SUROP 2019: Following the Trail of the Exodusters

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Kaiya Thompson (center) with faculty mentors Mary Kohn and Katy Karlin, following Kaiya’s presentation for the SUROP Finale on July 26, 2019. (Absent from photo: Anuja Madan, Kaiya’s third faculty mentor.)

 

For the past eight weeks, we have enjoyed the company and research talents of Kaiya Thompson (BA ’21, English, Spelman College). As we shared in an earlier post, Kaiya joined us as part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (SUROP) sponsored by the Graduate School at Kansas State.

This morning, Kaiya presented highlights of the research she conducted for faculty mentors Katy Karlin, Mary Kohn, and Anuja Madan as well as the research questions she’s identified for her own future projects. In the post below, Kaiya provides a glimpse into the history that she’s discovered during the past weeks and reflects on her experience as a SUROP student in English at Kansas State.

Many thanks to Kaiya for her assistance this summer — we can’t wait to see what she accomplishes in the months ahead!


 

If I had ever had a bucket list, spending an entire summer in Kansas definitely would not have been number one on my list. My decision to participate in the SUROP program here at K-State was a leap of faith and a wild ride outside of my comfort zone. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the program, but I knew the opportunity was huge. So, I left Atlanta and embarked on an experience that I will remember for many years to come.

Prior to my 9-week stay here in Manhattan, I was unaware of the ties that Kansas had to African Americans following the Civil War as well as the efforts to establish equality in education. Sure, I knew about the Brown v. Board court case, but hadn’t heard about to the constant fight for a better education system that citizens of Kansas had been striving for since the late 1800s. Mary Kohn first introduced me to the term Exodusters and together we explored their migration through Nell Irvin Painters’ telling in Exodusters (1986). I enjoyed our couch conversations about each chapter we would read and she always provided great insight about aspects that were unclear to me.

Painters’ Exodusters provided information that initiated my research quest and allowed me to begin tracing the African American educational experience here in Kansas. I soon realized that the Exodusters were pretty influential as their name seemed to pop up often throughout my research. I had an opportunity to attend a Juneteenth festival in City Park where Riley County Historical Society and Museum advertised for the 140th anniversary of the Exodusters in Kansas. I was impressed with the representation in such a small town and also shocked that the timing fit so perfectly with my research. I appreciated how Kansas worked to preserve the legacy of the Exodusters and witnessed this commitment even outside of Manhattan.

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A display by the Riley County Historical Society for their booth at the 2019 Juneteenth festival in Manhattan, Kansas.

Some of my most memorable days here in Kansas will be the days I spent outside of the office and engaging in my research at different locations. Towards the end of my summer Dr. Karlin and I took a trip to Alma, Kansas to visit the Wabaunsee County Historical Society & Museum. The outside of the museum resembled a ghost town and the inside somewhat mirrored that. Upon our arrival we were hesitantly greeted by a lone woman at the front desk who seemed to have thought we had stumbled across the wrong place. We informed her about our research interest and she was then able to direct us to a great starting point. Exploring the museum, we observed old fashioned dresses, a case of guns, and a buffalo head, but most interestingly an entire exhibit dedicated to the Exodusters. Not only did this exhibit highlight their migration but also the accomplishments of their descendants.

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One of the oral histories at Kansas Historical Society in Topeka, Kansas.

When I think of accomplishments of Exoduster descendants I think about the Brown v. Board court case. Much of my research deals with studying the atmosphere prior to Brown v. Board in Kansas and why the court case occurred here. I began this research by finding a collection of interviews that included citizens that were directly affected by the case in some way. After picking about four interviews, Dr. Kohn and I took a trip to Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka, Kansas to listen to the oral histories. These interviewees were older and brought that wit and humor that most old people bring. Ruby Brown Walker, the only living sibling of the late Oliver Brown, was unintentionally amusing as I heard her continuously pulling out pictures of her family and making the interview her own.

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Exoduster exhibit at the Wabaunsee County Historical Museum.

I gained a lot of insight about the nature of education prior to Brown v. Board at the Historical Society and the voice recordings allowed me to feel present during that time in history. This feeling was similar to my experiences at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. Visiting the site gave me the feeling of what attending The Monroe School over 50 years ago would have felt like. From walking through the grass (which I later learned was discouraged), to using their bathroom, to even standing in a kindergarten class, I truly felt like a student of the 1940s.

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Kindergarten classroom at the Brown v. Board Historic Site, formerly The Monroe School.

That sentiment of welcoming or belonging appeared to be the theme of my entire summer. As I worked with Anuja Madan she ensured that I was comfortable and that I took advantage of all the opportunities the Graduate School and Graduate Program offered. Because of her, many of my lunch hours were dedicated to meeting with faculty such as Anne Phillips and Greg Eiselein as well as prominent alumni from the English Graduate Program. Through my work with Anuja, I learned the importance of messages within picture books and the powerful impact they can have on society.

As I begin wrapping up my summer in Manhattan, Kansas, I reflect on what these experiences will do for me both intellectually and culturally. I have created a base for my research that I will carry and build throughout my next two years in undergrad as well as graduate school. The relationships I have built here are long-lasting and ultimately relieved any social anxiety I may have had before my arrival. I am grateful for the current graduate students who reached out to include me in their Friday night activities, the graduate faculty in English that always provided a smile or a kind word when I saw them in the building, and to my Spelman sister Chelsea who always made sure my days here were the best.

Like the Exodusters, I wasn’t sure what to expect as I left the south to come to Kansas. My total experience here at K-State was a pleasant one and has created a lasting impact that will birth my success as an English major and beyond.

— Kaiya Thompson (BA ’21, English, Spelman College)

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