Up until now, my knowledge of Kansas was limited to Dorothy’s escapades and knowing that’s where convicted military criminals go to make big rocks into smaller ones.
We opted by bypass Leavenworth and focus on more noteworthy (and less felonious) stops.
We departed Cuba wicked early and made for Topeka, Kansas. It was our intent to stop and do lunch in Topeka after we checked out the National Park Service (NPS) site, the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. The following and final leg of the day’s drive was rather nebulously defined as we had yet to determine where in Kansas we would overnight. Friday night of Memorial Day weekend, should be pretty easy to find a reputable place to park the rig sans reservations, right?
This particular NPS site is housed in the former Monroe Elementary School, which was one of the four segregated elementary schools open to African-American children in Topeka in the early 1950’s. This schoolhouse served as the launching point for the five collective cases that came to be known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which began the process to legally overturn the Jim Crow laws that had sprung up in the decades following the Civil War. Following these segregation laws was the 1896 ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson that specifically permitted that separate but equal public education was permissible. Until I put together Keeper’s study packet on this subject, I hadn’t remembered that there were five cases that fell under this notorious ruling.
During our visit, I learned it was then 46-year old Thurgood Marshall who, while representing the NAACP, told each of the plaintiffs that their impact would not be significant enough to get the Supreme Court’s attention should each case be evaluated alone. He convinced them it would be wiser to band together, arguing that these five different situations in Kansas, Delaware, Virginia, South Carolina, and Washington DC all demonstrated that the previous ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson was indeed unconstitutional. In 1954 the Supreme Court unanimously declared that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and our nation began the process of desegregating educational experiences “with all deliberate speed”.
Two things jumped out at me in that little schoolhouse in Topeka. First, because the quality of education and the disparity between segregated schools varied widely by location, the Supreme Court deferred to state and local governments to responsibly make the desegregation of public education so, which meant there was no defined timeline for the transition to occur. I was dismayed to learn the great lengths some pockets of our nation went to defy this Supreme Court Ruling. For example, Virginia state legislature rallied to advise that any public school subject to federally-mandated integration would be closed instead. This opprobrious behavior continued for five years.
I was also intrigued to learn that the Brown v. Board case was specifically chosen because the two elementary schools used to demonstrate the inherent inequality in segregated educational experiences were nearly identical in every way (e.g. facilities, teacher education, books, etc.). By citing the segregated elementary school system of Topeka (whose higher grades had been integrated for decades and where on paper the schooling was nearly identical), it was possible to clearly demonstrate that, by removing all other variables, a segregated primary educational experience was fraught with disadvantage for everyone involved. Interesting to note, they also used the name of the only male parent plaintiff to gain more “credibility” for the class action case. In putting this Supreme Court ruling in historical perspective, I incredulously realized it still took another decade for the remaining Jim Crow Laws to be overturned by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I took a moment to reflect on my own amazing elementary and middle school experience at the widely diverse Martin Luther King, Junior, Experimental Laboratory School (King Lab for short) and gave thanks again for the bubble in which I was raised.
Junior Rangers badged, we had a short, hot lunch – hot not for the food choices but because the temperature within Davista skyrocketed as she was parked, windows closed in open sun. Lunch devoured, we got underway with several Kansas State Parks as potential overnight possibilities on our way to the Denver area. And, as we have been reminded by many a non-RV owning friend, there was always Walmart…
We learned at our first stop why no one was answering the phone when we tried to call to make a reservation. It was free! You could just pull up and set up your rig anywhere. For any period of time. And plenty of folks did. Still subject to find-the-best-campsite-itis, Flight and I eyed the remaining mileage to get our Rocky Mountain high on (check out this vintage ad for Coors), assessed our long-encamped potential neighbors, and looked at the upcoming lakefront Kansas State Parks along our path. Despite Flight’s fiery sciatic nerve, we decided to press on.
We rolled into Glen Elder State Park at dinner time-ish. A 30-minute drive through each of the four campgrounds showed no open designated spots, not even any primitive ones without hook-ups (e.g. water, electric, sewer, even cable at some…). After passing through the four different campgrounds, we noticed there were plenty of folk getting their camp on pretty much wherever. We stopped to ask one of the Camp Hosts (a temporary title bestowed on an RV family who serves as the Park POC in exchange for a free stay) about finding a spot. They assured us all official spots, with hook-ups or no, were reserved, but we could park anywhere we wanted. When we asked about a fee, they told us since Memorial Day Weekend was such a madhouse and we were leaving in the morning anyway, we could just stay for free.
Well, Kansas is all right.
Flight and I debated the pros and cons of a free off-grid birdie in the hand versus the unknown of the next Kansas State Park down the road. It wasn’t a long debate and we unceremoniously staked our claim at the next open lakefront location we saw. It was unceremonious in that we pulled off the road, didn’t even disconnect the Subaru, or exit Davista before we extended the slide out, deployed our stabilization jacks, and turned on the generator, using the latter to prepare dinner and support our children’s screen habits. Exhibiting uncharacteristic apathy, even Flight refrained from exploring our local environs before we dined, shared a family movie night, and crashed out.
Were we inclined to stay longer, this State Park was in a lovely location, but we were eager to get back to the mountain west where we had reservations with full hook-ups. I did capture our spot after we retracted jacks and the slide before we rolled on to Golden.
An added benefit to our staying at Glen Elder was that it put us near another NPS site in Nicodemus NHS, so we stopped just after they opened and learned about another aspect of our nation’s history, one that tied in nicely with our Topeka stop the day prior.
Nicodemus, Kansas, is a unique town that is now 18 citizens strong, yet the current diminutive population size should not take away from its significance. In the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, those Americans who, despite being legally granted their freedom, still found substantial discrimination in the deep South longed, understandably, for a truly free community. Acting on these desires was a remarkable group of recently liberated families who made their way west to establish a place free of the limiting beliefs deeply entrenched in the southern states. One of the volunteers at the NPS site was a 6th generation resident of Nicodemus, where her three times great grandfather was the first born in this new settlement. She further confided her four times great grandmother traveled west at eight months pregnant. !!!
What I found most remarkable about Nicodemus was not only what those founding families accomplished, but that they recognized how significant their actions were and recorded everything, taking a surprising number of photographs and keeping copious journals. Much to the frustration of archeologists, most of humanity, unless you have “Emperor” or “Queen” in your title, has not seen fit to leave records of their day-to-day existence. In speaking with this 6th generation Nicodemus resident (and her young daughter is 7th generation, she told me), I commented on how impressive it was that these early Nicodemus residents were so intent on capturing their experiences. She replied that they simply knew what they were doing was momentous and documented as much as they could. Although most of their descendants have since moved on, I am awed by what these early pioneers were able to accomplish.
As we pressed westward, Flight and I had an interesting discussion stemming from the one I had with the Nicodemus volunteer. We, too, are (somewhat belatedly, sigh…) attempting to capture our trip’s experiences in this blog because we recognize how uniquely privileged we are to be able to so travel. Very few people have a flexible enough occupations to allow for this opportunity, and fewer still are willing and able to capitalize on that flexibility.
Flight and I agreed that we have each formed our impressions of places we had seen in our younger years and are finding that those perspectives are sometimes jarringly (and sometimes only slightly) different from our interpretations this go around. Neither of us is sure whether it is these locations or we that have evolved in the interim, likely both.
Our discussion then pushed in an unexpected direction, and not just because I was driving and it was (surprise, surprise) blowing stink across Tornado Alley.
I observed to Flight that, despite taking pride in our nation as a melting pot, there seems to be an opposing desire to normalize the collective American experience. I’m not sure if this push for normalization is due to or based on the apparent globalization of small town, USA, redefining much of our nation as a conglomerate of golden arches, Sam’s Club, Target, and countless other ubiquitous chains. While that movement has certainly made our travels far easier (I’m thankful Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods are far more prevalent than even five years ago), I can’t help but wonder what long-standing local Mom and Pop treasures we’ve missed out on. These unique gems seem to be slowly winking out across our nation, overrun by the ever-expanding gargantuan chain establishments. Stephen King’s Langoliers come to mind…
After mulling that over for a stretch of miles, I further wondered aloud why, despite this longing to become loosely defined all-American citizens, there still remains a conscious pursuit of tribal self-identification. Using DNA testing companies and participating in the genome project have recently become all the rage. But why? I had always learned it was our nation’s diversity that provided our unmatched strength and depth, so why then do we as individuals eagerly seek out a unique existence defined by our roots, genetic or otherwise, despite a public (subconscious?) tendency to promote a uniform American identity? At first blush, I’m really not sure what’s at the root of these seemingly contradictory personal and public agendas and, frankly, I’m not sure what that juxtaposition says about the prognosis of our nation’s prosperity. In the meantime, I will continue to give thanks for the freedoms I enjoy, for the privilege of doing my part to help make that so, and, with intention this Memorial Day, for my sisters and brothers in arms, especially those who have given the ultimate sacrifice.