‘A community history’: Local anthology gathers many voices to tell fuller story of Lawrence

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

"Embattled Lawrence: The Enduring Struggle for Freedom" is the second volume in the "Embattled Lawrence" local history anthology project.

What has become a more than 25-year effort to document the forgotten and left-out parts of Lawrence history began with a Channel 6 broadcast.

Dennis Domer, the editor of the “Embattled Lawrence” anthology, taught a class at the University of Kansas in 1998 called “Biography of a City: Lawrence,” about local history. More than 80 students enrolled in the class, which was televised on the now-shuttered local Channel 6 and gained an enthusiastic audience. Domer, who will discuss the most recent volume of “Embattled Lawrence” at an upcoming event at the KU Hall Center for the Humanities, said the course and its accompanying show made him realize two things: There were large gaps in Lawrence history and Lawrence residents were eager to see them filled.

“We don’t get very many histories of our place,” said Domer, dean emeritus of the KU School of Architecture and Design and associate professor emeritus of American studies. “… Significant events like Quantrill’s Raid are so important that they suck all the oxygen out of the history sphere, so nothing else can be published. Not to denigrate the significance of Quantrill’s Raid, but it just means that people don’t write this.”

This relative void inspired Domer to create a more comprehensive reader that could be used by students, faculty and the community, kicking off a project that continues to this day. The “Embattled Lawrence” anthology, which consists of two published volumes with another two on the way, has led to the documentation of many aspects of the city’s history that go beyond its much-publicized Free State founding and the Bleeding Kansas Era.

The most recent volume, “Embattled Lawrence: The Enduring Struggle for Freedom,” is 480 pages and includes articles from dozens of historians and local writers, including several personal histories. Topics in the volume, which was published in the summer of 2023, include the red light district that prospered for years in a section of East Lawrence; the layered and painful history of what’s now known as Haskell Indian Nations University; and gay activism, anti-war, Civil Rights and other social movements. Domer said he did not want to shy away from uncomfortable topics, and the articles directly address the racism and discrimination that have manifested throughout the city’s history.

“Of course it’s uncomfortable to hear about our racist history,” Domer said. “Brent Campney’s article, ‘Hold the Line: The defense of Jim Crow in Lawrence, Kansas,’ that could upset people. But I had to do what was there.”

The Watkins Museum is the publisher of the second volume, and Douglas County Historical Society and Watkins Executive Director Steve Nowak states in the second volume’s foreword that the anthology brings together Domer’s vision and the perspectives of a variety of authors, historians and first-person chroniclers to illuminate the issues, people and events that have made Lawrence what it is.

“Much like the museum’s core exhibits, this publication focuses on the ordinary people who make history and augments the stories told in our galleries,” Nowak writes.

Hall Center event

Domer and three co-authors of the second volume will speak March 4 during the Hall Center’s annual Celebration of Books program. The program, which will take place from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Hall Center, 900 Sunnyside Ave., celebrates the books published by KU faculty in the humanities, arts and social sciences. The other “Embattled Lawrence” writers who will speak as part of the event are Kim Warren, Jeanne Klein and Kathy Rose-Mockry. More information about each author is as follows:

• Warren, an associate professor of history at KU and a scholar of gender and race in African American and Native American studies, wrote an article in the second volume about the dedication of Haskell Institute’s football stadium in 1926.

• Klein, a KU professor emerita of U.S. theater history who has researched and written about Lawrence history, co-authored or authored articles in the second volume about the Haskell Cemetery, Lawrence namesake Amos Lawrence and women’s suffrage.

• Rose-Mockry, former director of KU’s Emily Taylor Center for Women & Gender Equity, wrote an article in the second volume about the history of gay activism at KU in the 1970s.

Giselle Anatol, KU English professor and director of the Hall Center, said that each year the Hall Center invites two or three of the authors being celebrated for publishing a book in the previous year to speak briefly about their research and publishing experiences. Anatol said all of the authors deserve time in the spotlight and choosing only a few to feature is an arduous task. Anatol said “Embattled Lawrence” was selected as one of the books for the program in part for its local value.

“We decided on ‘Embattled Lawrence’ this year because of its local relevance and interdisciplinary nature; featuring a few of the writers from the project also allows us to feature a type of collaborative intellectual endeavor, so critical to the Hall Center’s mission,” Anatol said.

A community history

The first volume, “Embattled Lawrence: Conflict & Community,” which Domer edited with Lawrence historian Barbara Watkins, was published in 2001. A third volume, “Embattled Lawrence: Building the City,” is well underway, with plans for it to be published in early 2025. “Building the City” will focus on the city’s infrastructure, architecture, institutions and historic preservation. A fourth volume, also already in the works, will be dedicated to previously unpublished historic photographs.

Domer describes the anthology as a community project that has involved Lawrence residents from start to finish. This includes both authorship and funding. He said $70,000 in donations were raised from the community to pay for the design and printing of the second volume and the approximately 35 people who contributed articles to the second volume were all volunteers. Domer said though the many contributors require a lot of coordination, he wanted it to be a community project.

“I like to have all those voices speaking,” Domer said. “If it’s going to be a community history, I don’t think it should come out of one voice.”

Domer, 80, said he works every day on the upcoming volumes, and that he is happy to give all his efforts toward the project in what he referred to as his twilight years. In a way, the effort is the continuation of the local broadcast that started in the late ’90s, something that let the whole community tune in. It’s a show that Domer hopes — through the next generation of Lawrencians — will go on.

“This is meant for all of us, but it’s also meant to be a springboard for the next generation to do its own thing,” Domer said.

More information about the “Embattled Lawrence” anthology is available on the Watkins Museum website. The second volume can be purchased at the Watkins Museum, 1047 Massachusetts St., with all proceeds from the sale benefiting the museum. The book is also for sale at The Raven Book Store, 809 Massachusetts St., in which case proceeds go to the bookstore and the museum.


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