Reconciling History

Authors: Jay Price, Carolyn Schmidt, Paul Leeker

The Obama Kansas Heritage Project has as its stated goal “to capture, preserve, and celebrate President Obama’s Kansas heritage…” and to that end, the Project has conducted several oral history interviews and worked directly with the History Department at Wichita State University.

For example, in his 1997 autobiography, President Obama reports several small facts that seem to be contradicted by the written record. According to the President, his grandfather Stanley Dunham was expelled from school at the age of 15 and did not return. But the 1936 El Dorado yearbook lists Stanley Dunham as a member of the senior class, and by his picture, he is referred to as “a loyal member of the class of 1936.” This piece of evidence calls the President’s story into question, but new information is still needed because a yearbook picture does not confirm graduation. A formal request has been made to the El Dorado High School for proof of Stanley’s high school graduation, and that information is forthcoming.

In addition to this discrepancy, in the same book the President says that when he was a young boy, Stanley found the body of his deceased mother after her suicide. Yet newspaper accounts of Ruth’s death indicate that her body was found in Ralph Dunham’s place of business, a mile from the Dunham family home. This seemed to call into doubt Stanley’s claim that he found the body. To confirm our suspicions that the claim was false, we have submitted an open records request for the police report and any autopsy records filed after Ruth’s death. When the police report becomes available it may provide sufficient evidence to confirm the story one way or the other.

Finally, in Dreams from My Father, the President states that his grandparents were somewhat of an odd couple because Madelyn Payne came from a “respectable” family whereas Stanley Dunham did not. Although Stanley’s childhood was unusual in some respects, both his mother and his father came from respectable families. His mother’s parents, the Armours of El Dorado, had enough money to own a car in 1926 and enough social status that their other daughter won the Miss El Dorado contest that same year. Harry Armour was a roustabout on the oil fields in El Dorado, but it appears he remained gainfully employed even through the depression and was able to retire with a pension. The Dunhams of Wichita owned and operated their own pharmacies, first in Wichita and then in Delano, and Jacob Dunham apparently practiced pharmacy and or medicine in Wichita for 40 years until his death in 1930.

It is equally important to recognize the importance of family lore and other forms of human memory. When Mary Frances Lawrence, née Kennedy says in her interview, for example, that Madelyn Payne was an honor student for her entire academic career until she met Stanley her senior year in high school, it might well be less important to track down if that statement is literally true than it is to listen for the underlying observation that Mrs. Lawrence did not appear to like Stanley all that much. These kinds of more human observations coupled with the clearest picture we can get from the written record work together to tell the story of these people and this place.