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A Topeka-area School District Was Named After A KKK Leader, So Some Students Want A Change

101820_CLJ_SeamanNewspaperClip
On April 7, 1925, the Topeka Journal wrote that local KKK leader Fred Seaman sought to sway a mayoral election with his endorsement. Klan members handed out fliers announcing Seaman’s preferred candidate to voters arriving at the polls. The candidate won.

Fred Seaman founded Seaman High School 100 years ago. He launched the first-ever “Klan ticket” in Topeka elections, newspapers reported at the time.

A northeast Kansas school district was named after a leader of the Topeka Ku Klux Klan, student journalists at Seaman High School revealed on Friday.

Fred Seaman tried and failed to become head of the state’s public schools in the mid-1920s, when the terror group made a concerted effort across the country to fill public offices with Klansmen or other white supremacists.

The revelation has some students calling for a change to the name of Seaman Unified School District 345 and its sole high school to make clear that the community today does not share Fred Seaman’s values.

“It’s going to be a really divisive issue to our community. It’s really going to shape it,” said Seaman High School sophomore Rene Cabrera, who identifies as Hispanic and had relatively few classmates and teachers of color growing up in the district.

The core of Topeka is more diverse, but to its north, enrollment at the nearly 4,000-student USD 345 is 82% white.

If the community stands by the Seaman name, Cabrera said, people of color could feel less welcome.

“For example, if I have kids, am I going to raise my kids here at Seaman?” he said, “Or am I basically going to leave to Lawrence or something where people of color are more welcomed?”

A spokesperson for USD 345 said on Sunday that the superintendent and school board will plan “a process for community input and board discussion.”

Student journalists reported last week on Fred Seaman’s role in the KKK in their online newspaper, The Clipper. The article was based on new research by teachers at the school, who scoured century-old newspapers for evidence.

The district’s namesake founded its high school 100 years ago and served as the principal.

Seniors Madeline Gearhart and Tristan Fangman, The Clipper’s co-editors, say rumors of his link to the KKK passed down year after year among students and teachers.

Articles from 1920s issues of The Kansas City Star and papers in Topeka and other cities confirm it.

History teacher Nathan McAlister and journalism teacher Amy Riley dug for more evidence after an archivist at the Kansas Historical Society passed one such piece to McAlister this summer.

“It’s easy for people to dismiss one piece of evidence,” Riley said. “As you gather more evidence, your story becomes stronger.”

They found several more articles last week.

McAlister and Riley attended the district as students in the 1980s and 1990s and say they heard the rumors of Fred Seaman’s Klan history at that time, too.

What they found makes clear that he wasn’t just a member, but enjoyed influence in the Klan, and that the wider community knew of that standing.

Klan surge in Topeka and Kansas

The 1920s saw a resurgence of the KKK’s influence, particularly in states such as Kansas that hadn’t been part of the Confederacy. Millions of whites joined and tens of thousands of robed Klansmen marched in Washington, D.C.

Nearly 1,200 people joined the Klan’s 1923 march in Topeka, according to a Topeka Daily Capital article from July 22 headlined: “The KKK Owned Topeka Last Night.”

The Kansas Historical Society, a state agency, says the state had about 30 KKK chapters and 60,000 Klansmen by that year. As its influence grew, some politicians ran on Anti-Klan platforms, vowing to curb the group’s spread. Gov. Henry Allen opposed the Klan and the state Legislature banned it in the mid-1920s.

But nationally and in Kansas, the growing Klan used its influence to fill public offices with Klan members or candidates they felt supported their anti-Black, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant agenda.

“The Klan made war via elections,” New York University historian Linda Gordon wrote in her 2017 book, The Second Coming of the Klan. “No one has been able to count all the Klan candidates elected to state and local offices.”

Seaman sought to carry out that mission in Topeka, too.

A 1926 Kansas City Star article identifies him as a “well-known” Klansman and head of the Topeka KKK. That article came amid his bid for the Republican nomination in the race for state superintendent of schools.

A year earlier, the Topeka Journal says he launched the city’s first-ever “Klan ticket,” endorsing 10 people for public office, including five candidates for school board positions.

The Klan sought to sway the races by handing paper slips listing the endorsements to voters at the polls on Election Day.

The surprise endorsements and mass distribution of fliers mobilized last-minute efforts by opponents to undermine it by urging Black, Catholic and Jewish voters to turn out at the polls.

“With close to 2,000 votes cast,” the paper wrote, “the appearance is that the election vote will be one of the biggest in the history of city elections.”

The same day, the KKK’s Hutchinson branch used the same last-day tactic in its quest to oust school board members who refused to purge the city’s classrooms of teachers who were Catholic.

Seaman High School had students of color even in its early years, which Riley and Fangman say made some suspect the rumors about Seaman couldn’t be true or he would have blocked enrollment by non-whites.

“I didn’t find out until recently that high schools had to be integrated,” Fangman said. Now, she said, “I realize that wasn’t his choice.”

In the 1920s, most Kansas schools, including Seaman High, were required by state law to serve Black students. That fact is commonly misunderstood today because elementary schools within Topeka city limits remained segregated until the 1950s Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit.

Cabrera and other students say they plan to circulate a petition calling for a name change and address the school board at its next meeting.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health and education for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

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