Post-Civil War photo negatives document African- American Exodusters building new lives in Leavenworth

In the turbulent years following the Civil War, around 27,000 former slaves migrated to Kansas. They called themselves “exodusters” and they were fleeing Jim Crow laws. Some of them are remembered in a portrait exhibition of an African-American community in Leavenworth, Kansas.

by Julie Denesha, KCUR and Kansas News Service

Photographer E.E. Henry’s portrait of Samuel Green, 1880 and an unknown photographer’s portrait of Geraldine Jones, 1870s-1900s. Glass plate negatives photographed in Leavenworth, Kansas, from the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas.
Unknown photographer’s portrait of James Turner circa 1895 and photographer Harrison Putney’s portrait of Private Paul Schrader of Ottawa, Kansas, and three soldiers from the 23rd Volunteer Infantry circa 1895-1899. Glass plate negatives photographed in Leavenworth, Kansas, from the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas.
Unknown photographer’s portrait of H. Hopkins children and an unknown photographer’s portrait of Thomas Meadows circa 1890. Glass plate negatives photographed in Leavenworth, Kansas, from the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas.
Photographer’s studios lined Delaware Street, in the early days of Leavenworth, Kansas. Everyday people rushed to take advantage of the new technology that could produce an image within minutes. This enlargement of a negative from the Everhard collection shows the studios of Jay Noble and E.E. Henry.

Photo studios were busy places in Leavenworth, Kansas, in the late 1870s. Thousands of everyday people flocked to have their pictures taken.

Today, some of those pictures have re-emerged — and they tell a story of an African-American community that took root in the town as Black families migrated to escape the Jim Crow south.

An exhibit on display at the Black Archives Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri, features a series of black-and-white portraits that have survived more than a century. (

An older man and woman are decked out in their Sunday best. A quartet of soldiers poses in front of a woodsy backdrop. A young woman in a black hat looks boldly into the camera lens. All of the subjects are African-American.

Jade Powers is assistant curator of art at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. She takes a special interest in highlighting artists and subjects underrepresented in museum collections. (Photo by Julie Denesha)

Jade Powers, assistant curator of art at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, wasn’t involved in the creation of the exhibit, but she takes a special interest in highlighting artists and subjects underrepresented in museum collections.

“So often, the portrayals before were not maybe how African-Americans saw themselves or they were very political in a negative way to keep, you know, a certain status quo. And so with these images, it’s so exciting,” Powers said.

“I mean, you’re looking at couples, you’re looking at soldiers. It just really expands on the history of America.”

In the turbulent years following the Civil War, around 27,000 former slaves migrated to the land of John Brown. They called themselves “Exodusters” and they were refugees from Jim Crow laws and lynch mobs. Their journey came to be known as the “Great Exodus.”

“There seems to be a real interest from Black and Brown artists, to really look at historical figures and reimagine them or be able to uplift them in different ways,” Powers said. “I am not a practicing artist, but I imagine someone could have a field day with stories of these people taken from this historical narrative.”

Volunteer Mary Ann Brown, left, and Samantha Poirier, director of the Leavenworth County Historical Society, flipped through enlargements from negatives saved by Mary Everhard at the Carroll Mansion Museum. (Photo by Julie Denesha)

The photos would never have come to the public eye if not for the persistence of Mary Everhard, a photographer who moved to Leavenworth in the 1920s.

Everhard had a keen interest in history. As older photographers closed their doors, she bought up their archives.

Eventually, her collection took up an entire room, floor to ceiling, 40,000 negatives in all. Everhard guarded them for years, through two tornadoes, a flood and a fire.

“It’s such an incredible story,” said Mary Ann Brown, a volunteer at the Leavenworth County Historical Society “It’s hard to know even where to start with Miss Everhard.”

Brown is part of a team that’s been scanning Everhard’s negatives since 1998. She considers Everhard a folk hero — the woman who preserved decades of early Leavenworth history. But people didn’t always appreciate Everhard’s efforts.

Mary Ellen Everhard studied photography in New York City before moving to the Midwest in the 1920s to set up a studio in Leavenworth, Kansas. (Photo from Leavenworth County Historical Society)

“When she decided to retire, she went to the local banker and she wanted to know what she could get for these negatives,” Brown said. “And he said, Miss Everhard, you might as well just throw these in the Missouri River. They’re not worth anything.”

Thankfully, the negatives escaped a watery grave. A collector from Chicago purchased them in 1967. He sold off parts of the collection to different museums.

One of them was The Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas. Today the Carter keeps around 6,000 of Everhard’s negatives in temperature-controlled vaults. The portraits on display at St. Joseph’s Black Archives Museum come from that collection.

“Even though photography is often talked about as one of the more democratic art forms, that still took a certain amount of money and a certain amount of access and standing to have an image taken,” said Kristen Gaylord, the museum’s assistant curator of photographs.

“A lot of Black Americans didn’t have that right away after the end of slavery,” she noted. “So especially the 19th Century images, I would say, are unusual, which is why they’re so valuable to us.”

Gaylord sees Mary Everhard as a woman ahead of her time.

“Not only was she a successful female photographer at the time, but she’s also the one who saw the need to conserve all these negatives,” she said.

The Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, California, also acquired a portion of the Everhard collection. In the late 1990s, the Leavenworth County Historical Society raised the funds to purchase 25,000 negatives from the Autry and return some of the images to the city where they started. They form the heart of the historical society’s photography collection — the one that Brown and fellow volunteers have been working on for years.

Thanks to Mary Everhard, the Chicago collector and those volunteers, the images that could have landed in the Missouri River now tell a story about early Leavenworth and the people who called it home.

And the exhibit at the Black Archives Museum in St. Joseph tells us that the story includes former Black residents of the South, who put down new roots in the state of Kansas.

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at
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Historic site boarded up

Boarded up on Monday was Sauer Castle, a home on the National Register of Historic Places at 935 Shawnee Road in Kansas City, Kansas. According to the authorities, a judge’s order was received to board it up. The Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department had around six police vehicles at the scene, providing support, according to officials. The historic home was built about 1871 for Anton P. Sauer, a German immigrant and business owner, according to the home’s National Register application. Sauer was listed as the owner of the Crider-Sauer Grocers and as president of the German Savings Association. The building site he chose was on a bluff overlooking the Kansas River. The two and one-half story brick Italian Villa style building has a four-story tower.

First vice president of color was a native American from the Kansas Territory

Charles Curtis with a Native American in 1929. (Harris & Ewing. Photo from Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.)

by Luke X. Martin, Kansas News Service

Charles Curtis was a leading voice in the fight for women’s suffrage. He also orchestrated the breakup of tribal government and communal land in what is now the state of Oklahoma.

When Vice President-elect Kamala Harris takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, she will be the first woman, first South Asian and first African American to fill the role.

But she won’t be the first person of color.

That title belongs to a Kansan — Charles Curtis, member of the Kaw Nation and President Herbert Hoover’s vice president.

Curtis was born in 1860 in Topeka while Kansas was still a territory, and he spent his early years living in both white and Native American communities.

His mother, Ellen Pappan, was one-quarter Kaw, and was the great-granddaughter of White Plume, a chief who offered assistance to the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804, according to Curtis’ U.S. Senate biography. Pappan died when her son was 3 years old.

His father, Orren Curtis, a white man, fought in the Civil War and had a reputation for drinking. He was eventually dishonorably discharged from the Union Army and court martialed for killing three prisoners.

“He’s always remarrying, divorcing, gone fishing, gone to the army, and he’s just gone,” says Kansas historian Deb Goodrich, who is working on a book about Curtis’ life.

Before he spoke English, Curtis learned French and Kansa from his mother and her parents, whom he lived with on a Kaw reservation in Council Grove, Kansas, after her death. Despite the harsh conditions there, Curtis loved life on the reservation.

But Kansas was in turmoil. It was just emerging from the Bleeding Kansas era, and the Plains Indian Wars were in full bloom, says Goodrich.

In 1873, the Kaw were forced to move from Kansas to what is now Oklahoma, and Curtis had a choice to make: Go south with his maternal grandparents or return to Topeka and live with his father’s parents.

The decision, Goodrich says, was largely made for him: Go back to Topeka, get an education, and make something of yourself, his grandmother told him.

“I took her splendid advice and the next morning as the wagons pulled out for the south, bound for Indian Territory, I mounted my pony and with my belongings in a flour sack, returned to Topeka and school,” Curtis said later, according to his Senate biography. “No man or boy ever received better advice, it was the turning point in my life.”

Back in Topeka, Curtis worked hard and studied hard, and the political proclivities of his fraternal grandmother began to rub off on him, according to Goodrich.

“His Grandmother Curtis was described as a staunch Methodist and a staunch Republican, and they weren’t sure which one was the strongest,” Goodrich says. “They had a big family and she brought a lot of votes to the table.”

By 1881, Curtis had been admitted to the Kansas Bar and began practicing in Topeka. Three years later, at the age of 24, he was elected Shawnee County attorney, where he took a hard line enforcing the state’s prohibition laws.

Reflecting on a political tour he took with Curtis in 1891, journalist William Allen White said he’d never met anyone who could charm a hostile audience as effectively. White also noted Curtis’ way of remembering all the Republicans in each town, using a little book that he filled with all their names.

Curtis made the jump to national politics in 1893, winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and serving seven terms.

As a Congressman, he crafted and navigated the Curtis Act of 1898 through Congress and into law. It was his most lasting legacy as a lawmaker, according to Goodrich.

“The Curtis Act, unfortunately, was a death knell to the tribal sovereignty for many of the American Indian tribes,” she says. “And I don’t think that Curtis meant it that way, but he also believed in assimilation, because this is how he had survived.”

The law abolished tribal governments, broke up communal lands and allowed members of the Dawes Commission in Washington, but not tribes themselves, to determine who was and who was not a tribal member.

“It’s one of those ironies that Natives were not considered citizens and that dissolving the tribal sovereignty was a step in making them U.S. citizens,” Goodrich says. “And that’s just one of the great tragedies of our republic.”

Curtis served two terms in the U.S. Senate, first appointed to the post by the Kansas Legislature in 1907 and serving until 1913, when Democrats took control of the Statehouse.

With the passage of the 17th Amendment, which allowed voters to elect Senators directly, Curtis was sent back to Washington in 1915 and he served 14 more years.

While in the Senate, Curtis served as Senate president pro tempore, minority whip and Republican majority leader. He also led the Senate floor debate for the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.

“He definitely championed women’s suffrage, and he was very proud of that,” Goodrich says. “And one of the Washington correspondents famously said, ‘Charlie can never be accused of being a progressive, but the feminists considered him their friend.'”

Idaho Sen. William Borah called him “a great reconciler, a walking political encyclopedia and one of the best political poker players in America.”

It would be more than 63 years before another Native American, Colorado’s Ben Nighthorse Campbell, served as U.S. Senator after Curtis resigned in 1929 to become vice president.

Though Curtis had long held presidential ambitions and worked hard behind the scenes to make it happen, his rise to the upper echelons of the executive branch was ultimately unsatisfying.

At the Republican National Convention in 1928 at Kansas City’s Convention Hall, Curtis was paired up with Hoover. It was on odd pairing, considering the two had been at odds since at least 1918, when Hoover had campaigned for Democratic candidates.

That tension extended through their time in the White House, although Curtis spent little time there, according to Goodrich, and largely neutered his ability to get anything done.

“The joke at the time was that if Curtis wanted to go to the White House, he would have had to buy a ticket on one of the tours,” she says.

The Hoover-Curtis ticket lost its reelection bid in 1932, three years into the Great Depression, to Democrats Franklin Roosevelt and John Nance Garner.

Having been fully ensconced in Washington’s political scene for decades, Curtis stayed there after his term ended and practiced law. He died of a heart attack in 1936 and was buried at the Topeka Cemetery.

“I do think that Charles Curtis has mostly been forgotten,” Goodrich says. “I think part of that is he was in an administration as vice president that people wanted to forget.”

Not everyone, though, wants to forget. In 1993, Donald and Nova Cottrell purchased Curtis’ former home in Topeka.

“It was actually slated to be demolished by the city because nobody was interested in purchasing the building,” Nova Cottrell told C-SPAN in 2015.

The Charles Curtis House Museum, at 1101 SW Topeka Blvd. in Topeka, is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Luke X. Martin is a reporter focusing on race, culture and ethnicity for KCUR 89.3. Contact him at or on Twitter, @lukexmartin.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.
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