Racism and Resistance in Kansas


Kansas City postcard, c.1918

by Andrew Witt

This Is Not Dixie: Racist Violence in Kansas, 1861-1927,
Brent M. S. Campney,
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 296 pp.

Brent M. S. Campney’s This Is Not Dixie: Racist Violence in Kansas, 1861-1927 is a compelling and exhaustive work that examines the long history of anti-black violence and racism in Kansas, as well as the myriad efforts by African Americans to resist white supremacy. Campney’s work counters the common depiction of Kansas as a relatively sympathetic state to African Americans because of its free-state movement in the 1850s; lynchings and overt anti-black violence were omnipresent in Kansas. Campney uses what he calls “a more capacious model” in examining the anti-black violence in Kansas; therefore, he examines not just high-profile lynchings of African Americans but also murder, as well as rape, arson, beatings, stabbings, and any other anti-black violence that was used to terrorize and intimidate African Americans in Kansas. He also includes the killings of African Americans by police in this study as he notes that the police killed at least seventeen blacks from 1893 to 1908. In addition, the author includes the many attempted lynchings in Kansas during this time frame, because virulent white racism was still present even if “they left no dead black bodies swinging from tree limbs” (p. 3).

As part of his study Campney also examines the banishment of African Americans from many counties in Kansas, and thus illustrates how “sun-down towns” and communities were all white because overt violence—rather than de facto segregation—kept African Americans out. Furthermore, he documents how violence upheld segregation in schools, kept blacks disenfranchised, and relegated them to the bottom of the labor force. This Is Not Dixie enriches the scholarship because, as Campney realizes, many writers continue to focus on the American South when discussing the history of lynching and violence against African Americans, but he proves that states like Kansas were just as brutal as their southern counterparts. His focus on Reconstruction and the nadir also contributes to the scholarship by filling in historical gaps in the depiction of race relations in Kansas. Kansas witnessed a large influx of African American migrants during and after the Civil War followed by persistent efforts by white Kansans to remove, repress, or kill them.

This work is not merely a listing of all the efforts of white supremacists to terrorize the black population in Kansas, as Campney does a splendid job of documenting the agency of African Americans throughout the work. He notes that some of the resistance was subtle, or that some was institutional, for instance, with the establishment of black newspapers and local civil rights organizations. What this work really does well, however, is further illustrate the prevalence of African Americans using armed self-defense in the historical record. Chapter 5 exposes the lengths to which African Americans went to protect their neighbors and communities from anti-black violence, such as with the five-hundred-person defense of a jail in Argentine, Kansas, in 1899. Also, by clearly documenting militant resistance by African Americans during the 1860s-1920s, Campney asserts that any discussion of a “Long Civil Rights Movement,” as posited by Jacquelyn Hall and other scholars, should not stop at the 1930s but should go back much further, even to Emancipation.

Campney is careful not to overgeneralize his portrayal of whites in Kansas. At times, whites thwarted lynchings or helped blacks escape from lynch mobs, but these instances were relatively rare. Many whites were too scared to help African Americans or not committed enough to risk their life in the defense of black people. The author also documents how some white police officers vigorously defended African Americans from lynch mobs, and the various reasons why they did so, such as the increased professionalization of the police force during this time or their concern for the welfare of their prisoners. For example, Campney cites fifty-four police interventions that prevented lynchings between 1890 and 1916.

A possible shortcoming of this work is his heavy reliance on newspapers. The author recognizes the problem with newspapers as “imperfect sources,” as they are especially prone to biases and opinions, yet the majority of sources in this work come from newspapers (p. 16). For instance, of the ninety-two separate citations in chapter 3, seventy-four are from newspapers. In chapter 6, seventy-three of the seventy-nine citations come from newspapers. To some extent, the extensive citing of newspapers serves to distract the reader from seeing Campney’s own observations on the subject matter. In closing, despite its relatively modest shortcomings, This Is Not Dixie is a most welcome addition to the scholarship and should be consulted by anyone wishing to know more about African American history in the Midwest.

Piece originally published at H-Net Reviews under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.