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Archive for Sunday, June 4, 1995

SLAVERY SIGN CAUSES RIFT

June 4, 1995

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— Historic symbols have created a rift in Lecompton.

Symbols of this city's turbulent, pre-Civil War history have created a modern clash over historical preservation.

At issue is whether decisions to replace a roadside historical marker identifying the city as a "Slavery Capital" and remove a publicly displayed Confederate flag were based on legitimate historical reasons or political correctness.

"I personally think slavery is despicable. But it existed," said Dennis Baranski, a rural Lecompton resident who believes local and state historical society administrators are trying to sanitize Lecompton's pro-slavery role in U.S. history. "And history that's forgotten is often history that's repeated."

Lecompton, a former state territorial capital, holds a significant place in history. In 1857, delegates to a Kansas Constitutional Convention drafted a constitution that would have brought Kansas into the union as a slave state. The constitution cleared the Senate but was rejected by the House, and the document was overwhelmingly defeated in a subsequent popular vote.

The constitution's defeat helped push the South toward withdrawing from the union.

Constitution Hall, the building where the document was created, has been named a National Historic Landmark and will be dedicated June 24 as a Kansas Historical Society museum.

By then, the 54-year-old "Slave Capital" roadside sign three miles south of Lecompton is scheduled to be replaced by a revamped sign identifying the city as a territorial capital.

Ramon Powers, executive director of the Kansas Historical Society, said the sign was changed to more accurately portray Lecompton's history. He said the old sign, now housed in the state historical museum in Topeka, did not indicate that there were anti-slavery factions in the city or that Lecompton played an important role in land development.

But Baranski believes Powers ordered the change to appease minorities.

No sledgehammers

Baranski began speaking out on the changes in February, when Powers proposed a ceremony in which members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People could destroy the roadside sign with sledgehammers.

"My problem lies with the fact that the NAACP put a metaphorical gun to Mr. Powers' head and he blinked," Baranski said. "Where's this going to stop? Are we going let any person or any group ... come in and destroy any of our exhibits with sledgehammers just because they think they are offensive or because they don't like them?"

Paul Bahnmaier, president of the Lecompton Historical Society, said he and other members complained about the sign's content five years ago to the state. But the society objected to the sledgehammer ceremony and, with the help of state legislators, persuaded Powers to halt the plan.

Powers called the proposed ceremony a "mistake," but he said plans to change the sign weren't solely prompted by the NAACP.

"We'd intended to make the change in that sign for the last year," he said. "We were in a meeting with the NAACP, and one gentleman said one of the things that offended him was that sign. My reaction, which was an unfortunate reaction, was, 'We'll get rid of the sign.'"

Bahnmaier said he was pleased that the new sign was being erected, and pointed out that references to the pro-slavery constitution would be retained.

"It reports history as it should be done: correctly," he said.

Stars and bars gone

While the sign will be replaced, another symbol is gone for good. Bahnmaier said the Confederate flag was permanently removed from its staff outside Lane University Museum, operated by the Lecompton Historical Society, partly to avoid offending anyone.

He said museum operators began flying the flag in 1982 along with an American flag to symbolize Lecompton's pivotal role in the Civil War and to catch the eye of tourists. It came down because there was no evidence the flag ever flew over the university during Civil War days and because operators, mindful of conflicts over the flag in the Deep South, wanted to avoid offending anyone.

"Removal of the Confederate flag is our way of working with everyone and making sure we didn't have any controversies," he said. "We just didn't want anything to detract from the dedication of Constitution Hall and our history."

Baranski said removal of the flag was another example of the city watering down its heritage in fear of complaints.

"I think that if you are taking down symbols and signs of historical significance from historical buildings just to try to please the majority you are perverting an entire sense of history," he said. "I think even opening such a building without those signs and symbols ... is dishonest."

Although the men remain friendly, Baranski reacted to the flag's removal by withdrawing an entry he had submitted for a communitywide search for a city logo.

The logo featured a cannon and the city's name.

"Based on the apparent movement to concede to rumor and to sanitize our history, lest we be criticized for it, it seems to me that it would be the height of hypocrisy to represent our community with a symbol as strong and proud as a cannon," Baranski wrote.

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