Leiker: More history of Hangman’s Bridge

Jim Leiker
Special to The Hays Daily News
Hays Daily News

As an Ellis County native living in the Kansas City area these past 28 years, I don't always follow the news from my hometown as well as I should. So I was surprised when my cousin Marlene Arnold informed me my 1992 master's thesis and the 1997 article that stemmed from it had made the local news in connection with a possible renaming of Noose Road. I thank Greg Schwartz, John Bird and others for bringing to light the troubled history surrounding the lynching which happened there, in ways that academic historians like myself seldom do.

For the record, this event is well documented. In 1869, Privates Luke Barnes, Lee Watkins, and James Ponder of the 38th Infantry at Fort Hays, a buffalo soldier regiment, were arrested for killing a Union Pacific watchman named James Hayes. The three never saw their case brought to trial for on the evening of January 6-7, a mob wearing masks and blackface stormed the Hays jail, seized them from their cells, and hanged them from the ties of a railroad bridge west of town. This was not the first nor would it be the last time that violence erupted between armed black men and white Hays civilians. Four months after the deaths of Barnes, Watkins and Ponder, angry black troops fired into private homes and businesses in the downtown area, which in turn prompted a gang of vigilantes to drive Hays City's few black civilians out of town, murdering two in the process.

Arguably, Hays City in the late 1860s was an unsafe and unsavory place regardless of color, befitting its "Wild West" reputation. While local tourism has always embraced that part of the community's past, the memory of its racial conflicts is unfortunately--cynics might say conveniently--forgotten by most. Early residents did not forget; in 1909, an observer noted "no negro has ever ventured to make Hays a place of residence. An occasional straggler has worked a few days in town, but the history of the place has appealed too strongly to his imagination for him to remain."

Facts are stubborn things. How much the lynching influenced the naming of the road is a matter of speculation, but the historical evidence is pretty clear that when it comes to the current dialogue about race in America, Hays is far from immune. Whether that should enter into the county commissioners' decision to rename is up to them. Still, I'd like to offer an informed opinion. History should not be confused with commemoration. Nothing is learned about the past by gazing upon a statue or reading a street sign; that's what books and libraries are for. Commemoration serves a different purpose, to remind us about the values of the community that named the street or erected the monument in the first place. It's a way of saying in stone or in bronze "This is what we regard as important." However, commemoration is never permanent. Communities have the right to reassess their values and occasionally decide "that's not who we are anymore."

The past is fixed. Changing a name or pulling down a statue won't erase it, they won't even budge it, but they can go a long way towards molding the future.

Jim Leiker is chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Johnson County Community College, Overland Park.Leiker is author of the 1997 academic paper “Black Soldiers At Fort Hays, Kansas, 1867-1869 A Study In Civilian And Military Violence,” published in the Great Plains Quarterly, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, while a student at the University of Kansas.