LECOMPTON — Free-Staters and slavery advocates screamed at one another on a hot afternoon at the Territorial Capitol Building, as people from across the nation watched.
This scene described isn’t from the Bleeding Kansas time period that preceded the Civil War — it took place Wednesday.
About 40 educators from across the country descended on Lecompton and Lawrence as part of the Landmarks of American History and Culture program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which focuses on historic sites and puts teachers in direct contact with historical material. This group was in a workshop focusing on the Missouri-Kansas Border Wars, organized by the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The tour makes stops in both Missouri and Kansas.
“It’s like a field trip on steroids,” said Diane Mutti Burke, a workshop organizer and professor at UMKC, adding that the region was an important place to study.
Kevin Walter, a high school history teacher from New Jersey, got a new perspective on the war.
“I learn a new thing every hour I am here,” Walter said. “When I teach the Civil War in New Jersey, we focus on battles in the East but not much in the West.”
Patricia Swan was another impressed teacher leaving Lecompton. Swan, who teaches African-American and Caribbean history at a high school in the Virgin Islands, traveled thousands of miles on three different flights to get to Kansas. She said the trip was important to her because it allowed her to gain firsthand knowledge of history and historic characters.
“With teenagers, it’s always important to have individuals they can connect with,” she said.
Swan added that she has been paying close attention to discussions about John Brown and Jesse James, characters whom her students frequently ask about. James gained widespread notoriety as an outlaw a few years after the Civil War’s end.
For Lecompton historian Paul Bahnmaier, the group’s visit to Lecompton and Douglas County has special importance.
“I think it reiterates what we say, that the Civil War starts in Douglas County,” he said.
Bahnmaier, as well as others from the Lecompton Historical Society, spent the morning giving the teachers tours of Lecompton, as well as putting on a play called “Bleeding Kansas.” In the play, historic Kansas figures, including John Brown, argued about whether Kansas should be a free state or a slave state. The teachers were divided into pro- and anti-slavery groups and encouraged to hiss, cheer and boo.
After the play, the group then headed to Lawrence to tour other Civil War sites and discuss William Quantrill and his raid on Lawrence.
Mutti Burke said that this is the third year UMKC has organized such a tour; another group of 40 teachers will take the same tour July 17. Mutti Burke said the program has been growing by word of mouth and received 160 applicants this year. Half of them had to be turned away.