City of Wichita announces $1 million allocation to transform Findley Ross Park into a Black History park featuring the Dockum Drug Store sit-in sculpture.
Black history in Wichita is about to become a lot more visible.
On Saturday night, at the annual NAACP Wichita Branch Freedom Fund Banquet, Wichita Councilman Brandon Johnson announced the allocation of $1 million to begin work on creating a park in downtown Wichita that will highlight more of Wichita’s African American history. The park will be in the space currently identified as Finley Ross Park, located on Douglas just east of Century II.
Many people may not know the park by it’s name, instead they know it as the space that for years has been the home of the dragon Christmas decoration.
One of the key attractions of the park will be the $3-million, 20-foot-long bronze sculpture depicting the Wichita NAACP youth-led Dockum Drug Store sit-in. The sculpture, which had been in the Chester I. Lewis Park, a few blocks east on Douglas ,was removed during the redesign of that park inconjunction with the buildout of the new Kansas Osteopathic Hospital in the old Macy’s Department Store Building at Broadway and William.
“With the money allocated, we will get started on a request for bids to hire an architect and get rolling on the design for the park,” Johnson said. “Once we have the design and an idea of what the total project will cost, the NAACP can begin working on fundraising.”
Johnson expects the total project to cost more than the $1 million allocated and sees the park as being one part of an African-American History Trail in downtown Wichita, that includes the Lewis Park, the yet to be renamed Finley Ross Park, the Kansas African American Museum, the Hattie McDaniel House and many other historical Black sites located in Wichita’s core.
Lewis was the president of the NAACP Wichita Branch chapter and a mentor to the students who every day from July 19 to August 11, 1958, quietly occupied seats at the drugstore lunch counter until the drug store manager gave up and ordered that they be served.
It was the first successful, student-led sit-in in the nation, and came long before the famous Greensboro sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter in 1960.
But Johnson said the sit-in was only one facet of Lewis’ service. He also served on the legal team that argued Topeka vs. Board of Education, helped desegregate restaurants, swimming pools,and the city’s aircraft companies and fought for fair housing.
The decision to move the lunch counter sculpture from the Lewis Park was made in part to develop a more balanced portrayal of Lewis’ career.
The successful sit-in did not draw national attention and has remained largely absent from history books. Johnson said he hopes the new park will help change that by bringing school groups, families and tourists to a site filled with educational opportunities.
.The City will work closely with the NAACP Wichita branch in the transformation, content and design of the park, with the NAACP being in charge of approving the design and making decisions about exactly how it will function.
NAACP Wichita Branch Secretary Elaine Guillory said there has been discussion about how to display the sculpture ever since it was moved at the beginning of the construction of Chester Lewis Park but decisions have been on hold until the city took action.
She said she hopes to see a range of exhibits that show the history of African-American life in Wichita well before and after the sit-in, including the story of the Black businesses that were forced off Main and Water Streets during the Urban Renewal period of the 1950s.
She said now that the city participation and the location of a new site has been made, the NAACP can sit down and start to map out how it wants the park to look and what its new name should be.
The space comprises about a half acre, Johnson said, which is big enough to offer a wide range of educational exhibits.
He said there’s a possibility of building in technology that would let a visitor scan a QR code and hear a story from history or watch a video where one of the Wichitans who participated in the sit-in talks about the experience.
The current park has a series of multi-level water features and Johnson said he hopes some of those will be left in place.
“I think they offer a good chance to depict the “flow of justice” in flowing water, he said.
Whether they stay or whether they go will be a decision for NAACP to make in the months ahead as the park is designed.