Anyone with a passing knowledge of the civil rights movement knows about the lunch counter sit ins at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. A protest that started with four people on February 1, 1960 grew to hundreds of protestors by July. Lunch counter sit ins, at times, dominated the news in the south.
“Are sit in strikes justifiable?” asked legendary south Florida anchorman Wayne Fariss in a commentary in 1956. “It’s an active problem of political, economic and moral significance to all Florida,” he said from the set of WCKT in Miami. WCKT is now WSVN.
The Florida sit ins started a few weeks after Greensboro. But before Greensboro and Miami there was Dockum Drug Store in Wichita.
We like to think of ourselves, us Kansans, as civil rights leaders; the free state, brown versus board, abolition. But does our history really back up the claim? Or is it…just a myth.
I think a lot of us can see in our head the black and white film of young black protestors being spit on or even beaten as they sat at lunch counters in the south demanding to be served. Greensboro is probably the best known but sit ins happened all across Dixie. But many simply don’t know about Dockum Drugs.
“Well, Dockum’s Drug Store was a major drug store located in the center of Wichita,” Carol Haun, who helped organize the sit in, told C-SPAN. “It was a main place for people to go during the lunch hour, for teenagers to go for a hamburger and a coke. The policy of the store was that they did not serve colored, as we were called at that time.”
The sit ins began on July 19, 1958, a year and a half before Greensboro. Nine other students showed up that day. For three weeks the students sat at the Dockum lunch counter. They were taunted and insulted but there was no violence. Mostly, white customers just went somewhere else and profits at the store plunged.
In just three weeks Dockum’s in downtown Wichita was desegregated as was the entire Rexal chain. A civil rights victory. There were many in Kansas: Brown versus the Topeka Board of Education chief among them. But before Brown, the Kansas Supreme Court desegregated some schools, at least the ones the law allowed.
For some, and I’m among them, civil rights in Kansas began with Quantrill burning Lawrence and ends with Brown. But, of course, that’s just not true.
“Kansas. We call ourselves a Free State, the Free State fortress but we have these Jim Crow practices,” says Archiver historian Virgil Dean. While there were certainly Jim Crow practices around Kansas for the most part they weren’t codified in law. School segregation was legal in larger cities like Kansas City, Topeka and Wichita. But some smaller towns tried to segregate schools, contrary to state law, and when cases from those cities made it to the state Supreme Court the justices desegregated. One of the most famous was Webb v. School District 90 in Merriam. “Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries segregation was being practiced in school districts where it shouldn’t have been. And every time the Supreme Court rules for the plaintiffs. There’s a famous case in Ottawa in the 1880s, there’s one in Oskaloosa that comes in the very early 20th century,” says Dean.
Here’s what the Kansas historian James Lieker wrote:
“How is it, for example, that the same state that advocated Indian genocide and practiced school segregation also became the only state to legally evict the Ku Klux Klan and only one of seven to censor the racist film Birth of a Nation?”
So our past is a little rockier than I wanted to think. Okay, I can live with that. But how are we doing now? Where does that Free State Kansas thing stand?
When you want to talk about how African American history in Kansas intersects with the present, you talk to Lang. He’s written about the black freedom movement and black urban communities in the midwest. What’s important about Kansas, Lang says, is that it’s not the deep south. That there has always been room for, a lane if you will, for agitators and change agents.
“We don’t want to error on the side of, racism is the same everywhere you go in the United State. I don’t believe that’s the case. There are reasons people came to Kansas and built communities and tried to build lives.”
So more than a half century past Brown and Dockum drugs and the Webb desegregation case in Johnson County, the answer to the question ‘Where does that Free State Kansas thing stand?” seems to be, we’ll see.
At least that’s one answer. And the question is such an important part of the Kansas story, we’ll revisit civil rights and the Free State Myth in future in future Archivers this season.