Forgetting strength : Coffeyville, the black freedom struggle, and the vanishing of memory
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When a white lynch mob of 3,000 stormed the city jail in Coffeyville, Kansas, in 1927, incited by rumors that three "negroes" had raped two white high school girls, the incident ended very differently from so many others in the Jim Crow era. No one was lynched. The mob was driven back, first by black deputies at the jail, then by armed African Americans who prevented their neighborhood from being torched. The National Guard occupied the city for five days. Black community leaders, certain that the girls' assailants were white, posted a reward for information, and pressured the city to hire an independent investigator. The County Prosecutor, two months later, surprised everyone by charging a white car salesman for rape, and naming one of the girls as an accomplice. But an all-white, all-male jury acquitted both. Then the city began a concerted effort to erase memory. All prosecutions for rioting, and all damage suits against the city were dismissed. By year-end, the local newspapers omitted all mention of the riot, occupation, and trial in their wrap-ups of the year's events. This thesis uses the lens of the Coffeyville riot to argue that African American activism in Kansas flourished because of the state's unique history. While never an egalitarian racial paradise ("the myth of Kansas"), Kansas did not fully implement a Jim Crow racial caste system. Blacks could vote in large numbers. The Kansas Republican Party valued black support. The Ku Klux Klan was expelled from the state by 1927. More significantly, Kansas funded "Separate but Equal" schools that were truly equal. They educated a generation of local black activists who contested school segregation, police brutality, and white lynch mobs. Yet memory of Kansas's accomplishments in the Black Freedom Struggle (black Civil War regiments, the Coffeyville resistance, and Wichita lunch counter sit-ins) have largely vanished. If not for Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, there would be no memory at all. "Ignore that man behind the curtain," the The Wizard of Oz admonished Dorothy at the end of the film. America's historians have, for the most part, heeded that advice, at least about Kansas's role in the Black Freedom Struggle.
Table of Contents
Abstract -- List of illustrations -- Acknowledgements -- Introduction -- The girls and the trial -- The engine of activism: the schooling of African Americans in Kansas -- Constructing memory and selecting historical facts -- Appendix -- Reference list