Lawrence has long had a flair for activism, a countercultural spirit. To this day, it remains a progressive oasis in the midst of conservative America, a blue dot in a deeply red state. But how much of that has to do with what William Quantrill and his men did to the city Aug. 21, 1863?
“I think it gave more impetus for the town to not only rise from the ashes but be even more like it was,” said Lawrence historian Karl Gridley. “The greatest rebuke to Quantrill’s raiders was not to die out but rebuild and come back even stronger.”
Lawrence has always attracted or reared a certain kind of people: poet and social activist Langston Hughes was raised in Lawrence, while postmodern author William Burroughs spent the twilight of his life here.
The college town also has long been a magnet for social activism. During the Vietnam War, for instance, thousands of Kansas University students marched on campus to protest the war.
“I lived over by the high school. I remember smelling the tear gas,” Gridley said. “Lawrence was in a lot of ways the Berkeley of the Midwest. It was kind of an oasis in the middle of the country.”
Other historians argue that the city’s free-thinking reputation was cemented upon its founding by abolitionists from the East Coast.
“Lawrence was already famous before Quantrill rolled into town, as a progressive, anti-slavery bastion in Kansas territory,” said Jonathan Earle, a history professor at Kansas University. “When a place is as famous as Lawrence was made by William C. Quantrill, you have a bit of an advantage. You can say that you’re the martyrs of the evil guerrilla Quantrill. You can entice people in wealthy parts of the country to open their pocketbooks and help rebuild the town.”
That doesn’t mean that Lawrence’s ideals haven’t at times been forgotten. During the Jim Crow period, local African-Americans faced the same type of segregation here that they did in many part of the country. In his essay, “Hold the Line: The Defense of Jim Crow in Lawrence, Kansas, 1945–1961,” historian Brent M. S. Campney writes that Lawrence residents have long subscribed to the “free-state” narrative that “reframed the anti-slavery struggle as a romantic campaign for human liberty.”
“Notwithstanding this narrative, many white Lawrencians never adhered to those high principles,” Campney writes. “In the aftermath of the Civil War, they imposed practices aimed at keeping blacks at the bottom of the social order.”
That included instances of violence directed against blacks, as well as segregation in schools, restaurants, theaters, employment and housing.
Earle said that after Reconstruction, African-Americans known as “exodusters” migrated to Kansas from former slave states along the Mississippi River.
“They came because of Kansas’ reputation as a bastion of racial egalitarianism,” he said. “But they found a populous not really happy to see them. Kansans thought they were not well-educated, a burden, a problem, almost like refugees.”
The tension came to a head locally in 1970, when a white Lawrence police officer shot and killed a black teenager in a dark alley, setting off violent protests; the National Guard even had to be called in.
The Lawrence Arts Center weaved the city’s insurrectionist history into a recent grant proposal for a public art project. Titled “Free the Radicals,” it was inspired by the town’s resurrection and the survival of its revolutionary spirit after Quantrill’s Raid.
“It’s a city that encourages controversy in the quest for truth,” Fred Conboy, director of the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the Journal-World at the time of the proposal, adding that Lawrence has long been “a flashpoint for the enduring struggles for freedom.” (The grant proposal was rejected, however.)
Lawrence also is famous for remaining one of the last bastions of the liberalism in the (red) state of Kansas. A religious advisor to Gov. Sam Brownback even referred to the city earlier this year as a “dark spiritual area.”
“Sam Brownback and the Legislature seem to think we’re the last pocket of resistance. Maybe Quantrill’s Raid was our trial by fire,” Gridley said, though “I don’t know how many people would be willing to lay down their lives for it these days.”