute sectional hatred generated by a long and bloody Civil War characterized from the northern perspective by southern rebellion and treason in defense of this savagery.

White Kansans envisioned their Free State as the anti-South, standing in stark contrast to brutal southern traditions and, suggested a state politician in 1867, "occupying a position in the foreground of enlightened progress." Kansas had been born of the struggle for freedom for all people and baptized with the blood of abolitionists dedicated to the destruction of slavery, they insisted. Forged of this noble purpose, the state would remain a place where people of all races could achieve success through hard work and where racism and racist violence were anathema. "There is no State in the Union where a colored man has a better [hope] to ask for a solid Republican support than in the State of Kansas," declared the Leavenworth Times in 1887. "Blood was shed on Kansas soil for the negro." Ignoring the fact that free-soil ideology had proven quite compatible with racism, white Kansans routinely invoked their territorial origin story as prima facie evidence of their subsequent commitment to racial equality. Reflecting on his state's record toward African Americans in 1909, a white citizen explained the present through the prism of the 1850s, telling the Topeka Daily Capital that "'Kansas fought, bled and died for the negro.'"23

White Kansans could acknowledge that individual acts of racist violence occurred in their state but minimize their significance by declaring each successive one an aberration — infrequent, uncharacteristic, and even unprecedented — rather than as evidence of a pattern. When a mob of five thousand men, women, and children burned-at-the-stake Fred Alexander, a laborer, in Leavenworth in 1901, the event attracted national attention and precipitated an unusual level of debate among white Kansans over its implications for the state's legacy. The Topeka Daily Capital ignored the dozens of racist mob killings stretching back to 1865 — including a burning-at-the-stake in 1867 — when it insisted that "this sad, solitary misstep is not excused or palliated by the people of the Sunflower state." "In view of the lofty standard which this state has ever maintained, leading the van in all that goes to make an enlightened and Christian civilization," it added, "it is due to Kansas that the Leavenworth holocaust should be construed as a state calamity rather than a state disgrace."24

White Kansans sometimes framed discussions of racist violence within a midwestern pastoralism to suggest that these irruptive acts of racism were anomalous incidents. When Wesley McDaniel, a drunken, low-status white man, assaulted a black laborer named G. W. May at the Bourbon County Fair in 1883, the Fort Scott Daily Monitor prefaced its condemnation with a sermon on the meaning of the festival itself. "The products of the field were there arrayed in holiday attire, giving evidence of the virgin excellence of our soil" and of the "industry and intelligence of a people who have combined to a greater degree than any other people on earth the true dignity of manhood with the necessity that all men earn their bread by the sweat of the brow," it noted approvingly. Transitioning to the violence, the Monitor fused the bucolic bounty of Kansas with biblical transgression, characterizing the incident as a betrayal of the state's essence by an unrepresentative son. "This collection might well be compared to the Garden of Eden in its combination of excellences and like the Garden of Eden, it had just one serpent to mar its harmony and beauty."[Fort Scott Daily Monitor, October 7, 1883. See also Fort Scott Daily Monitor, October 6, 1883.

More commonly, whites cloaked racist violence in narratives about the "South" and the "Free State." They sometimes cited incidents in Kansas as contaminants, misplaced and inherently 'southern' phenomena not indigenous to their state. In 1901, the Wichita Daily Eagle characterized the Alexander burning as the cultivation of a southern crop in the inhospitable soil of the Midwest. "A negro rapist has been. . . burned at the stake, chained, kerosened and burned alive, in strict accordance with the method employed by the prejudiced south. . . . Such tragedies are unlooked for and unexpected at the hands of western people where the hanging of horse thieves has proved about the only exception to the regular rule of trial by jury."25

Although a great many Kansans in these years were settlers from across the United States, commentators usually did not remark upon the sectional origins of those who perpetrated racist violence, suggesting that they regarded most assailants as fully assimilated 'Kansans' motivated by other issues and concerns. However, when individuals popularly identified as southerners perpetrated this violence, white Kansans ascribed great explanatory power to their origins. Reporting the attempted hanging of John E. Lewis near Topeka in 1906, the Topeka Daily Capital emphasized a Texas connection. Lewis, it reported, "is grand chancellor of the colored Knights of Pythias of the state, and it was his Pythias badge that aroused the southern hostility of the Texans. They didn't like to see a 'nigger' putting on such airs, and proceeded to adopt the regulation Dixie method for teaching the negro his place."26 In other cases, whites viewed acts of racist violence as de facto evidence of the origins of the perpetrator. When a newcomer gunned down a black laborer in 1905, the Hutchinson Semi-Weekly Gazette concluded that the murderer "was almost a stranger in town, and probably a southerner."27

Sometimes Kansans gauged the superiority of the Free State on the basis of the distinctions in the responses to racist violence in Kansas and in the South. In the wake of the 1901 Leavenworth immolation, the Topeka Daily Capital speculated on the likely responses of the state's senators to this incident and contrasted them to the responses characteristic of southern politicians, as typified by those of the one-eyed South Carolina senator, Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman. Should the two senators from Kansas be asked in the US Senate to address the incident in their state, it declared, "judge, all the earth, of the difference of their utterances [t]o the brazen exultation of the Carolinian Cyclops discoursing on similar tragedies within his state." Notwithstanding that the actions of the mob and the support for these actions among white citizens and law enforcement officials revealed more commonalities than distinctions between the South and Kansas, the Capital put great stock in oratory: "the ringing resolutions of the Kansas legislature, the utterances of her public men and her public press are proof to all the world that the melancholy affair is not excused or condoned in Kansas."28

In 1911, the Belle Plaine News epitomized the way that the Free State narrative could be used to establish the depravity of the South and the virtue of Kansas, no matter how fine the distinctions between them. When Frank Abbott, a white foreman, killed William White, a railroad laborer, the News freely (and correctly) intimated that the perpetrator (a southerner, it noted with contempt) would face no penalty, the same result that would await him in the 'prejudiced south.' Nevertheless, it insisted that the inconvenience of Abbott's arrest and show trial before his inevitable acquittal proved the moral superiority of Kansas. "Being arrested for killing a 'nigger' was no doubt a surprise to Mr. Abbott, who, reports have it, has killed other negros [sic] and pounded up a few more," it reported. "The man may come clear but he will find it a little different than in Alabama and may wait till he gets out of Kansas before being to [sic] hasty again."29

Few incidents underscore the degree to which the Free State narrative could mold the perceptions of white Kansans than an 1896 custody dispute between officials in Leavenworth and in neighboring Platte County, Missouri — the state which, for reasons of history and proximity, constituted a surrogate for the "South." Both Leavenworth and Platte County claimed jurisdiction when Frank Garrison killed a white man on an island in the Missouri River. Having custody of the prisoner, and intent upon their boundary claims, officials in Leavenworth refused to relinquish control, insisting that "if Garrison was taken to Missouri he would be lynched." The Leavenworth Times seemed oblivious to the irony when it reported that the Sheriff was compelled to spirit the prisoner to the impregnable Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in order to protect him from Kansans with a record of mob violence. "County officials were advised yesterday that an attempt was being made to form a mob to hang Garrison. It was said that some of the men who were in the mob that dragged a colored man to death [in Leavenworth] ten years ago were back of the movement."30

"The South," the "Free State," and Resistance to Racist Violence

Olathe, Kansas, 1909 Library of Congress American Memory Archive
Olathe, Kansas, 1909
Library of Congress American Memory Archive

While white middle-class Kansans employed the Free State narrative to obscure, dismiss, and justify racist violence, they also refashioned it as a tool of resistance, seeking to protect the state's mythology and, consequently, its economic fortunes through an appeal to this state mythology. Their commitment to suppressing racist violence — and particularly to suppressing mob killings — grew during the 1880s and reached its climax in the years around the turn of the century.31

White resisters, motivated to preserve the Free State image, expressed profound anxiety that racist violence would make Kansas indistinguishable from the "South." "We are told that we have violated all our noble traditions," worried the Topeka Daily Capital after the Leavenworth burning, "that the stain can never be washed away, that the citadel of equal rights established by John Brown has been crushed to earth, that the land consecrated by freedom's blood to law, and order and race equality has degenerated to the level of South Carolina."32 These Kansans celebrated resistance as the inoculation of the state from the infection of "southern" tendencies. The Leavenworth Times applauded whites in Wabaunsee County in 1888 when they condemned the mob beating of a black man accused of theft. "Near Eskridge, a poor negro was treated to the methods employed by the old ku-klux gangs of Georgia," it reported. "As soon as the facts came out a large indignation meeting was held by the farmers, and the outrageous action was denounced as it should be in free Kansas."33

Rhetoric notwithstanding, whites were often more concerned about upholding their state's reputation among external observers than they were about upholding racial justice. They did not object to racist violence because it was wrong, in other words, but because "'it does not look right to outsiders.'"34 After the Leavenworth burning, the Atchison Daily Globe frankly acknowledged that the hand-wringing among state officials was primarily about preserving the name of Kansas for the national audience. "'We will keep ourselves right with the record,' as the politicians say, and there the matter will end for all time," it conceded. "'It will not look right to eastern people if we do not condemn the lynching,' said one legislator yesterday, 'but personally I approve of it.'"35

As white Kansans deployed the Free State narrative, they internalized it, absorbing it into their geographical imaginations where it sometimes constrained behavior. On several occasions, they didn't carry out racist violence even when they deemed it justifiable. In these cases, they yearned to be in the "Negro-Hating South" where the essence of place sustained murderous impulses. The Olathe Mirror typified this view after Alfred Brown gunned down a white man near that town in 1896. "There are too many such fellows as Brown in this county, and they should thank their stars they do not live south of the Mason and Dixon line."36 When whites brutalized a black man in Wabaunsee County in 1899, the Eskridge Star expressed its disapproval on the same grounds. "We are opposed to mob law," it insisted. "We live too far north."37 In 1905, the Emporia Times and Emporia Republican expressed its sympathy for mob violence against a man accused of rape with sensational front-page headlines that shrieked "Nigger Assaults White Woman" and "Many People In for Hanging." "No white woman is safe where such brutes are at liberty," it opined, "and it is essential to make an example that will serve as a wholesome lesson." Then, in a repudiation which revealed the vitality of the Free State narrative, the Republican concluded that the spirit of Kansas made a "southern" mob killing untenable in that city. "This is Not Dixie," it lamented, "and He Will Probably Be Left for the Law to Handle."38

So intense was the desire among some white Kansans to prevent the "South" from infiltrating the Free State that they took extraordinary measures to insulate themselves. In the aftermath of the Leavenworth burning and the accompanying torrent of national condemnation, state legislators devised a novel method for suppressing racist violence within state boundaries — they would simply redraw them. As the Atchison Daily Globe put it, "the 'joke' on Leavenworth has been carried to that point where it is proposed to put Leavenworth county into Missouri." If burning-at-the-stake was inherently "southern" and antithetical to the "Free State," proponents reasoned, they would simply amputate the offending county and confer it upon their neighbor, a "southern" state where such atrocities were expected and, perhaps, inevitable. The Missouri legislature showed obvious pleasure in declining to take off Kansas' hands what it called the "degenerate municipality."39 Although the resolutions were never more than symbolic, Kansas legislators had demonstrated that if racist violence was incompatible with state lore, and if Leavenworth was synonymous with racist violence, then they would like nothing better than to excise the county and preserve the imagined.

Dissenting Views

Ottawa, Kansas, 1909, Library of Congress American Memory Archive
Ottawa, Kansas, 1909
Library of Congress American Memory Archive

After the Leavenworth burning, the Topeka Daily Capital admitted that Kansas was no longer "in a position to make disparaging remarks concerning violent deeds occasionally perpetrated by the hot-blooded people beyond the pale of Mason and Dixon's line."40 Ultimately, however, by appraising their record of racist violence against the aggregate number of incidents perpetrated by white southerners rather than against their own image, white Kansans, irrespective of their political affiliation or their position towards blacks, seldom questioned the limits of the Free State. Certainly, they disagreed vigorously over the efficacy of racist violence; they rarely disagreed, however, on the assumption that blacks had little cause for complaint in Kansas. Commentators who denounced racist violence in one breath sometimes rehabilitated the Free State narrative with the next. When a mob drove a black family from a house in an all-white neighborhood in 1910, the Pratt Republican insisted that it "always stands for law and against any form of mob law" but advised angry blacks that "it might be well to remember that the black man had no rights until the white man gave him that 14th amendment to the Constitution and also the liberal laws of Kansas."41

As compelling as the Free State narrative was, there were instances too obvious to ignore. When students at the University of Kansas raided the dissection laboratory in 1902, seized the cadaver of an unknown black man, and hanged it on campus, in what one commentator called a "sham lynching," the Horton Commercial complained that many Kansas papers had suppressed an incident that undermined state lore. "Had this lynching of a dead Negro occurred in Louisiana or Texas, it would be termed 'another Democratic outrage in the South' by Republican papers of Kansas. But as it occurred in Kansas they deem it wise to keep mum."42 Others cautioned Kansas newspapers to practice humility in their denunciations of the South given the propensity for inflicting similar violence against blacks within the Free State. The El Dorado Daily Walnut Valley Times voiced this concern after whites elsewhere in the state murdered a young man in 1893. "Let us not howl at the south for murdering 'niggers.' Up at Salina a mob hung a darkey for slashing but not killing a man."43

In some instances, whites explicitly repudiated the Free State narrative, defiantly embracing anti-black violence irrespective of its consequences for the state's image and economic prospects. The Fort Scott Herald unapologetically accepted responsibility on behalf of Kansas when a mob dragged, hanged, and burned an alleged rapist in that city in 1879: "Neither do we pretend to get out of it by claiming that a large proportion of the men engaged in it were from Missouri." Exasperated by homilies from elsewhere after the 1901 burning, the Lawrence Daily Journal revealed that the Free State was better at doling out condemnation than at accepting it, warning that "other states should understand that this is a family affair, and if they don't keep their hands out of it, Kansas is likely to back Leavenworth up to sail in and do it again. Kansas demands for herself the privilege of doing the criticizing."44

The Trajectory of the Free State Narrative

Wichita, Kansas, 1909, Library of Congress American Memory Archive
Wichita, Kansas, 1909
Library of Congress American Memory Archive

The romanticized Free State narrative — the one that connoted a territorial struggle to destroy the moral abomination of slavery — had already replaced the more complicated reality by the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. The Leavenworth Daily Conservative articulated it as early as 1867 when a mob hanged and shot two African Americans in Wyandotte. "A frightful, hideous, double murder has been committed in our State, and if the perpetrators of the vile deed are not speedily brought to condign punishment, then it is in vain that Kansas has struggled into the foremost rank of progressive States, for she is unworth[y] of the proud position." The Leavenworth Daily Times expressed similar anxieties when white workers forced the firing of black laborers from railroad construction in Leavenworth County in 1871. "We would not be astonished to read such a statement from any Southern State," it reported, but to read it from Kansas made for a "strange message, indeed." "The question of labor is invaded by the question of color— honest labor is to be graded by the shade of a man's skin. And this was the message of Free Kansas, on yesterday evening to the civilized world!"45

The narrative solidified still more during the Exoduster movement which brought to Kansas thousands of black migrants who were escaping the racist violence and oppression of the Deep South. During that influx, whites in Lawrence issued a resolution declaring that "'we regard the exodus of the colored people of the South as a legitimate result of the injustice practised upon them, and since so many of these people reach Kansas in poverty and suffering we should be untrue to our history…if we did not extend to them a cordial welcome.'"46 In addition, some white Kansans recognized that the Exodus — a literal affirmation of their superiority to the South — placed a greater responsibility and increased national scrutiny upon them to live up to their professed ideals, a conclusion borne out by the increased level of middle-class resistance in the years after the Exodus.47 The Junction City Tribune pondered this problem at the height of the migration. "For years the north has complained that the south has been cruel to the negroes," it reflected. "The south now sends us a few boat loads of darkies, merely to give us a taste. In some places they are met with a flourish of patriotism and charity, in others with shot-guns and pitch-forks." White Kansans had little alternative but to stifle racist violence or to surrender to hypocrisy, it concluded. "Denial or explanation does no good."48

The Free State narrative achieved its greatest prominence around the turn of the last century as middle-class whites grew increasingly anxious about the impact of racist violence on the state's reputation and about the necessity of shoring up distinctions between Kansas and the South. In lauding a father who thwarted a mob killing in Spring Hill in 1911, the Topeka Daily Capital pressed the view that racist violence was no longer acceptable in the Free State. "'This undoubtedly is the man who attempted a vicious crime upon my daughter,'" the father reportedly declared, "'but, 'Judge Lynch' does not live in civilized Kansas any more. To burn this fellow to death will only scandalize the country. Let the law, I beg of you, take its course.'"49 The white middle-class did in fact produce results with its rhetorical resistance, as well as with other more tangible efforts to suppress mob killings. Whereas crowds threatening mob violence murdered their victims approximately thirty-four percent of the time between 1865 and 1894, they did so only eight percent of the time between 1895 and 1914.50


Bird's eye view of the city of Leavenworth, Kansas 1869. Drawn by A. Ruger. Library of Congress American Memory Archive
Bird's eye view of the city of Leavenworth, Kansas 1869. Drawn by A. Ruger. Library of Congress American Memory Archive

For white Kansans, an imagined "South" served as an absent constituent of Free State identity. This durable foil provided a means both for obscuring, dismissing, and justifying homegrown racist violence, and for promoting resistance to it. Whites' reference to a "Dixie" largely defined by racist violence created an imaginary and repulsive other used to both distinguish Kansas and to express fears about its future course, particularly by the late nineteenth century.

Sectional and regional differences are attributable not only to demonstrable historical, economic, and demographic differences but to the power of stories told about them, within and outside of their shifting boundaries. Adherence to the Free State narrative compelled some white Kansans to reject the call to racist violence associated with the South, which they might otherwise have deemed justifiable. Conversely, dominant narratives about the South suggested few alternatives to violence as a means of racial control. In a passage subsequently quoted by anti-mob activist Ida B. Wells, the Memphis Daily Commercial insisted around 1890 that the "'Southern barbarism' which deserves the serious attention of all people North and South, is the barbarism which preys upon weak and defenseless women. Nothing but the most prompt, speedy and extreme punishment can hold in check the horrible and beastial propensities of the Negro race."51 Because the sentiments expressed in the Commercial reflect widespread popular and scholarly assumptions about the essence of the nineteenth century South, it is easy to read them as a simple reflection of "reality." However, southern racist violence was not inevitable but was justified, in part, by self-fulfilling narratives, confirming historian Christopher Waldrep's content/ion that "our history never 'caused' us to be violent" even if "scholars have often argued that Americans cannot help themselves."52

Examinations of the ways that the imagined South has been, and is, constituted through its linkages to "other" places may be as fruitful to critical regional studies as examinations of the diverse regions and places within the South. The tendency to examine sections and regions of the nation in isolation has helped to create fixed identities of these complex and dynamic spaces. The extensive analysis of racist violence in "Dixie" to the exclusion of other areas of the country both responds to and perpetuates the attempts by Americans outside of the South to deny or minimize the extent of their participation in racist violence. In his work on the previously neglected topic of sundown towns, Loewen suggests that this is the case. He finds that these all-white towns, enforced by violence or its threat, were unusual in the South but were a defining characteristic of race relations in the Midwest.53

  • 1. Tara McPherson, Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender, and Nostalgia in the Imagined South (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 1-2.
  • 2. Doreen Massey, Space, Place, and Gender (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 5.
  • 3. Massey, Space, Place, and Gender, 5; Andrew R. L. Cayton and Susan E. Gray, eds., The American Midwest: Essays on Regional History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 4.
  • 4. Paul A. Gilje, Rioting in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 106.
  • 5. James W. Loewen, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. (New York: The New Press, 2005), 198.
  • 6. James R. Shortridge, The Middle West: Its Meaning in American Culture (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989), 28; Wilbur Zelinsky, "Review of The Middle West: Its Meaning in American Culture." Geographical Review 80 (July 1990): 323.
  • 7. Cayton, The American Midwest, 12.
  • 8. See, for example, Rita Napier, ed., Kansas and the West: New Perspectives (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003); Susan E. Gray, The Yankee West: Community Life on the Michigan Frontier (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992); Don Harrison Doyle, The Social Order of a Frontier Community: Jacksonville, Illinois, 1825-1870 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978); Eric Foner, ed., The New American History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997); Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West(New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1987).
  • 9. James H. Madison, A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 27, 41-42.
  • 10. Shortridge, The Middle West, 7, 132-133.
  • 11. Eugene H. Berwanger, The Frontier Against Slavery: Western Anti-Negro Prejudice and the Slavery Extension Controversy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1967), 1-6, 97-122 [quoted passage, 101]; Bill Cecil-Fronsman, "'Advocate the Freedom of White Men, As Well As That of Negroes': The Kansas Free State and Antislavery Westerners in Territorial Kansas," Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 20 (Summer 1997): 102-115. On the "Free Labor" concept more generally and its relation to race, see Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), especially 11-39, 261-300.
  • 12. Nicole Etcheson, Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 2.
  • 13. Berwanger, The Frontier Against Slavery, 97.
  • 14. Michael Lewis Goldberg, An Army of Women: Gender and Politics in Gilded Age Kansas (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 9-17 [quoted passage, 10].
  • 15. Robert Smith Bader, Hayseeds, Moralizers, and Methodists: The Twentieth-Century Image of Kansas (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988), 29-30. For more on territorial Kansas and the Free State narrative, see Etcheson,Bleeding Kansas, 1-8, 227-228, 249-253; Kenneth S. Davis, Kansas: A Bicentennial History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1976), 37-71; Craig Miner, Kansas: The History of the Sunflower State, 1854-2000 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), 49-93. On the historiography of "Bleeding Kansas," see Gunja SenGupta, "Bleeding Kansas,"Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 24 (Winter 2001): 318-341. On race relations in Kansas more generally, see James N. Leiker, "Race Relations in the Sunflower State," Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 25 (Autumn 2002): 214-236.
  • 16. For an analysis of racist violence in Kansas, see Brent MacDonald Stevenson Campney, "'And This in Free Kansas': Racist Violence, Black and White Resistance, Geographical Particularity, and the 'Free State' Narrative in Kansas, 1865 to 1914" (PhD diss., Emory University, 2007), 50-126.
  • 17. Lawrence Journal, reprinted in Wyandotte Gazette, June 22, 1867. On the geography of racist violence, see Campney, "'And This in Free Kansas,'" 184-251. On Missouri settlement in Kansas in 1865, see James R. Shortridge,Peopling the Plains: Who Settled Where in Frontier Kansas (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995), 19-27.
  • 18. Campney, "'And This in Free Kansas,'" 184-251.
  • 19. On Lawrence and racist violence, see Ibid, 206, 269-272 [quoted passage, 206].
  • 20. For a more detailed description of the methodology, see Ibid, 42-49.
  • 21. Leavenworth Times, August 10, 1887; Leavenworth Times, July 31, 1887.
  • 22. Topeka Daily Capital, April 26, 1899. For similar examples, see Lawrence Kansas Daily Tribune, June 22, 1867; Lawrence Kansas Daily Tribune, August 5, 1866.
  • 23. Lawrence Kansas Daily Tribune, October 30, 1867; Leavenworth Times, October 30, 1887; Topeka Daily Capital, July 31, 1909.
  • 24. For the 1867 burning-at-the-stake, see Campney, "'And This in Free Kansas,'" 204. For the quoted passage, seeTopeka Daily Capital, January 19, 1901. For the 1901 burning-at-the-stake, see Leavenworth Times, January 16, 1901;Leavenworth Times, January 17, 1901.
  • 25. Wichita Daily Eagle, January 17, 1901. See also Junction City Union, August 25, 1866.
  • 26. Topeka State Journal, December 5, 1906. See also Lawrence Kansas Daily Tribune, August 19, 1865; Atchison Daily Champion, October 14, 1866; Wyandotte Daily Gazette, December 1, 1887; Topeka Daily Capital, October 27, 1901.
  • 27. Hutchinson Semi-Weekly Gazette, January 21, 1905.
  • 28. Topeka Daily Capital, January 19, 1901. On Tillman's loss of one eye, see Stephen Kantrowitz, Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 39.
  • 29. Belle Plaine News, June 8, 1911. See also Wellington Journal, June 6, 1911. For the acquittal, see Wellington Journal, January 9, 1912.
  • 30. Leavenworth Times, December 19, 1896; Leavenworth Times, December 22, 1896.
  • 31. Campney, "'And This in Free Kansas,'" 127-183.
  • 32. Topeka Daily Capital, January 19, 1901.
  • 33. Leavenworth Times, March 7, 1888.
  • 34. Topeka Daily Capital, July 31, 1909. See also Leavenworth Daily Times, October 5, 1871.
  • 35. Atchison Daily Globe, January 17, 1901.
  • 36. Olathe Mirror, December 31, 1896.
  • 37. Eskridge Star, July 13, 1899.
  • 38. Emporia Times and Emporia Republican, July 14, 1905.
  • 39. Atchison Daily Globe, January 22, 1901; Leavenworth Times, January 25, 1901; Leavenworth Times, January 26, 1901; Leavenworth Times, January 27, 1901.
  • 40. Topeka Daily Capital, January 17, 1901.
  • 41. Pratt Republican, September 8, 1910.
  • 42. Horton Commercial, reprinted in Topeka Plaindealer, January 31, 1902.
  • 43. El Dorado Daily Walnut Valley Times, April 22, 1893. See also Leavenworth Times, August 23, 1893; Lawrence Daily World, reprinted in Leavenworth Times, January 17, 1901.
  • 44. Fort Scott Herald, April 5, 1879; Lawrence Daily Journal, reprinted in Leavenworth Times, January 24, 1901.
  • 45. Leavenworth Daily Conservative, reprinted in Wyandotte Gazette, June 22, 1867; Leavenworth Daily Times, October 5, 1871.
  • 46. Robert G. Athearn, In Search of Canaan: Black Migration to Kansas, 1879-80 (Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1978), 40-41.
  • 47. Campney, "'And This in Free Kansas,'" 127-183.
  • 48. Junction City Tribune, May 1, 1879.
  • 49. Topeka Daily Capital, November 25, 1911.
  • 50. Numbers calculated from Campney, "'And This in Free Kansas,'" 180.
  • 51. This passage is quoted in Wells' important 1892 pamphlet, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. Jacqueline Jones Royster, ed., Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900 (Boston: Bedford Books, 1997), 62.
  • 52. Christopher Waldrep, The Many Faces of Judge Lynch: Extralegal Violence and Punishment in America (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 7-8.
  • 53. Loewen, Sundown Towns, 4-7, 194-198.

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