‘We need to talk about it’: Marker tells story of 14-year-old Black girl imprisoned after her 1882 rape

photo by: contributed

A historical marker provides information about the sexual assault of Margaret "Sis" Vinegar.

The wrongs against 14-year-old Margaret Vinegar came one after another. But a local remembrance project hopes to do some right by the young Black girl known as Sis.

Margaret was 14 in 1882 when David Bausman, a white farmer in his 40s, sexually assaulted her under the Kansas River bridge in downtown Lawrence. It was the first in a series of events that ended with Margaret dying in prison for a crime she didn’t commit.

Two male friends of Margaret’s family came upon the scene and intervened in the attack, and Bausman’s body was later found in the river. The two men, as well as Margaret’s father, Pete Vinegar, were lynched as a result, and Margaret, instead of being seen as a victim of rape, was cast as the sexual predator and convicted for murder. Now, a historical marker hopes to both recognize the racial and sexual violence that Margaret faced and offer her the remembrance she didn’t receive in life.

Ursula Minor, president of the Lawrence branch of the NAACP, said that because of her race, Margaret was not seen as the child or the victim that she was. Instead, Minor said articles written at the time made Margaret out to be the perpetrator.

“They portrayed Margaret as a prostitute or someone that was out doing things for money,” Minor said. “They never recognized her as a child. She was only 14 and she was being sexually assaulted by an older white man, which during that era most Black women and girls could not refuse advances of a white man.”

‘Something that needs to be talked about’

Margaret’s story is one that was all too common, reflecting attitudes and in some cases laws that did not see Black women and girls as worthy of protection from sexual violence. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, even before the Civil War’s end, Southern state legislatures implemented laws providing different sexual protections to white women and Black women. For instance, the Georgia Code of 1861 specified a mandatory sentencing range for raping a white woman but let courts decide whether and how to punish rapes of Black women.

The Lawrence branch of the NAACP has been working since 2019 with the Equal Justice Initiative, which created a national lynching memorial in Montgomery, to commemorate the lynching and the events surrounding it. The NAACP spearheaded the formation of a local coalition, the Community Remembrance Project coalition, for the project. Last year, for the 140th anniversary of the lynching of Vinegar and the two men who came to Margaret’s aid, the coalition erected a historical marker at the site of the lynching at the Kansas River bridge. The coalition is now proposing a second marker in remembrance of Margaret.

Text from the marker tells what happened to Margaret, putting it in context with the racial and sexual violence other Black girls and women faced during enslavement and after emancipation.

“Decades after the era of enslavement, sexual violence against Black girls and women was tolerated and unaddressed,” the marker states. “Margaret Vinegar became a victim of this violence and the racial bias that punished all who resisted the horrors of this abuse.”

Minor said Margaret’s story — the way she was publicly portrayed, that she was falsely accused of a crime, that she was imprisoned and soon after died — is one that needs to be recognized.

“It’s something that needs to be talked about,” she said. “It’s something that happened. I hate to say it, but if that had been a white 14-year-old girl, it would have been a whole different story.”

‘She was lynched anyway’

Coalition coordinator and Lawrence NAACP member Kerry Altenbernd said Margaret was tried on a false story that she had enticed her attacker under the bridge so her friends could rob him, with some accounts even saying that she was practicing prostitution. Though Altenbernd said there was no substantial evidence to back up the claims, an all-white male jury convicted her anyway.

“That’s what she was tried on, not the truth, but that story,” Altenbernd said.

Margaret was arrested along with the two male family friends, Isaac King and George Robertson, both of whom were Black, and her father, Pete Vinegar, who was not even in town the day in question. A large mob of white Lawrence residents later broke into the jail using sledgehammers and chisels and hanged all three men from the Kansas River bridge. The mob took a vote on whether to hang Margaret, and Altenbernd said she was spared that fate by one vote. Though she was not hanged, she did not escape an early death.

Following the lynching that killed Margaret’s father and the two other men, who had been staying with Margaret’s family, she was put on trial. An all-white male jury convicted her of murder. Her lawyers requested a new trial in another county, and in 1883 a second all-white jury convicted her as well. She died a few years later in prison.

“I look at it that she was lynched anyway,” Altenbernd said. “She was lynched by the court, not physically but legally lynched and sent away to rot, literally.”

Newspaper archives, letters and other historical documents previously reviewed by the Journal-World indicated that Margaret’s attorney, John Waller, argued there was no evidence that she conspired with King and Robertson to rob Bausman. In 1888, Waller was attempting to gain a pardon for Margaret; however, those same letters noted she was ill. Margaret would die from tuberculosis in the state penitentiary in Lansing at the age of 20, before any pardon was approved.

‘It’s not just in our past’

Altenbernd said that Margaret’s body is lost, and there are no records to indicate whether she was buried at a cemetery or in an unmarked grave on the prison grounds. He said it’s also possible her body was used for science, which was not uncommon with inmates at that time. Ideally, he said Margaret’s body could be found, exhumed and buried next to her father, who is buried in the potter’s field in Oak Hill Cemetery, but that seems unlikely.

“Her physical body is lost to history,” Altenbernd said. “That’s why it’s so important to make sure her story isn’t lost to history.”

With no clues as to where she may be, the coalition is proposing that her marker be placed near the site of her trial in downtown Lawrence. Altenbernd said that at the time of the trial, the courthouse was located near the northwest corner of Eighth and Kentucky streets, which is where the public pool is currently.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde/Journal-World

The northwest side of the intersection of 8th and Kentucky streets is pictured on April 22, 2023.

Minor said while the lynchings of the three men and the crimes against Margaret may not happen in the same way today, there are modern versions of that violence. She said that needed to be talked about, and that the coalition has a reconciliation group that aims to do just that. She urged people to get involved in that or other such groups.

“In the day and time that we live in now, lynchings and things like that, they don’t happen as we know it, but there are what I consider modern-day lynchings,” Minor said. “And people need to be aware of these things. That it’s not just in our past, there are things happening now, there’s things that happen every day. And that we need to know about it, we need to talk about it.”

The Lawrence Historic Resources Commission reviewed the proposal for Margaret’s marker as part of its meeting Thursday and is recommending it for approval. Historic Resources Administrator Lynne Braddock Zollner said the next step is for the Lawrence City Commission, which makes the ultimate decision, to consider the HRC’s recommendation. She said she doesn’t yet have a date for when the City Commission will consider the proposal, but that once approved the marker will be ready to install.

The coalition’s proposal states in part: “The Coalition is applying for approval for the installation of this marker to allow Margaret’s story to represent all those unknown, unnamed, unnumbered women and girls whose stories have never been told.”

Altenbernd said that the coalition hopes to hold a dedication ceremony for Margaret’s marker on June 10, the 141-year anniversary of the lynching.


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