“We’re such a divided nation,” my friend said with grief in her voice. “How did we let ourselves get to this point?”
The public climate grieves me, too. No longer rugged individuals, we Americans now seem to lump ourselves into opposing groups: Conservative and liberal. Citizen and immigrant.
Black and white.
Here in the Midwest we like to think we’re past that last one. We aren’t racist. We’re the free North. All the hostility we see on the news confuses us.
May I suggest a field trip or two to address that confusion?
Let’s start in Nicodemus, Kansas. In 1877 a white land developer and six black men formed the Nicodemus Town Company with the express purpose of offering land to African Americans. Former slaves from Kentucky and Mississippi bought land in Nicodemus township. Within a few years the community was thriving.
It’s a good story. A pioneer story. The plains were settled by people escaping all kinds of oppression. This community of African Americans seeking self-government fits the narrative. Nicodemus leaves us feeling happy about ourselves.
If we drive 250 miles east of Nicodemus, we come to a less self-congratulatory place in history. When we think of the fight to end school segregation, we tend to think of Southern states like Arkansas and Mississippi. But the first battle in that war was fought in Topeka, Kansas. Visit the Brown vs. the Board of Education National Historic Site for a sobering dose of civil rights history. While farm towns with tiny school districts educated black and white students together for practicality, once a town grew into a city segregation became the norm. It took a court case, not a friendly neighborhood potluck, to undo that situation.
Travel another 25-50 miles east and we find LeCompton and Lawrence, Ottawa and Osawatomie—the heart of the Border War, where the fight between abolitionist Kansas and slaveholding Missouri played out in murderous raids and fiery confrontations.
See the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. Learn about life among athletes and fans who were considered the wrong color for big league ballparks. The Negro Leagues didn’t just play in the South. They had teams in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.
Tour the Old Courthouse in St. Louis, where Dred Scott sued for freedom from his owner. (Spoiler alert: He lost. The Supreme Court ruled he was property, and property could not sue. Cue the Civil War.)
Learn about desegregation of the Natatorium in Davenport, Iowa. The public swimming pool was not open to African Americans until the late 1950s, at which time they were allowed to swim there one day per week.
I’ve left out historic sites in Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis and Omaha, places I haven’t personally visited. Check out the civil rights history of your hometown. You may be surprised at what you learn.
The racial divide in this nation is not founded on imagined slights and touchy feelings. We didn’t arrive at our current impasse in a vacuum. When we take the time to learn our history—our local, close-to-the-bone history, we begin to understand our current troubles. With understanding comes the kind of informed thinking that might just yield real solutions.