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The Epicenter of the Free State Movement

A history major at the University of Kansas received an Undergraduate Research Award and studied the African-American history of Lawrence, Kansas. He found that though the city was the epicenter of the free state movement before the Civil War, it struggled later with racial integration. His findings note a history which he says, "can contribute greatly to the field of African-American urban history.

Paul Fowler III enjoys the past — dusty manuscripts, faded pictures. As he looks through materials in the Spencer Research Library, he gets a sense of living in another time. People in 1887 or in 1910 tell their stories through letters and sepia-toned photographs.

“You start to feel a connection,” Fowler says. “That’s what I love about history. You’ve got a question to answer. At first, you’re not sure which direction to go, but over time you piece things together.”

Growing up in Lawrence, Fowler heard many stories about the African-American community. Later, as a history major, he had a chance to study those stories in depth when, in his senior year, he won an Undergraduate Research Award. But one of his mentors, Clarence Lang, says Fowler’s research is important beyond this state’s borders.

“Lawrence can tell us something beyond itself, beyond the region,” Lang, an associate professor of American and African-American studies, says. “A history like this can contribute greatly to the field of African-American urban history.”

Fowler researched cultural institutions such as African-American churches or the desegregated movie house, the Patee Theatre, the first feature film theater in the Western United States. Lawrence had been the epicenter of the free state movement before the Civil War, but in later years it struggled with racial integration and continuing on in the tradition of its progressive beginnings. In his research, Fowler found African-American newspapermen, business owners, and other professionals like the Harvey brothers, but he also found racism, violence, and segregation. He says the past was complex, never simple.

“Not all whites were racist, and not all blacks were activists,” says Fowler, who, now that he’s graduated from KU, is considering a graduate degree. “As a historian I have to investigate this time without bias so people will have a better understanding of what happened.

Information provided by University of Kansas.