Monday, January 16, 2012

Freedom Ride: A Tribute to MLK

My ride today takes me to some of the most enduring and significant symbols of freedom and justice in the American experience; places rich in history and places right in my own backyard.  

Lawrence, KS, the town where I live is, to some extent, a product of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the legislation that, in part, would allow expansion of slavery into these new territories only by a majority vote of territorial residents.

Seizing the opportunity to spread slavery to the new territories, Missouri (already a slave state by the Compromise of 1820),  was positioned to influence the same outcome in Kansas.  

Not wanting this to happen, New England abolitionists, led by Amos A. Lawrence, planned an emigration to settle the area as a free territory.

In June of 1854, Dr. Charles Robinson and others, including Colonel James Blood, traveled to the the territory to survey the area between the Kansas and Wakarusa Rivers for a pioneer settlement.
Founders' Rock, in Robinson Park, Lawrence, KS

On July 17, 1854, 29 members of the first pioneer colony left Boston for the Kansas territory, arriving in what would become Lawrence on August 1, 1854.  The purpose of the settlement, to establish Kansas as a state free from the "the national stain" of slavery.

Pioneers' Stone Inscription
"To the pioneers of Kansas who in devotion to freedom came into a wilderness, suffered hardships and faced dangers and death to found this state in righteousness"

 After the first pioneers arrived in Lawrence, a second party of 67 was soon to follow.  The neighboring Missourians, hoping to also influence the outcome of the territorial settlement, were caught off guard by the rapid appearance of "Free State" settlers.

Home of Colonel James Blood, Lawrence, KS
Soon, border violence between pro-slavery militia from Missouri and abolitionist free-staters broke out all across the northeastern corner of Kansas along the Missouri border.

Meanwhile the town of Lecompton, just northwest of Lawrence, was named the territorial capital and pro-slavery sentiment in the new government was at odds with the majority of territorial settlers.

Historical Marker on US40 west of Lawrence along the Oregon Trail

A pro-slavery minority attempting to control the destiny of the Kansas territory drafted a pro-slavery constitution for Kansas and rigged the ratification vote to pass it.  The fraudulent vote was so obvious that President James Buchanan was forced to reject the pro-slavery constitution.

Meanwhile the region had become a magnet for abolitionists and pro-slavery militias and other combatants from around the county.  Chief among the abolitionist radicals was John Brown who has staged a number of bloody raids in the area.  

John Brown

On June 2, 1856, John Brown led 25 abolitionists against a much larger pro-slavery group led by Captain Henry Clay Pate and defeated them at the Battle of Black Jack, a settlement just east of Baldwin City, KS.  This battle is now considered by many to be the first battle of the Civil War. 

Black Jack Battlefield
The Battle of Black Jack was, in part, a retaliation by Brown and Lawrence abolitionists for the
sacking of Lawrence which took place less that two week earlier when Samuel Jones, the deposed pro-slavery sheriff of Douglas County, led 800 pro-slavery southerners in an attack on Lawrence that resulted in the destruction of the Free State Hotel and the two city printing presses.  The town was looted and the home of Charles Robinson, the future first governor of the State of Kansas, was burned to the ground.

Eldridge Hotel today, Lawrence, KS
The Eldridge Hotel, on the site of the Free State Hotel, destroyed in the sacking of Lawrence, May 21, 1856.

After 3 failed attempts to draft a constitution for Kansas that would satisfy territorial voters and the Federal Government, a 4th version called the Wyandotte  Constitution, outlawing slavery, was ratified.  Kansas was admitted to the Union under the Wyandotte Constitution on January 29, 1861.

On April 12, 1861 the Civil War began, although the Kansas-Missouri border war over freedom and civil liberty had been raging continuously for the previous 7 years.


The events of those years leading up to the Civil War are so ingrained in the history and culture of our community that I am  often reminded of our city founders' commitment to freedom and justice, not to mention the sacrifices they and their families made - many, the ultimate sacrifice.  They died that all Americans would share the same rights and freedoms as they enjoyed.   

It's especially significant today, on the day we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that the struggle for freedom should be celebrated.

Growing up, as I did, in the South during the 1960s you were never far from the daily reminders of Jim Crow and the American apartheid.  My hope is that we never forget the the cruel injustice of racial discrimination - that we will always be mindful of the sacrifices of so many that brought us to where we are today and that we continue to recognize how far we have yet to go.  -LD

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