Lecompton Paul Bahnmaier moves swiftly through the story of events that happened in the Kansas Territorial Capital back in 1857, speaking in a way that reveals how he has told the story many, many times before.
In September of that year, the territorial Legislature of Kansas met in Lecompton and drafted a pro-slavery constitution in hopes of getting Kansas admitted to the union as a slave state.
Bahnmaier, president of the Lecompton Historical Society and a tour guide of the building that served as the capitol building at the time, has a way of conveying just how significant of an event that was.
"So without the fight over the Lecompton Constitution in Washington, D.C., that was written on the second floor of Constitution Hall (another building a few blocks away), Abraham Lincoln would not have been elected in 1860," Bahnmaier says. "So that’s why we can very legitimately say, Lecompton is the first place in the Civil War where slavery began to die."
That interpretation of the site, telling the story of the pro-slavery movement in the Kansas Territory as the beginning of the end of slavery, has been successful in keeping Lecompton out of the spotlight at a time when there is a national movement to remove Confederate monuments from the public landscape, particularly in the South.
"We only tell the Lecompton history, and we tell it honestly, and that’s what we’re all about," Bahnmaier said during a recent interview.
The passions wrapped up in the anti-Confederate movement were on full display last week in Charlottesville, Va. — a progressive-leaning university town that is not unlike Lawrence — when violence and mayhem broke out during a rally of white supremacists who came to protest Charlottesville's decision to take down a public statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Jordan Green, senior editor of a newspaper in Greensboro, N.C., and a contributor to The Nation, says the monuments in the South have been controversial for decades, precisely because they do not tell a complete and honest story of the Confederate cause.
"I think it’s fair to say they have always been offensive to African-Americans in particular, and to white progressives who are grounded in an understanding of black freedom," Green said in a telephone interview. "They’re controversial."
"They don’t tell the story of black Southerners and they don’t tell the story also of white Southerners who did not own slaves and who resisted the Confederacy," Green continued. "The larger point is that they’re incomplete."
Green said many of the Confederate monuments in the South were erected shortly after World War I. That was around the time that the surviving veterans of the Civil War began dying off, but Green said there were other motivations.
"I’ve heard it explained as a way of asserting white supremacy over returning black veterans who might be more assertive of their rights," he said.
Although the monuments have been highly controversial for decades, white civic leaders in the South have largely managed to deflect the criticism, defending the monuments as statements about Southern heritage, pride and history.
That is, until recently.
Green said he believes the tipping point came in June 2015 when Dylann Roof, then a 21-year-old white supremacist, walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and opened fire, killing nine people, including a senior pastor and a state senator.
"It was the Dylann Roof massacre in June 2015 that compelled cities like New Orleans and Baltimore to have a discussion and start moving in a direction of taking the monuments down," Green said.
Soon after that shooting, South Carolina agreed to remove a Confederate battle flag from its Statehouse grounds, and since then, there has been a wave of activity from Southern states and communities to remove their Confederate symbols.
Back in Lecompton, Bahnmaier acknowledged that it hasn't always been easy to strike the right tone in telling the story of the pro-slavery constitutional convention in 1857. For many years, he said, signs on Interstate 70 and U.S. 40 Highway pointing to Lecompton called it the "slavery capital."
That changed about 20 years ago, he said, when, "they removed the sign and designated it correctly as Lecompton, capital of the Kansas Territory."
At the time of that struggle, only the portion that is now the basement of the territorial capitol building had been completed. After statehood, when the capitol was moved to Topeka, the building was expanded to its current size and was used to house a small college called Lane University.
President Dwight Eisenhower's parents attended Lane and were married in the second story chapel of that building. Today, the building is also known as the Lane University Museum.
A few blocks away stands Constitution Hall, the building where the pro-slavery constitution was written. That building is managed by the Kansas State Historical Society, but an official at the site declined to comment for this story.
Those who come to the sites, however, generally say they are impressed with the way the story is told and interpreted, Bahnmaier said, showing copies of emails he has received from visitors.
"We appreciated how you didn't change the facts and told the truth," one visitor wrote.
"These days people often change history to fit a particular narrative," wrote another 16-year-old visitor. "However, we can never change who we are or where we came from. At the Lane Museum, though, the history is presented just the way it happened."
As for the controversy taking place in other communities, and the movement to take down Confederate monuments, Bahnmaier had no comment.
"That’s their business," he said. "Our business is to promote Lecompton and tell the story of the events that occurred here that led to the election of Lincoln. And without the events in Lecompton, he wouldn’t have been elected in 1860."