Learn about the people who influenced the community.
Founded by pioneers driven to create a state where people of all races would be free, Lawrence has continually defined itself as an open, energetic and welcoming community.
The fiery John Brown, a white abolitionist, lived south of Lawrence. Believing that armed insurrection was the only way to overthrow the institution of slavery, he led small groups of volunteers during the Bleeding Kansas crisis. He and his supporters killed five pro-slavery southerners in what became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre in May 1856 in response to the raid on the “free soil” city of Lawrence. Later he was convicted of treason and hanged for his role in the raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. It’s not unusual to see depictions and modern takes on the famous John Steuart Curry mural of Brown, with a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other, around Lawrence.
You don’t have to look to the Civil War era to uncover important history in Lawrence. Lawrence is where the game of basketball “came of age,” and no other city can claim such an array of basketball history. Dr. James Naismith brought basketball to the University of Kansas in 1898, a mere seven years after he invented the game. In the years since, KU has developed a strong and tradition-rich program.
Wilt Chamberlain, also known as “The Big Dipper,” was born in Philadelphia in 1936. He ran track and field as a child, but started playing basketball in high school, perhaps due to his lengthy 6’11” frame. When the time came, he eliminated colleges close to home, in the segregated south, and on the west coast (because he thought their basketball standards weren’t up to snuff) and settled on the University of Kansas, where he participated on the Track & Field and Basketball teams. When he arrived in Lawrence, he realized just how much racially charged tension there was in middle America. According to KU History, Chamberlain promptly made a practice of visiting segregated restaurants around town, sitting in them until he was served. Learn more about Wilt’s fight against segregation with this ESPN video. He had a weekly 30-minute radio show on the student radio network that was a hit with students. When it came to athletics, Chamberlain set remarkable records in both collegiate sports he participated in. When basketball season came around his sophomore year, he dominated Northwestern in his regular season debut, December 3, 1956, in Allen Field House when he scored 52 points, a single-game KU record that still stands. Chamberlain left Lawrence in 1958 to play for the Harlem Globetrotters and then the NBA until he retired. He returned to Lawrence 1998 when his jersey was retired and hung in the rafters of Allen Fieldhouse (see the video). The warm reception from fans overwhelmed him to tears, and his brother says it was one of Chamberlain’s fondest memories. Today you can learn more about Chamberlain’s legacy at the DeBruce Center and Watkins Museum of History.
Author, Langston Hughes, known for his insightful, colorful portrayals of black life in America from the twenties through the sixties, spent most of his childhood living in Lawrence with his grandmother. In a 1965 presentation at the University of Kansas, he said his first memories are of Lawrence. The house he lived in with his grandmother on New York Street is no longer standing, however the church he attended, St. Luke’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, stands at 900 New York Street. Hughes moved in with his aunt and uncle when his grandmother passed in 1915, and left Lawrence shortly thereafter to join his mother in Illinois. He writes about Lawrence in his autobiography, “The Big Sea.” Learn more about Langston Hughes at the Watkins Museum of History to learn more from the “Langston & Lawrence: 1902-1915” exhibit.
Charles Scott taught political science at the University of Kansas from 1970-71. Previous to that he worked on several civil rights cases, including one to integrate South Park elementary school in Johnson County. Webb v. School District No. 90 was upheld to the Kansas Supreme Court in 1949 and African American Children were finally allowed entrance to the school. The Kenneth Spencer Research Library currently houses the Charles S. Scott Collection; his papers from 1918-1989 on the the Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka case. He also worked on cases to end discrimatory practices at Topeka theaters, restaurants and pools.
Lawrence is home to the Dole Institute of Politics, an archive for Senator Robert Dole’s congressional papers, photographs, campaign memorabilia, videos and the story of his experiences in WWII. This beautiful museum on the KU campus is open to the public and frequent host to timely lectures and presentations. Visit doleinstitute.org
Lawrence also has a rich history as home to authors, William Burroughs, Sara Paretsky and Laura Moriarty.
The Watkins Museum of History’s exhibit “The People of Douglas County” presents people and issues that have shaped growth and inspired change throughout the history of Douglas County.