Visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. and you’ll see glimpses of Wichita. You’ll see photographs of the 1958 Dockum Sit-in and NAACP youth leader Ron Walters The Kansas African American Museum donated.
Travel to Selma, Ala., and you’ll find a monument to native Wichitan the Rev. James Reeb, martyred there during a 1965 voting rights march. Stop in Atlanta, and you’ll find an expressway named for civil rights lawyer and native Wichitan Donald Hollowell, who’s known in Dr. King’s hometown as “Mr. Civil Rights.” It seems Wichita’s African American contributions enjoy more appreciation elsewhere, but that need not be the case.
While the City ponders a billion-dollar, 55-acre riverfront development, it should earmark a chunk of those funds to make TKAAM a regional tourism attraction and to place that attraction on the riverfront. A lot of cities would kill for our history and certainly, some people (Reeb) have died for it.
The Sedgwick County Jail encircles TKAAM and regularly operates at or beyond capacity making an expansion and the eventual swallowing up of what used to be the Calvary Baptist church a virtual certainty.
TKAAM and its $1 million collection deserve a home commensurate with the city and state’s rich cultural and civil rights heritage. There’s plenty of history to fill the building and regional crowds would pile in to experience it.
Developer George Laham offered a similar suggestion years ago (Waterwalk).
Wichita is home to more Gordon Parks photography than anywhere else outside New York City thanks to Wichita State’s and TKAAM’s collections. Wichita was the home of WWII’s national Double V campaign and of Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Oscar.
This enhanced institution would launch The Kansas African American History Trail to stops in Nicodemus, The Brown v. Board museum in Topeka, to the Langston Hughes walking tour in Lawrence, the John Brown festival and museum in Osawatomie, and more.
This civic gem built on our collective history would deliver more educational value than a baseball stadium. It also could help everyone learn to navigate a decidedly more diverse America.
African American Wichita has earned this. It suffered the tragedy of a 1965 neighborhood air tanker crash made more deadly because segregation packed people into that small area where the plane shattered and incinerated numerous homes. Years ago, the government rammed I-135 right through its heart. That community’s taxes for decades funded schools in other neighborhoods while their schools and property values crumbled.
Today, Evergy has impaled that neighborhood on 105-foot electrical towers, decimating decades of home ownership wealth. Evergy has the resources and the know-how to make this cultural center a reality. This won’t compensate those homeowners, but it’s a good start.
In an era where Wichita has learned to celebrate itself with a new city symbol decorating flags, T-shirts and bumper stickers, this recognition of its striking and frankly bankable black history is overdue. Other cities consider our history investment worthy. Why shouldn’t Wichita?