A history of segregation

City no different from others in discrimination

One flight up from a bronze plaque recalling the location of an 1850s abolitionist newspaper and not far from a plaque marking where John Brown once spoke, Eloise Caldwell taps once on a polished brass railing above a no-smoking sign in Liberty Hall.

Though a born-again Christian who says she’s overcome years of bitterness, she can’t hold back a stern glance when she then points to the section of seats in Liberty Hall’s southwest balcony. That’s where, 50 years ago, blacks automatically went to sit when they came to see a show.

“As I became older and realized what that was all about, then I became angry,” said the 71-year-old Lawrence Memorial Hospital electrocardiograph technician. “I felt that it was unfair and unjust that we had to be segregated because of the color of our skin, that we couldn’t sit anywhere we wanted to because of who we were.”

Today, many blacks who grew up in Lawrence 50 years ago can point out several places along Massachusetts Street that segregated or excluded them.

“There is a proud Bleeding Kansas history,” said Bill Tuttle, professor of American Studies at Kansas University, referring to the abolitionist “Free State” role in Lawrence, where the layout of today’s downtown harkens back to the Civil War.

“But there’s another story as well,” he said. “And it should be told.”


Gone is the building at 745 Mass., where in the 1940s, Marshall Tyler Sr. cooked at the Green Lantern Cafe.

Walking in the back alley behind a newer brick building, his daughter, Alice Fowler, 71, a former Lawrence school board member, recalls the day she made the mistake of entering the cafe through the front door to get a malt.

“The waitress that I encountered looked a little bit surprised that I was in there,” said the lifelong Lawrence resident who lives in the same house her parents did. “So she went to the back and got my dad. He told me I wasn’t supposed to be in the front part of the restaurant, that I couldn’t be served there, that I had to come to the back.”

In Lawrence, blacks didn’t have to go to the back of the bus or to a separate train car on the Santa Fe or Union Pacific railroads. Pinckney School and Lawrence High School were integrated long before the landmark 1954 Supreme Court desegregation decision of Brown v. Board of Education.

Blacks could go into most retail stores, though they recall being followed or unable to try on clothes.

But the theaters on Massachusetts Street – the Granada, the Varsity, the Patee and the Jayhawker Theater in Liberty Hall – were segregated, sending blacks to balconies, many remember.

In some white-owned restaurants, pools and bowling alleys, they were excluded outright.

“Segregation in Lawrence, and most of the state as well, was … by custom, not by law. So because it was by custom, it was something that was assumed everyone knew,” said Kristine McCusker, associate professor at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn., whose 1994 master’s thesis at KU was on the Civil Rights movement at KU.

Hispanics and American Indians also faced their own humiliation in Lawrence by being served last in restaurants or being followed in retail stores. But most sources interviewed for this article indicated that Hispanics and American Indians were not excluded or segregated by local businesses to the extent that blacks were.

“It’s not clear whether or not (Hispanics and American Indians) were segregated,” McCusker said. “When it’s against the law but not against custom, it’s difficult to tell what the practices are.”

‘Not allowed’

As he walks across the street from where Marshall Tyler Sr. cooked, James Barnes, a 72-year-old retired machinist for DuPont Co. and Flexel Corp., stops in front of a two-story red-brick building next to the historic First National Bank building.

He remembered going to the Velvet Freeze Ice Cream store, 742 Mass., with his six children in the 1950s.

“We weren’t allowed to sit there,” said Barnes of the parlor with tiny tables and an L-shaped counter. “That’s just the way it was. I was young and that’s what you did. You didn’t rock the boat.”

Whites who were born in the 1920s and 1930s, such as Helen St. Clair Buhler, 85, said they didn’t think about segregation.

Buhler’s grandfather, Jonathan Morgan, of the Massachusetts Emigrant Society, arrived in 1854 to help found Lawrence. She recalled growing up playing with black children.

When her black classmates at reunions talked about segregation, she would be shocked by their anger.

“They would say, ‘We were friends, but if we went to the movies, we’d have to sit up in the balcony,'” Buhler said. “I didn’t think anything about it. It had always just been that way.”

Members of the Lawrence League for the Practice of Democracy began meeting as early as 1947 to discuss ending segregation and exclusion. They tried to convince and coax area businesses into integrating.

In the 1950s, KU Chancellor Franklin Murphy called on Lawrence businesses to serve all his students, said Rusty Monhollon, assistant professor of history at Hood College in Maryland and author of “This is America?: The Sixties in Lawrence, Kansas.” If they wouldn’t, Murphy said KU would set up businesses of its own and charge students a lot less for food or a haircut.

And then there was Forrest “Phog” Allen, KU’s legendary basketball coach from 1920 to 1956 who famously insisted Massachusetts Street businesses serve the equally legendary 7-foot-1 Wilt Chamberlain who played at KU from 1957 to 1958.

But what applied to one basketball player didn’t apply to all.

“While most businesses did comply with Allen’s request to serve Chamberlain,” Monhollon said, “not all blacks were so treated.”

Leonard Monroe, who worked as the city garage manager for 23 years and was a friend of Chamberlain, agreed.

“(Wilt) could go in those places and eat, but we still couldn’t go into those places,” said Monroe, 75, one of the first black varsity basketball players at LHS his senior year in 1950. “He might have helped, but he wasn’t the whole reason, that’s for sure.”

By 1964, most outward signs of segregation in Lawrence, with some exceptions, were gone, Monhollon said.

National, state and a City Commission ordinance passed in March 1964 banned segregation or exclusion from public accommodations, such as restaurants, hotels, swimming pools, bowling alleys and theaters.

“Lawrence – like the rest of the nation – has always had a mix of people and attitudes about racial equality,” Monhollon said. “There have been some who rejected any notion of racial equality, and some who were actively working for equality. Then there were a lot of people in the middle who thought racial equality was a desirable goal but disagreed over how it could, or should, be achieved.”

Free State

The story of segregation in Lawrence stands out in contrast even more to some blacks and whites as the term “Free State” has become more popular in the past 20 years.

“Lawrence thinks of itself as THE city in Kansas, and much of that is due to its abolition history,” Monhollon said. “And much of that has to do with the recent upsurge in the use of ‘Free State.'”

If segregation is excluded as part of its identity, Lawrence will be celebrating a myth rather than reality, said Steve Jansen, director of Watkins Museum of History from 1979 to 2001.

“Lawrence doesn’t think of itself as a traditional American community. It thinks of it as something different. But when it comes to race, it wasn’t,” he said. “It’s not because Lawrence was bad. It’s because Lawrence was like most American communities of that time.”

But Lawrence’s efforts to revitalize businesses and the historic sense of downtown while documenting its past are unique.

“This is a ‘going’ downtown that most communities would just give their teeth for,” said Carol Francis, 74, who helped lead the effort to document and mark historic buildings along Massachusetts Street. “Ours is ‘going.’ It’s going strong. And we need to keep it that way.”

But the recollection of segregation brings out deep regret from the lifelong Lawrence resident who is the fourth owner of the Josiah Miller building at Seventh and Massachusetts streets, which survived Quantrill’s 1863 raid on Lawrence.

“I feel terribly guilty. I think it’s amazing we didn’t figure out what was happening to these people. They’re people. Everybody is people whether they’re black, white, checkered or colored. They’re just people and we didn’t treat them like people,” Francis said. “I think people need to be aware that this kind of thing was happening. And we let it happen. We allowed it to happen without recognition.”

Lawrence as home

This isn’t to say blacks in their 70s and 80s haven’t moved past the bitterness they felt growing up in Lawrence.

They have told the stories about segregation and exclusion to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“You can get past it. But you never can forget it,” said Irene Williams Southard, 73, a former licensed practical nurse at LMH from 1964 to 1972, who says she loves Lawrence.

“Anytime you’ve been hurt or shunned or made to feel inferior, that sticks with you.”