Lawrence City Commission to consider creating historic markers for police killings of two young men in 1970
City leaders will soon consider moving forward with the creation of historic markers to commemorate two young men who were killed in confrontations with police during racial and political unrest in the summer of 1970.
As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission will consider a recommendation from the Historic Resources Commission to create historic markers to memorialize the deaths of Rick “Tiger” Dowdell and Harry Nicholas “Nick” Rice.
The killings came amid a period of protests for civil rights and antiwar demonstrations in 1970 that were at times destructive — including the firebombing of the University of Kansas Memorial Union — and led to arrests and use of force and teargas by police, according to information on the Watkins Museum of History website. The National Guard was sent to Lawrence, a citywide curfew was put in place and classes at KU were called off early. The killings, which have been a topic of dispute, were a critical moment in the community tension at the time.
The HRC recently voted 6-0 to recommend that two or more historic markers be created to memorialize the killings of Dowdell and Rice and the civil unrest that took place in Lawrence in 1970 at the time of their deaths, as the Journal-World previously reported. Based on the HRC recommendation, city staff is recommending that the City Commission direct city planning staff to work with the Parks and Recreation Department, Human Relations Commission, Watkins Museum, and the Rice and Dowdell families to design markers and recommend placement options to the City Commission, according to a city staff memo to the commission.
The topic is before the commission following a letter from Rice’s brother, Christopher Rice, who is requesting that a marker be created for the 50-year anniversary of his brother’s death, which occurred four days after Dowdell’s.
Dowdell was killed on July 16, 1970, by Lawrence Police Officer William Garrett in the alley between Rhode Island Street and New Hampshire Street, according to a memo to the HRC from Historic Resources Administrator Lynne Braddock Zollner. Rice was killed on July 20, 1970, on Oread Avenue between West 12th Street and West 13th Street when police in riot gear were attempting to disperse a crowd gathered to protest Dowdell’s death.
Dowdell, a Black 19-year-old, was shot in the back of the head by Garrett while attempting to run from police, with police alleging they exchanged gunfire with Dowdell in the moments before his death, as the Journal-World has previously reported. A coroner’s inquest at the time found that Dowdell’s death was justified, though that finding has been controversial. During the protest four days later, Rice, a white 19-year-old, was also shot in the back of the head after police reportedly fired into a crowd of assembled protesters.
In correspondence with city staff, Christopher Rice said his brother was an innocent bystander and that over the past 50 years his family has suffered greatly, not only from the loss of his brother, but also from consistent misconceptions about the incident. Rice noted — as have other sources — that an inconclusive Kansas Bureau of Investigation report conducted after his brother’s killing conflicted with many eyewitness accounts that said police fired into the crowd of protesters and were the only people shooting. According to an article on the KU history website about the events of 1970, the KBI report did not take a position on the culpability for Rice’s death and said only that “police weapons were fired” and that Rice was later discovered dead. The KU article states that some information about both killings remains suppressed to this day.
The request for a marker from Rice is the third request regarding historic markers in the past year.
As for the other two, the NAACP is in the process of creating a memorial for the lynching of three Black men that occurred in Lawrence in 1882. Another group is asking that changes be made to the monument in Robinson Park, which is dedicated to the settlers of Lawrence. The monument was made out of the Shunganunga boulder, which was a sacred prayer rock for the Kanza tribe. Both of those projects are ongoing, and the commission will also consider moving forward with the NAACP request as part of Tuesday’s meeting.
Also as part of its meeting Tuesday, the commission will consider creating a formal process for future requests regarding historic markers. The HRC is recommending the creation of a subcommittee that reviews such requests, makes a recommendation to the HRC, which then would decide on a recommendation for the City Commission.
The City Commission will convene virtually at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, with limited staff members in place at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. The city has asked that residents participate in the meeting virtually, if they are able to do so, using temporary meeting procedures put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Directions for submitting public comment and correspondence are included in the meeting agenda that is available on the city’s website, lawrenceks.org.