‘A big shift’: Littlejohn and Sellers could be Lawrence’s first Black commissioners in more than 100 years
photo by: Contributed Photos
The last time that it is believed a Black person was elected to the city of Lawrence’s governing body, people were just beginning to trade horses for automobiles and most homes still didn’t have electricity.
The year was 1912, and though at that time at least three Black men had been elected to multiple terms on Lawrence’s city council over the past 30 years, it would not be a trend that would continue. Though there are not definitive records, local sources say that since that time, they are not aware of other African-Americans who have been elected to the city’s governing body.
But that changed Tuesday, when Lawrence residents elected Bart Littlejohn and Amber Sellers to serve on the City Commission, potentially representing the first Black council members or commissioners in more than 100 years.
Ursula Minor, president of the local NAACP chapter, was watching the votes come in on Tuesday evening and getting excited. Minor is a lifelong Lawrence resident whose family has been in Lawrence since the 1900s, and she said she is not aware of a Black person being elected to the city’s governing body since that election in 1912. With four candidates of color, this year’s ballot was the most racially diverse in decades, and Minor said she was hopeful.
“When (votes) started coming in and they started moving ahead, I was overwhelmed, because it was something that needed to happen,” Minor said. “Lawrence is moving in a good direction.”
photo by: contributed photo
Representation in Lawrence
Local historian Virgil Dean said that under a ward system that existed until 1914, at least three Black Lawrence residents — Green Keith, Fred C. West and David Logan — were elected to represent the sixth ward, which comprised the eastern half of North Lawrence. He said both North Lawrence and East Lawrence had a high concentration of Black residents.
Dean has written an essay on the history of Lawrence mayors and city governance from 1857 to 1967 that will be included in the forthcoming second volume of “Embattled Lawrence.” From 1858 until 1914, Dean said the city had a mayor-council system and elected representatives to a council using the system of wards. Once the area that is now North Lawrence was incorporated into the city in 1870, he said the city consisted of six wards, and that each ward had two representatives, resulting in a 12-member council.
Keith was a farmer, West the principal of Lincoln School, and Logan a teamster, and all three served multiple terms on the city council from about 1886 to 1914, according to newspaper archives and city directories reviewed by the Journal-World. Logan, who newspaper archives indicate was last elected in April 1912, served until April 1914, when the changeover to the new system occurred. Neither the city clerk’s office nor the Douglas County elections office tracks the race or ethnicity of candidates. City directories generally listed the members of the governing body, but the existing collection is incomplete, which makes research into the race and ethnicity of the city’s governing body a difficult process.
photo by: Douglas County Historical Society, Watkins Museum of History
In 1914, Dean said the city switched to a commission system in which a mayor and two commissioners were elected at large, went back to a ward system from 1935 to 1951, and thereafter switched to the five-member commission of the current day. Though there are not specific records on the race or ethnicity of the members of the city’s governing body, Dean said that in his research he has not come across any Black council members or commissioners since the election of Logan.
More specifically, Dean said he was pretty certain that no Black commissioners were elected from 1914 to 1935 when the city had only three full-time commissioners elected at large. He said though the city returned to the ward system between 1935 and 1951, he has not come across any Black council members or commissioners in that time period or the decades since. Dean, who was the longtime editor of “Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains,” said that though that finding is not definitive, it’s not necessarily surprising if Lawrence has not seen a Black council member or commissioner since 1914.
Dean said the years when Keith, West and Logan served also saw African Americans in other prominent positions in local governance, including Sam Jeans as city marshal. He said at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, there was some relaxation of tension, but it did not last. He said some have referred to the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s as the nadir of race relations.
“So there was kind a period of time where there seems to be more tolerance and more acceptance, but it’s a fairly short period of time,” Dean said. “Then it reverts backward.”
Lawrence was no exception to the racial segregation, discrimination and violence that occurred across the country. Dean said it wouldn’t be until the Civil Rights Movement that Lawrence would see Jesse Milan, who was Black, come close to winning a seat on the commission. Ultimately Milan narrowly lost two elections, both in the late 1960s.
Watkins Museum of History Research Services Coordinator Monica Davis previously told the Journal-World that according to Clark Coan’s “Lawrence Political Protests 1960-1973,” Milan, a Black physical education consultant for the school district, narrowly missed being elected to the commission in 1967. Milan ran again two years later and again barely lost to the same candidate. At that time, according to Coan, most city elections were dominated by members of the chamber of commerce, and a Black person had not been elected to the governing body “in decades.”
Dean said Tuesday’s election was a historic one for city governance.
“Certainly there wasn’t much diversity in terms of gender or color during most of the history of city government — until now,” Dean said. “So this is really a big change, a historic change.”
This election’s shift toward better racial representation has followed others in recent years. As the Journal-World previously reported, the November 2017 election led to the City Commission’s first female majority, which persists to this day. Outgoing commissioner Jennifer Ananda, upon being appointed vice mayor in 2019, spoke openly about serving as a queer woman. Prior to that, Mike Rundle was the city’s first openly gay mayor in 2005.
A ‘big shift’
When Littlejohn and Sellers join the commission in December, it will be the most racially and ethnically diverse the governing body has been in decades, and potentially in its history. In addition to Littlejohn and Sellers, Vice Mayor Courtney Shipley is Hispanic.
Littlejohn is the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board chair and the former chair of the Pinkney Neighborhood Association. Littlejohn said his decision to run for the commission was an extension of what he had been doing for the Pinkney Neighborhood. He said only certain people were participating in the association, and he and others sought to make involvement broader and more diverse.
“I kind of saw something similar in the city as a whole, that as much as we try sometimes we don’t effectively communicate to folks who aren’t normally a part of the process or have abandoned wanting to be a part of the process because they’ve been ignored or they feel like people don’t think they matter as much, which is totally untrue,” Littlejohn said.
“So I think in that sense, I ran just to make sure that those folks know that they matter, that they will be listened to, and we are trying to work for them so that we can make this city better.”
photo by: Contributed photo
Sellers is the first African American woman ever elected to the city’s governing body. She is a regulation specialist with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment Bureau of Family Health, where she works on public policy affecting women and children. She is also chair of the Human Relations Commission.
Sellers said her decision to run was a culmination of many things, but at its core was the fact that she’s always had a desire to serve. She said both the pandemic and the racial unrest of the summer of 2020 spurred reflection for her, and after she joined the HRC in 2020 she ultimately decided she wanted to do more. She said though there was some self-doubt and self-convincing involved, she filed to run. In the end, she said she knew she wanted to use what she’d learned about building good policy that was centered on people to benefit the community.
“And so my decision to run for City Commission came out of a pure desire to get us back on track with people-first policies,” Sellers said. “How can we have a mix of commissioners that truly understand the relationship that policy plays with people, how it plays in programming, and how it plays out in practice?”
photo by: contributed
Sellers said issues that are going to be important to her in the coming term include affordable housing, the city’s increasing utility rates, and the ongoing process for the city to improve its financial controls. For his part, Littlejohn said issues that are top of mind include affordable housing, economic development, social services and addressing homelessness.
Littlejohn and Sellers both said that they hoped their election would be an example, especially for young people, that wanting to make change for their community was enough, and there was no special set of circumstances that qualifies someone to run for office. And Sellers said that while she may be the first African American woman to serve, she would not be the last.
“While I am serving, I am also making sure that I create space for women and women of color to know that their city needs them,” Sellers said. “And that if they have a desire to learn and to ask questions and to put themselves out there to support their community, then you have every right to run for office.”
Minor also spoke to the importance of housing and jobs, as well as the upcoming discussion about police reform and the hiring of a new police chief. She said Sellers’ election was also important for women, who continue to be underrepresented in politics, and especially important for young Black girls growing up who need to see someone like themselves in those roles.
As far as Black candidates, Minor said before Tuesday’s election that Milan and Caleb Stephens, who was one of 14 people who applied to fill a vacated seat on the commission in 2015, were the only other ones she’d seen. She said the election represents “a big shift” and that the community is ready for change.
With all the different issues the community is facing, Minor said it needs diverse voices and perspectives if it’s actually going to work together collectively and make progress.
“Because we do all need to work together to move forward in a great direction,” Minor said. “If we move apart, it’s not going to change anything.”