Family History

Back Story Authors

Professor Jay Price is chair of the History Department and director of the Local and Community History Program at Wichita State University. He served as a consultant for work on this project completed through a Kansas Humanities Council Grant, “An Oral History Project: Stories Told by Kansans Who Knew Barack Obama’s Maternal Grandparents.”  In addition to directing the research of his graduate students for the Back Story, he has provided assistance and advice to the oral history project staff and to the President Obama’s Kansas Heritage Group.

Carolyn Speer Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Kansas, a master’s degree in political science from the University of Iowa, and a Ph.D. in Adult and Continuing Education from Kansas State University.  At the time of this project, she was working on a Master’s degree in Public History at Wichita State University with anticipated graduation in 2015.

Paul Leeker completed his undergraduate degree at Wichita State University in the spring of 2012. His primary research interests include Colonial America, with an emphasis on Southern history. To aid in this project, Paul analyzed the censuses of Kansas and the United States, and also conducted thorough searches of newspapers published in Kansas to track down obituaries and articles chronicling the Payne family.

Forward by Jay Price

Most commentary about President Barack Obama’s origins looks at his father’s African heritage. Obama, himself, dedicates most of the book Dreams from My Father, to reconnecting to his African roots.  The world of his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, and his grandparents, Stanley Dunham and Madelyn Payne, receives only a brief mention:

“That was the world in which my grandparents had been raised, the dab-smack, landlocked center of the country, a place where decency and endurance and the pioneer spirit were joined at the hip with conformity and suspicion and the potential for unblinking cruelty.  They had grown up less than twenty miles away from each other–my grandmother in Augusta, my grandfather in El Dorado, towns too small to warrant boldface on a road map–at the childhoods they like to recall for my benefit portrayed small-town, Depression-era America in all its innocent glory:  Fourth of  July parades and the picture shows on the side of a barn; fireflies in a jar and the taste of vine-ripe tomatoes, sweet as apples; dust storms and hailstorms and classrooms filled with farm boys who got sewn into their woolen underwear at the beginning of winter and stank like pigs as the months wore on.” [1]

Although candidate and President Obama often drew upon his Midwestern roots in speeches, describing the Midwest as providing him “values” that helped to inform him as a person, his earlier discussion of the Midwest, and Kansas in particular was much less positive.  In Dreams from My Father (1995), Obama describes the grandparents who raised him as being naïve and sentimental about their Kansas memories.  He further asserts that his great grandmother, Leona Payne was embarrassed by her Cherokee ancestry.  According to Obama, his Kansas grandparents did not become aware of issues surrounding race until they moved to Texas after the Second World War.[2]

Yet, those grandparents also had a strong role in raising the young Barack.  When still a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama made a point to visit Butler Community College in El Dorado, reminding the audience about how his roots were as much Kansan as Kenyan.

Out of this connection came this project, an attempt to look into this world of small town Kansas.  The goal was to interview those who had memories of Stanley and Madelyn, either as relatives or as friends. What emerged was a picture of life in two Kansas communities in the 1930s, communities shaped by the oil industry, and the challenges of making a living during the Great Depression.

In the process, the team looked into the stories of the Dunham and Payne families.  What emerged was a rich set of insights into a set of families who were both remarkable and ordinary.   Their struggles and challenges hinted that their lives were more than the “Norman Rockwell” image of small town Kansas.  There were farmers who rented their farms rather than owned them.  There were small business owners who operated drug stores.  There were those who left the farm for better opportunities on the oil patch. Some had roots in the Ozarks, others, in Missouri, and some relatives played a role in the newly-created territory of Oklahoma.  Some moved several times in their lives.  Most died in a different community than the one in which they were raised.  There were hope-filled chances to start anew.  There were many painful losses and tragedies.

Both sides of his mother’s family migrated to Kansas in the nineteenth century during early days of Kansas statehood.  Because of the oil boom and other employment opportunities in south central Kansas, the various family lines came to the cities of Augusta, El Dorado, and Wichita, where much of Obama’s Kansas story is rooted.  It was these towns that provided the homes and formative experiences for Obama’s maternal grandparents, Madelyn Payne and Stanley Dunham, and also where his mother, Stanley Ann, was born and lived out her early life.

Obama’s grandparents left Kansas when Obama’s mother was a young girl, so while Stanley Ann was born in Kansas and was raised by Kansans, the Kansas influence that found its way to the President was filtered through many moves.  Today, Obama makes use of his Kansas heritage rhetorically, both in speeches and in his autobiography Dreams from My Father.  Whether the stories and priorities here contributed to a “Kansas character” in the thoughts and actions of President Barack Obama is left for you to decide.

Barack Obama is not “from” Kansas in that he never lived in the state. However, his mother’s family not only hailed from Kansas, the stories of Obama’s maternal line are quintessentially Kansan in many respects.  One can read Kansas history in the Payne and Dunham story, and many of President Obama’s relations still live in the state, a fact the president has referenced on and off throughout his political career. In Dreams from My Father, Obama showed that his family was an important influence on his development. Barack Obama Sr. has a relatively short presence during Obama’s life, having left the family when Obama was two years old. Yet, the title and theme of Obama’s autobiography clearly indicate that his father was a powerful influence on his self-identity. His mother, Stanley Ann, as well as his grandparents, Stanley Dunham and Madelyn Payne Dunham had much more time with Obama during his formative years, and were therefore much more likely to be influential in the future president’s socialization.  In a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas in December, 2011, Obama seems to have made this point himself when he said, “I got my name from my father, but I got my accent—and my values—from my mother.”

In some ways, the Payne and Dunham families represent typical Kansas stories.  There were farmers, laborers, and white collar tradesmen as well as a salesman and a pharmacist/physician.  Yet while the Paynes and the Dunhams were typical Kansas families in some ways, they were atypical in others.  Obama’s Kansas story is one that includes parental absence caused either by death or abandonment, and in some cases both.  For example, Obama’s grandfather, Stanley Dunham and his older brother moved to El Dorado to live with his maternal grandparents when Stanley’s mother, Ruth Dunham, committed suicide in 1926. Stanley’s father was still alive, and in fact lived in the nearby city of Wichita, but he did not raise his sons after his wife’s suicide. Thus Stanley’s early childhood experiences in some ways mirror Obama’s own with absentee parents and grandparents who stepped up to raise him.

A central aspect of Kansas’s identity was spelled out in the state motto proposed by John Ingalls and eventually added to the official seal and flag:  Ad astra per aspera. The concept of success through difficulty suits Kansas, once on the western frontier of a new nation, and certainly Obama’s story through generations of Kansas families to his own challenges in his presidency have illustrated the state motto.  If Obama is a “Democrat from Kansas,” it is the challenging Kansas that teaches people how to persevere and overcome that informs him most noticeably.

What began as an attempt to document the Kansas ties of a president has become a window into a slice of Kansas history.

Footnotes

[1] Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father, (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1995), 13.

[2] Ibid., 18.