Kansas history crash course: State is more than just flyover country

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Kansas adopted the sunflower as its official state flower in 1903, though it was considered by many to be a weed. (Katelin Woods | Collegian Media Group)

Though many consider it flyover country, Kansas has a rich, fascinating — and sometimes bloody — history that often falls by the wayside. Jan. 29 marks 159 years of Kansas statehood, since it was admitted into the United States in 1861.

“Even the students who come into my classes who are born and raised in Kansas and went through Kansas public schools … really don’t know much about the history of this state,” Jim Sherow, university distinguished professor of history, said.

Sherow is a fourth-generation Kansan who has dedicated over 25 years to studying and teaching history, specializing in the history of Kansas, the U.S. West and the North American Indian Peoples. He is also the managing editor of the scholarly journal “Kansas History: Journal of the Central Plains.”

Kansas has been a trailblazer and set the agenda for many national affairs, including civil rights, suffrage, Prohibition and water rights legislation, Sherow said.

“There are a lot of different aspects to the state’s history that are really important,” Sherow said. “Not only from a local, regional, state perspective, but they also have a way of affecting and shaping national politics.”

Ginette Aley, visiting assistant professor of history, said some do not realize how often Kansas has been a leader.

“There’s no doubt that the state’s founding as part of the of the sociopolitical fight over stopping the spread of slavery makes it unique as a state,” Aley, who teaches History of Kansas, said via email. “This is not to say that mid-nineteenth century Americans who migrated to Kansas in the 1850s were enlightened or egalitarian in their views about race — they weren’t. But they were passionate about a commitment to stop the spread of slavery west. And, that work involved the work of women and African Americans.”

Misinformation and negative stereotypes about Kansas history are pervasive, many perpetuated by a certain Hollywood movie featuring ruby slippers.

“Oftentimes the state is known as the ‘Dust Bowl State,’ right or wrong,” Sherow said. “And then there are stereotypes about the state being a tornado state, and it actually has fewer tornadoes than some of our neighboring states.”

Of course, some aspects of Kansas’ history have been less than golden.

“There’s been other aspects of state history that have been not so pleasant to remember, like the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and how powerful it was in this state — hugely powerful as a matter of fact,” Sherow said.

Bleeding Kansas — the violent struggle over whether Kansas would be a free or slave state — has had a long-reaching impact on the state’s development. Sherow pointed to the role abolitionists played in the founding of universities across Kansas.

“You’re kind of setting the genetic code for these institutions and for the social and political structure of the state,” Sherow said. “So that has a huge bearing on how the history of a state will unfold.”

Kansas has historically been the battleground of divisive political issues such as segregation, suffrage, prohibition (three counties in Kansas are “dry” to this day) and abortion legislation, which continues to be debated in the statehouse.

“I would say that many have forgotten or never learned that Kansas has been part of some liberal, progressive issues in the past, whether it’s been to advance the cause of abolitionism, women’s rights including suffrage and agricultural reform,” Aley said.

This is Sherow’s last semester before he retires from teaching. Though he will be leaving Kansas to move to Vancouver Island, Canada, he describes Kansas with a unique fondness.

“A lot of people see this landscape as boring, and I see it anything but,” Sherow said. “The unfortunate thing for a great many Kansans … is that we have precious few opportunities to really go out and enjoy it.”

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My name is Rebecca Vrbas. I’m the culture editor at the Collegian and a junior in journalism and mass communications. My hobbies include obsessing over an ever-expanding pool of musicals and cats (not the musical). I love writing because of the infinite intricacy of language, as well as its power to cultivate a sense of community through sharing experiences.