Magazine article Humanities

Marion Cott: Building Community in Kansas

Magazine article Humanities

Marion Cott: Building Community in Kansas

Article excerpt

We're not all Dorothy and Toto and Carrie Nation with an axe!" says Marion Cott, executive director of the Kansas Humanities Council. "There's a lot more to Kansas than that. We sometimes forget that in 1854, when the territory opened and settlers were given the choice of making it a free state or a slave state, the eyes of the nation were focused on Kansas."

For more than thirty years Cott has helped Kansans connect with their state's history. Next summer, during the sesquicentennial of the Kansas Territory, the council will present a Chautauqua called "Bleeding Kansas: Where the Civil War Began." The state's infamous nickname comes from its violent birth. Both proslavery and antislavery proponents sought to claim Kansas, often resorting to bloodshed in order to attain their goal. In 1856, John Brown and his cohorts murdered five slavery supporters in what was afterwards known as the Pottawatomie Massacre. "Border Ruffians" from neighboring Missouri killed five Free State men in the Marais des Cygnes Massacre two years later. At the time the Civil War began, Kansas had already endured seven years of slavery-related strife; by war's end, Kansas had suffered more casualties than any other Union state.

The Chautauqua will stop in four towns and offer first-person characterizations of national players Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown. Also being portrayed are local figures involved in the struggle for Kansas, such as Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, abolitionist Clarina Nichols, and Missouri Senator David Atchison. "We're giving Kansans an opportunity to learn about their history and about the important role that Kansas played in America's history," Cott explains. "The questions they were dealing with then-about both individual and national identity-are exactly the questions we still deal with today.

"The great thing about Chautauqua is that it fosters discussion in venues that are nonthreatening and supportive of dialog," she notes. Cott recalls a Chautauqua a few years ago that featured scholar David Matheny as John Brown. "It was a hot July evening, and we were sitting there fanning ourselves with these old parlor fans, sweating, and I looked down and I had goosebumps. …

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