A new exhibit at KU honoring African-American state legislators calls attention to the role electoral politics has played in the struggle for freedom and equality in Kansas.
The display, "Shaping Kansas Politics: The African-American Legislators," may be viewed at KU's Spencer Research Library, located between Strong Hall and the Campanile on the Lawrence campus, or online at spencer.lib.ku.edu through mid-March.
The exhibit contains items from KU's extensive holdings of African-American history and notes African-American legislative leadership in providing property-tax exemption for low-income senior citizens, prohibiting discrimination in mortgage-lending practices and establishing a sickle-cell anemia aid program. African-American legislators also played leading roles in divesting state-funded investments in South Africa during apartheid and sponsoring bills to help the economically disadvantaged maintain the physical condition of their homes.
The KU Libraries' African-American outreach program, based in the Kansas Collection at the Spencer library, maintains one of the region's largest archival collections documenting the experiences of Kansas African-American legislators.
These records are available for use by students, scholars and the public. They provide a wealth of information about the political, social and economic issues facing Kansas during the last half of the 20th century.
The Libraries' outreach program continues to seek donations from legislators and others who may hold related material to become part of the permanent historical record of Kansas and the nation.
African-Americans have served in the Kansas legislature since 1889. In that year, Alfred Fairfax, who had been enslaved and after liberating himself became a farmer and Baptist minister, was elected a representative from Chautauqua County.
Seven African-American legislators now serve in the 165-seat Kansas legislature, the most since 1978, when there were eight members. Because some legislators serve briefly as appointees, it is difficult to determine with certainty the total number of African-Americans who have served.
Most of the early African-American officeholders were Republicans, including William Blount, a physician, and lawyers William H. Towers and Myles C. Stevens. Eldred Browne, a chiropractor who served from 1955 to 1957, was the first African-American Democrat elected to the Kansas Legislature.
From 1889 until 1956, when Curtis R. McClinton Sr. was elected in Sedgwick County, all African-American state legislators had been elected in Wyandotte County. During the 1960s, when the legislature was reapportioned based on population, the number of African-American legislators increased.
The 1966 session included two African-American senators, McClinton of Sedgwick County and George Haley of Wyandotte County. Haley, who was later appointed by President Clinton to be U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Gambia, is the brother of famed Roots author Alex Haley and father of current Sen. David Haley of Kansas City, Kan.
African-American women joined their male counterparts in the 1990s. The 2006 legislative session includes Reps. Barbara Ballard of Douglas County; Valdenia Winn of Wyandotte County; and Oletha Faust-Goudeau and Melody McCray Miller from Sedgwick County.