City History

Authors: Jay Price, Carolyn Schmidt, Paul Leeker

Race in Augusta from the 1920s into the 1940s

In Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama implies that Madelyn and Stanley Dunham, his maternal grandparents who raised him for much of his childhood, “never really [gave] black people much thought,” especially when they lived in Kansas. Yet, the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan were frequently seen in Augusta, Madelyn’s hometown, in the 1920s. The Klan presence in the region was described as, “a hurricane that swept over Mid-America in the twenties.”

At the crest of this wave, in 1922, there were over 40,000 Klan members living in Kansas. Six thousand of these Klansmen lived in the Wichita area. A twelve year old resident of Augusta vividly recounts the details of a Konclave–a Klan meeting:

Marching in good order, several lines of men went by. There was a space for a few seconds, then her came the women, stepping briskly. Another gap and the Junior Klansmen were striding by. Following them came the mounted Klansmen. I don’t know how long the parade was. When the leaders had topped the hill at High Street and people were still crossing Seventh. Having arrived at this place the Klansmen performed a ceremony that involved a burning cross.

This large Klan parade is not indicative of the mindset of all the citizens of Augusta, and in fact the issue of race was complex even in this small Kansas town. For example, a farmer living on the outskirts heard a knock at his door and opened it to discover group of Klansmen. These Klan members asked the man to come take a ride with them; at this point the farmer reached for his shotgun and fired at the Klan members. His shots hit one of them “in the rear.” The rides that the Klan offered frightened many people in the region and caused the Klan to fall out of favor in the area around Augusta.

The history of the Klan in Augusta highlights the reality of racism in rural Kansas during the first half of the twentieth century. That was just one portion of a complex picture. Herman Reed, Jr. provides another portion of that picture. Reed was an outstanding athlete who had played on the Augusta High School football team since his freshman year and was elected team captain in 1941. This story is remarkable because Herman Reed, Jr. was an African American. In fact, he was the only black on the Augusta football team that year. The white players voted for him, and were willing to sit-out the season if the school administration refused to recognize Reed as the captain.

El Dorado in the 1920s and 30s

After Ruth Dunham’s death in 1926, her two children Ralph and Stanley moved to El Dorado to live with Harry and Gabrielle Armour, Ruth’s parents. Stanley lived with his grandparents until his high school graduation in 1936. During this time, El Dorado was an oil boom town (see Kansas Oil Museum images at www.kansasoilmuseum.org/ Image_Gallery.php), and because Harry Armour worked in the oil fields, the industry was part of Stanley’s day-to-day life.

Starting in 1915 with the discovery of oil at Stapleton Number One, the El Dorado Oil Field was a major producer. According to Kansas historian Craig Miner, El Dorado was the leading field in the U.S. the year it opened, and even after many years of production, by the 1930s, El Dorado’s field helped keep Kansas the fourth biggest oil producer in the nation. Even during the 1930s, when the Depression was well underway, oil-field workers could expect a good wage and long workdays. It was not until the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act of 1939 limited the workday to eight hours and the work week to 40 hours that oil-field workers saw their hours cut. Initially, this move was met with threats of strikes in El Dorado, but within a few days of the policy changes, oil field workers went back to work.

Wichita

In contrast to Augusta and El Dorado, Wichita was and remains a much more industrial place. In the 1920s, when Ralph Dunham made the decision to send his sons Ralph Jr. and Stanley to El Dorado to be cared for by their maternal grandparents, Ralph lived with his own parents in Wichita, the second largest city in the state. For a time, the Dunham family lived in downtown Wichita, in the back of their pharmacy on Market Street. From there, the Dunhams moved to Delano, an industrial area of the greater Wichita metropolitan area. The Armours, Ruth’s parents, also lived for a time in Wichita, also in the Delano district. Historically, the Delano district was a less desirable area for a home, and their living in this neighborhood indicates that both families may have faced financial troubles in the 1920s. Second only to Kansas City, the city of Wichita was urban with relatively high automobile ownership, a regional center for oil, meatpacking, and farm products, as well as a developing aircraft industry. By 1927, Wichita began billing itself as the “Air Capital,” hosting a busy airport and several aircraft companies, including those started by Walter Beech, Lloyd Stearman, and Clyde Cessna.

The aircraft industry did a lot to build the city of Wichita, especially in the mid twentieth century, when local aircraft companies won huge defense contracts. During the Second World War, for example, Boeing-Wichita won a contract to construct B-29 bombers, and Obama’s grandmother Madelyn Payne Dunham was an original “Rosie the Riveter” (link to a Rosie poster) working at Boeing. The B-29 contract was so massive that Boeing saw a nearly 4,000% increase in employment from 766 workers in 1940 to almost 30,000 by 1945. Boeing and other aircraft companies had to run non-stop to meet the war demands, and as a consequence, “[t]he city ran twenty-four hours, with all-night groceries and child care, emergency bus service to the plants, and all the other changes that had to be made with a workforce that included women.”

Anna Margaret McCurry Wolf (see interview) speaks of wartime rationing, air raids, and Boeing employment, including Madelyn’s employment, in Wichita during World War Two.