Lawrence KS – Cool College Town with a Hot, Messy Past

Eight years living in Lawrence and totally oblivious to the town’s turbulent history – how could that be? During the first four years as young KU students, we were content to stay in our little bubble world. During our second four-year stint in Lawrence, we struggled just keep our heads above water and money in the checking account while juggling school, work and family responsibilities.

Fast forward to 2022 – we have plenty of time (and more motivation) to learn about a lot of things. Including the stories about Lawrence’s early days in the 1850s and 1860s when the national debate around slavery found its way to Kansas and turned ugly. Despite tragic setbacks, the town’s leaders persevered, assuring that Kansas would be admitted to the Union as a free state.

We wanted to know more, so during our recent homecoming trip to Kansas, we paid a visit to the Watkins Museum of History in downtown Lawrence.

Watkins Museum

Housed in a former bank, the Watkins Museum (free admission, donations appreciated) is worth a visit on two levels – the historical exhibits, of course, plus the architectural details of the gorgeous building where they are located.

Here’s the short version of those early, tumultuous years in Kansas history, followed by a few photos of key players.

  • When Kansas became a territory in 1854, Congress directed residents to vote on the question of whether or not to allow slavery.
  • There were multiple votes on the issue, but neither pro- nor anti-slavery proponents trusted the election process, so the outcomes were simply dismissed by the losing side.
  • Both sides engaged in a range of tactics – legal, borderline legal and blatantly illegal – to ensure that Kansas made the “correct” decision.
  • Violence was commonplace on both sides, and the battleground territory became known as “Bleeding Kansas.”
  • Lawrence, nicknamed the “Free State Fortress,” served as headquarters for the anti-slavery contingent and was ground zero for some of the most vicious attacks by pro-slavery guerillas.
  • Pro-slavery crusaders in next door Missouri applied the label of “Jayhawkers” to Kansans crossing the border to conduct anti-slavery raids. Eventually shortened to Jayhawks, the mythical bird later became the official mascot of the University of Kansas.
  • Kansas leaders wrote four state constitutions before one was finally adopted by Congress in January 1861, just three months prior to the onset of the Civil War.
  • The vote to grant statehood for Kansas occurred on the same day and just after a group of senators from southern states resigned from Congress.
  • Guerilla warfare between free state Kansas and slave state Missouri continued unabated throughout the Civil War.

The image depicted below, The Tragic Prelude created by John Steuart Curry in 1939, features John Brown, radical abolitionist and leading figure in the early Kansas anti-slavery cause. Was he a heroic martyr and visionary . . . or a terrorist and madman? In Kansas, he’s considered a hero. In fact, The Tragic Prelude is actually a large mural showcased at the the Kansas State Capitol.

The man on the left in the gallery below is William Quantrill, horse thief and infamous gang leader from Missouri, whose band of 450 pro-slavery ruffians stormed through Lawrence in 1863, looting property and murdering citizens. The town was burned to the ground.

On the right is Joel Grover, a Lawrence resident who sheltered people fleeing slavery in his stone barn, just one of many Kansans who participated in Underground Railroad operations.

Very glad we took the time to visit. It’s an important story, and we learned a lot.

(The museum contained other interesting exhibits that, in the interest of space, didn’t make it into this article.)

The University of Kansas Campus

Outsiders under the impression that Kansas is simply 80,000 square miles of flatland full of wheat fields may be surprised to learn that KU’s main campus is quite hilly. OK, it’s a relatively small hill at 1,037 feet in elevation, but Mt. Oread (the official name) is steep enough to get your attention. And the campus has maintained its beauty over the years, even as the University has expanded.

A few photos:

And just for fun Part I: Brand new during our early years in Lawrence, Wescoe Hall (shown below) has faced “withering ridicule from faculty and students” ( since it opened in 1973, and it’s still the ugliest building on campus. No contest.

Just for fun Part II: Oliver Residence Hall (below) was home for my first two years at KU and as a coed dorm, it was considered quite progressive and a little risqué. Oliver opened in 1966 but is undergoing deconstruction this summer. There’s even a Facebook page devoted to its demise: Oliver Hall Demolition Watch Party.

KU doesn’t exactly have a long and storied football tradition, but the setting for the stadium is nice, and the school has seen a handful of standout players over the years.

Finally, one location on campus is particularly special to us – Danforth Chapel, where we were married in 1975. It’s still beautiful, inside and out.

We returned to the campus a couple of times to check out two relatively recent additions: 1) DeBruce Center, and 2) Dole Institute of Politics.

The DeBruce Center

The DeBruce Center, along with the Booth Family Athletic Hall of Fame, is located at Allen Fieldhouse, home of KU basketball since 1955. KU is currently the winningest team in college basketball and still reveling in its current year NCAA championship.

The DeBruce Center is a gallery dedicated to sharing the story of basketball at KU, beginning with James Naismith, who invented the game in 1891 as a YMCA instructor in Springfield, Massachusetts. He was hired by KU in 1898 to establish a basketball team, teach physical education and assume chaplain duties.

As it turned out, he wasn’t much of a coach (55 wins and 60 losses), but during his tenure at KU, the nascent sport of basketball took off both nationally and internationally. He presented the Olympic medals for basketball at the sport’s debut in Berlin in 1936. Mr. Naismith retired from KU in 1937 and remained in Lawrence, where he died just a couple of years later.

Phog Allen, who was a player on Naismith’s basketball team, is equally legendary at KU, having served as head basketball coach for 39 years with a list of accomplishments that included 24 conference championships and three national titles. He retired from coaching in 1956 and lived in Lawrence until his death in 1974.

In 2010, Naismith’s grandson asked Sotheby’s to auction off the elder Naismith’s “Original Rules of Baseball” document, which consists of two typewritten pages along with some handwritten notes. KU alumnus David Booth and his wife, Suzanne, outbid competitors and paid $3.8 million (plus another $500K in fees) to secure the prize, and the rules are now displayed at the DeBruce Center.

Sort of. Because special precautions are required to protect the fragile document, it’s contained within a small, dark niche that lights up (barely) for a few seconds when you press a button. The image below features a more accessible and reviewable copy of the rules, along with a photo of James Naismith (left) and Phog Allen during their amazing years at KU.

Dole Institute of Politics

Dedicated in 2003, the Institute was founded by Sen. Robert Dole at the University of Kansas with the mission of promoting “political and civic participation as well as civil discourse in a bi-partisan, balanced manner.” Something we currently need more of in this country.

Bob Dole (1923-2021) was a native Kansan who became a leading political figure in the Republican Party on the national stage, including eight years in the U.S. House of Representatives and 27 years in the Senate (11 years as Republican Leader). He was the Republican presidential nominee in 1996, losing to the incumbent Bill Clinton.

Recruited by none other than Coach Phog Allen, Mr. Dole arrived at KU in the fall of 1941, where he became a member of the basketball, football and track teams. Like many young men, his studies were interrupted by World War II after just one year at KU.

As an Army officer, he was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division in 1945: “I’m Lieutenant Dole. I’m going to be leading the platoon. Dole. Like the pineapple juice.”

While serving in Italy, he was struck by a German shell and severely wounded. Paralyzed from the neck down, he survived (barely) but faced a long and arduous rehabilitation process: “I arrived home from the war in a plaster cast that went from my ears to my hips. I nearly died from a fever and lost a kidney. Six months went by before I could get out of bed. For nearly a year I couldn’t feed myself. I had to learn to walk and dress myself all over again.” He eventually recovered but endured lifelong physical limitations from his injuries.

Years later as an elected official, he was a staunch Conservative but supported game-changing legislation considered progressive at the time, including the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

Sadly, we still have much work ahead to ensure that “the same set of rules [is] applied to everybody” in this country.

Although we don’t agree with current conservative positions on matters of public policy, we’re glad to have visited the Dole Institute and wholeheartedly support its mission. If only . . . .

Haskell Indian Nations University (HINU)

Before wrapping up our visit to Lawrence, there’s another institution of higher learning in town that deserves some attention. HINU is one of two institutions of higher learning in the U.S. operated by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs – the other is Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque. Each semester, HINU serves about 800-850 students representing 130-150 federally recognized tribes. To enroll, students must prove they are at least 25% American Indian or Alaska Native.

We made a quick visit to the campus, hoping to learn more about Haskell’s origin as an Indian boarding school as well as its current programs. Unfortunately, we were not well prepared, since the Haskell Cultural Center and Museum was closed on the day of our visit, and we didn’t learn about the self-guided walking tour until later.

There were, however, quite a few informational placards scattered around the campus, mostly providing information about various historical buildings.

The grounds and some of the buildings are in need of significant TLC. Our impression was that the school is underfunded and lacks the resources to properly invest in maintenance and improvements. Even the website contains outdated information about the academic calendar, etc. Not really sure why that is.

We were able to learn about Haskell’s early history via some online sleuthing. The facility opened in 1884 as the Industrial Training School – a boarding school for indigenous children, #6 of 27 government-operated off-reservation schools that were a key component of our country’s wrong-headed initiative to assimilate the Native American population by destroying their indigenous cultures, languages and identities, and imposing Euro-American standards of appearance, thought and behavior.

Map showing where 27 off-reservation boarding schools were located (Credit:

By 1925, most school-age American Indian children were attending one of 367 boarding schools operated by governmental entities and churches across the country, and just to be clear, the vast majority were there against the wishes of their families.

The experiment ultimately failed, but it’s another dark chapter in U.S. history, I’m afraid. Unlike most of the other boarding schools, Haskell evolved, first becoming a vocational-technical institution in 1935, a junior college in 1970, and a four-year university in 1993. Today, HINU embraces, celebrates and promotes the history, cultures, sovereignty and self-determination of Native Americans.

We spent a wonderful week in Lawrence, reconnecting with old friends and old places, as well as taking in new information and new places. Thanks for coming along!

Categories: KansasTags: , , , , ,


  1. Great post! Digging deep into the past!


  2. Oh my goodness. We just returned from a KU visit this week and found it to be as charming and unique as it has always been, including an old haunt; Louise’s! I performed the KU Alma Mater and National Anthem for the Jayhawk Roundball Classic at Free State High School. I found your writings interesting as they related to Free State. We stayed at the Oread on campus and if you have never taken the opportunity to go way up top, the views are so cool. Looking forward to my next visit…


    • As a champion Jayhawk fan, I thought you might take a look at this post! We’re looking forward to our next visit as well, whenever that may be . . .


  3. Bold presentation. Nicely done.


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