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Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

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Welcome to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library blog! As the special collections and archives library at the University of Kansas, Spencer is home to remarkable and diverse collections of rare and unique items. Explore the blog to learn about the work we do and the materials we collect.

Childhood Inspiration in Their Arts and Letters: Langston Hughes and Gordon Parks in Kansas

June 25th, 2024

Spencer Research Library and the Gordon Parks Center have collaborated to create a pop-up display and small exhibition on the life, journey, and friendship of Gordon Parks and Langston Hughes.

The Gordon Parks Center in Fort Scott, with support from Humanities Kansas, curated an exhibition in 2023 exploring the connections between these two Kansas artistic luminaries and their local connections to the state.

This collaborative effort is inspired in part by a call by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) to highlight “African Americans and the Arts” in 2024. Working across collections and institutions, we have an opportunity to take a closer look at the varied histories and lives of African American artists.

Two pages from a book. On the right is the text of the poem "Kansas Land." On the left is a color photograph of an African American girl lying in the grass.
Two pages from A Poet and His Camera by Gordon Parks, 1968. Call Number: RH C9010. Click image to enlarge.

Oftentimes, when we think of Black artistic movements, we often think of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s or the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. What is easy to overlook is the strong Kansas connection to both movements. Likewise, when we think of Kansas art and artists, it is easy to think of pastoral landscapes that capture the natural beauty of the prairie landscape and poetic descriptions of wildflowers and controlled burns. The linking of Kansas artists to these larger artistic movements that give rise to underrepresented voices in the world of arts and letters is not always so apparent. One of the most famous artists of the state is John Steuart Curry, the hand behind the Tragic Prelude mural painted in the rotunda of the capitol building in Topeka. But, did you know that another work by Curry, The Fugitive, was featured in an exhibition titled An Art Commentary on Lynching in 1935? Of the 38 artists whose work was included in the New York exhibition, Curry’s work was used on the cover of the exhibition catalog, designed to bring attention to the need for a nationwide anti-lynching law.

Two of the most recognized artists of the Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement have roots in Kansas. This is no coincidence. Kansas in the early 20th century fostered a certain creative intelligence in these young men that would translate to and be understood by a large audience. Both Hughes and Parks grew up in working class families. Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, just across the state line from Baxter Springs, Kansas. Before his first birthday, he was living between Topeka and Lawrence. Locally, he attended Pinckney School and lived on Alabama Street in West Lawrence (now referred to as Old West Lawrence). He worked for a time as a newsie, selling the Saturday Evening Post and briefly the Appeal to Reason, a socialist newspaper published out of Girard, Kansas. He stopped delivering the Appeal after being told by the local editor of the former that the latter would get him into trouble. His introduction to the social issues discussed in the Appeal would shape a sense of solidarity with working class folks. Fifty miles away from Hughes’ birthplace is the childhood home of Gordon Parks, born in Fort Scott, Kansas, where his father was a tenant farmer. While Hughes was an only child, Parks was the youngest of fifteen.

Both Parks’ and Hughes’ earliest writings were inspired by memories of their Kansas childhoods and drew upon stories about people they knew. Hughes’ first novel, Not Without Laughter, is based on his upbringing in Lawrence. In his first autobiography, The Big Sea, he reflected on the ideas that would become Not Without Laughter. He wanted to write about a typical Black family in the Midwest and about people he had known in Kansas. Yet, he felt like his family and upbringing was not typical. “I gave myself aunts that I didn’t have, modeled after other children’s aunts whom I had known,” Hughes wrote. “But I put in a real cyclone that had blown my grandmother’s front porch away.”

This page has the text of the first page of the first chapter in Not Without Laughter.
Langston Hughes opens Not Without Laughter with a storm. He styled Aunt Hager after aunts of his childhood friends in Lawrence, but the storm was very real. Call Number: RH B1855. Click image to enlarge.

Parks drew on his own childhood while writing his first novel, The Learning Tree. Though set in the fictional town of Cherokee Flats with fictional characters, it closely resembled Fort Scott. When Parks later directed a film based on the story, he shot it on location in Fort Scott.

Kansas was not without racial bigotry. Both Hughes and Parks talked openly about being the subject of ridicule and name-calling and feeling fearful of violence. Despite the unpleasant realities faced during their childhoods, Kansas remained an important part of their lives. In Half Past Autumn, a retrospective of Parks’ work, he calls the state his touchstone:

“I looked back to the heaven and hell of Kansas and asked some questions…My memories gave me some straight talk. The important thing is not so much what you suffered or didn’t suffer, but how you put that learning to use.”

“There had been infinitely beautiful things to celebrate – golden twilights, dawns, rivers aglow in sunlight, moons climbing over Poppa’s barns, orange autumns, trees bending under storms and silent snow. But marring the beauty was the graveyard where, even in death, whites lay rigidly from Blacks. Twenty-odd years had passed when, with these things lying in my memory, I returned to Kansas and went by horseback to lock them firmly with my camera. Spring was wrapped around the prairies. Nothing much has changed – certainly not the graveyard.”

Small black-and-white photographs of Gordon Parks and prairie landscapes.
A photo contact sheet of Gordon Parks visiting the Tallgrass Prairie with Patricia DuBose Duncan in 1979. Some photos also show Patricia’s son Don. Patricia DuBose Duncan Papers. Call Number: RH MS-P 535, Box 8, Folder 47. Click image to enlarge.

Langston Hughes returned to visit Lawrence after many years as well. Later in life, he was invited to speak at the University of Kansas, which he had visited as a small child. During one of his return visits, Hughes donated a collection of personal books and manuscripts to KU Libraries.

This page has the text of The Big Sea.
On page 22 of his first autobiography The Big Sea, Langston Hughes talks about selling the Appeal to Reason. He also talks about attending KU football games, only blocks from his house. Call Number: RH C7423. Click image to enlarge.

Throughout this summer, Spencer Library will feature a panel-display exhibit from the Gordon Parks Center accompanied with archival materials from the Kansas Collection to tell the stories of Langston Hughes and Gordon Parks and show the impact of their time growing up in Kansas on their life and careers. Their cultural expression through visual art, performing arts, literature, films, and music preserves our history, retells our stories for the next generation, and inspires our futures.

The exhibition will be on display through August 17, 2024, in the reception area of Spencer Research Library. The library and exhibit are free and open to everyone. You can visit our website to plan your visit.

Phil Cunningham
Kansas Collection Curator

Spencer’s March-April Exhibit: “From Shop to Shelf”

March 5th, 2024

Conservators often say that what draws them to this work is the variety – every day is different! Always something new to learn! Never a dull moment! In my role as special collections conservator at KU Libraries, I am fortunate to work on interesting items from all of the collecting areas within the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, and my day-to-day experience bears out the truth of those clichés. Each book, document, and object I work with wears evidence of its own unique history. Physical condition, materials, marks or repairs made by persons past – sometimes these features tell a clear story about the life an object has lived, and sometimes the picture is murky, fragmented, or confusing. In the new short-term exhibit on view in Spencer Library’s North Gallery, I returned to the subject of a 2016 blog post to explore the ways that a book’s binding might provide information about who owned the book and how it was used.

Spencer Library’s three copies of Thomas Sprat’s A true account and declaration of the horrid conspiracy against the late king, His present Majesty, and the government: as it was order’d to be published by His late Majesty are displayed in the first exhibit case. This book relates Sprat’s official account, as Bishop of Rochester, of the failed 1683 Rye House Plot to assassinate King Charles II of England and his brother (and successor) James, Duke of York. The horrid conspiracy, as we’ll call it, was printed in London in 1685 by Thomas Newcombe, “One of His Majesties printers; and … sold by Sam. Lowndes over against Exeter-Change in the Strand.”

Three copies of The Horrid Conspiracy on display in the exhibit From Shop to Shelf in Spencer Research Library's North Gallery.
Three copies of The Horrid Conspiracy on display in Spencer Research Library’s North Gallery.

After leaving Lowndes’ shop these three edition-mates embarked on separate journeys, only to arrive back together again in our stacks over three hundred years later. The books’ differing conditions and binding styles invite speculation about their adventures (and misadventures!) in the intervening years. The exhibit compares the physical characteristics and evidence of use seen on the three volumes and considers what these features might tell us about who owned them and how they were used. We cannot know for sure, but it is so fun to wonder!

A selection of books from the exhibit From Shop to Shelf on display in Spencer Research Library's North Gallery.
A selection of books from the exhibit From Shop to Shelf on display in Spencer Research Library’s North Gallery.
A selection of books from the exhibit From Shop to Shelf on display in Spencer Research Library's North Gallery.
A selection of books from the exhibit From Shop to Shelf on display in Spencer Research Library’s North Gallery.

In case two, we expand our examination of different binding styles to include a small selection of bindings from Spencer Library’s rare books collections. The display includes books in original paper bindings or wrappers from the publisher, books custom-bound for private owners in either a plain or a fine style, and others bound simply and sturdily for use in a lending library. Spencer Library’s collections are rich with examples of bookbinding styles across the centuries; this assortment of volumes represents just a fraction of the many ways that a book might have been bound either by bookseller, buyer, or library.

Spencer’s January-February Exhibit: “Building Tomorrow Today: Clinton Lake and the Flood of 1951”

February 6th, 2024

I developed Spencer’s current short-term exhibit to compliment the research I conducted about Clinton Lake and the Wakarusa Museum as an undergraduate student. While writing my thesis paper last year, I used a lot of the materials featured in this exhibit as primary sources. I hope this blog post will elaborate more on the complex history of Clinton Lake and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from a community perspective.

This image has text against a blue and red illustration of the dam and lake.
A project brochure and map of Clinton Dam and Lake including information about costs, benefits, and construction, published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1972. Papers of Carol Buhler Francis. Call Number: RH MS 1473. Click image to enlarge.

Originally passed by Congress in 1917, the Flood Control Act directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin evaluating issues of flood control along tributaries of the Mississippi River. This included the longest tributary of the Mississippi River: the Missouri River, which feeds the Kansas (Kaw) River. On July 13, 1951, after a series of storms produced up to 16 inches of rain, the Kaw spilled over its banks. More than 115 cities along its path in eastern Kansas – most notably Topeka, Lawrence, and Kansas City – were flooded. In Lawrence, the river crested at 29.90 feet (11 feet above flood stage). The flood also washed out 1 million acres of land and nearly 10,000 farms. For many local community members, the Flood of 1951 represented a once-in-a-lifetime disaster. The flood forced 85,000 people to abandon their homes and amassed $760 million in damages (nearly $5 billion today).

Black-and-white photograph of a two-story home with its first level submerged in water. Two other buildings are under water, with only the roofs visible.
A submerged farm on the outskirts of North Lawrence, 1951. Photograph taken by the U.S. Navy. Call Number: RH PH 172. Click image to enlarge.

In response, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a network of levees and reservoirs to prevent future flooding. The Flood Control Act of 1962 authorized funding to dam the Wakarusa River, a major tributary of the Kaw, and build Clinton Lake. In addition to flood control, Clinton Lake would also supply the city of Lawrence with water and provide a source of recreation for locals and tourists alike. Located southwest of Lawrence, Clinton Lake ushered in an era of excitement and uncertainty for the people of Douglas County. Despite protests from many Wakarusa River Valley citizens, the Corps of Engineers began buying land as early as 1968, and construction of the dam started in 1972.

Color illustration of Clinton Lake with neighboring communities and roads.
An informational brochure about Clinton Lake including a map of surrounding recreational activities and campsites, published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, undated. Papers of Carol Buhler Francis. Call Number: RH MS 1473. Click image to enlarge.

Swift action on behalf of the Corps of Engineers prompted local residents of the Wakarusa region to form the Clinton Lake Landowner’s Association, which advocated for the landownership rights of Wakarusa River Valley citizens. According to Martha Parker, a lifetime resident of Clinton and an active community member, “they did nothing but lie to you. We used to have a saying, ‘How can you tell a Corps man is lying? When his lips start moving.'” An auxiliary group, the Clinton Lake Historical Society (or CLHS) was formed alongside the Landowner’s Association with the goal of gathering and preserving the region’s history, which many feared would be lost forever beneath the lake. Many local community members held feelings of great anxiety about the proposed construction of Clinton Lake. This anxiety was not only rooted in an intense fear of the unknown, which often accompanies forced displacement, but the idea that the disappearance of regional history meant the erasure of one’s personal identity. “People just had no idea what was about to happen to them,” Parker explained. “Tons of people were selling all their belongings, their land, everything. I kept telling folks, don’t sell. Nobody listened.” With the support of the Landowner’s Association and the CLHS, Parker went on to establish the Clinton Lake Museum, known today as the Wakarusa River Valley Heritage Museum.

A man in a bulldozer labeled "U.S. Army Corps of Engineers" cutting a path across the United States.
A Kansas City Star political cartoon about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1975. Papers of Carol Buhler Francis. Call Number: RH MS 1473. Click image to enlarge.
This image has text with a black-and-white photograph of two women standing in front of a building.
A Lawrence Journal-World article reporting on the Clinton Lake Museum, 1983. Papers of Carol Buhler Francis. Call Number: RH MS 1473. Click image to enlarge.

However, it is important to remember that Clinton Lake displaced more than just rural residents of the Wakarusa River Valley. The process of artificial lake building results in the forced displacement and subsequent migration of different groups of peoples at different moments in time. Yet this process cannot be viewed from a static perspective. Dispossession is not merely an event; it is a process that continues long after initial physical removal. Beginning in the 1800s, Native American nations located within the Wakarusa River Valley were removed from their federally promised lands in order to make room for white settlers. This included the Kaw Nation (whose ancestral homelands included the river valley) along with tribes relocated from the East (namely the Shawnee and Delaware). Therefore, Clinton Lake serves as a force of continuous dispossession. Flooding the land removes any future opportunity for communities, both Native and non-Native, to return to their homes and restore their sense of historical, cultural, and spiritual connection to that place.

This exhibit is free and open to the public in the North Gallery through February 28th.

Claire Cox
Public Services Student Assistant
KU Graduate Student in History

Spencer’s November-December Exhibit: “Creating Over a Century of Symphonies: The Reuter Organ Company”

November 14th, 2023

While each year we at Spencer process many new collections, we are also adding to preexisting collections through the continued generosity of our donors. From Pulitzer Prize-winning authors to LGBTQIA2S+ activists, an individual’s history doesn’t end when their collection comes through our doors. Individual and organizational histories continue to evolve past the snapshots their historical records provide, and we at Spencer aim to provide as complete a picture as we can! One collection we’d like to draw particular attention to is an addition to the Reuter Organ Company photograph collection (Call Number: RH PH 68). Through this collection, patrons can follow the construction of uniquely hand-crafted pipe organs before they were built into their new homes in institutions all over the world. And now, with a 2023 addition, patrons can see even more of the grandeur of these massive instruments as well as the incredible skill and historical craftsmanship of this Lawrence-based company!

Black-and-white overhead photograph of a large pipe organ.
Reuter Organ Company’s Opus 2179 at the Elm Park Methodist Church in Scranton, Pennsylvania, 1995. Photo credit: Max Mayse. Reuter Organ Company Photograph Collection. Call Number: RH PH 68. Click image to enlarge.

The history of the Reuter Organ Company starts in 1917 when Adolph Reuter established the Reuter-Schwarz Organ Company with his business partner Earl Schwarz. After a disastrous tornado blew through the company factory, the company relocated to the Wilder Brothers Shirt Factory on New Hampshire Street in Lawrence, Kansas, after fulfilling a commission for the city’s Masonic Temple in 1919. Schwarz departed from the company shortly afterwards, and the company was renamed the Reuter Organ Company. In less than ten years, the company grew from a six-employee operation to over 50 full-time employees with over 50 commissions a year. However, after lean years during the Great Depression, the Reuter Organ Company faced a manufacturing ban on musical instruments during World War II and stayed afloat by producing government-sanctioned boxes for munitions materials with a skeletal crew. After the war, the company began to flourish again, and Reuter began hiring skilled staff with formal music education and expertise in organ construction. Through the knowledge base of its staff, the company began to experiment and further develop traditional construction techniques with new pipe organ technology to develop a signature “Reuter sound.”

Black-and-white photograph of a pipe organ in the corner of a balcony in an auditorium.
Reuter Organ Company’s Opus 1741 at the Shryock Auditorium at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, 1970. Photo credit: Max Mayse. Reuter Organ Company Photograph Collection. Call Number: RH PH 68. Click image to enlarge.

After Adolph Reuter’s retirement in 1961, the company continued to evolve under the direction of longtime employee Franklin Mitchell. Mitchell, with then newly appointed production manager Albert Neutel, purchased the company in the early 1980s. Together, the two continued to refine the Reuter technical craft, particularly with the mechanical aspects of organ construction and the tonal sound of the company’s organs. After Mitchell’s retirement in 1997, Albert Neutel was joined in management by his son, Albert “J.R.” Neutel, a former longtime employee of the company. Under the Neutel family’s direction, the Reuter Organ Company moved operations from New Hampshire Street to a newly constructed and specially designed factory and administrative facility in northwest Lawrence in 2001. Sixteen years later, the company celebrated its 100th anniversary by holding a public open house in their newer facility and inviting old and new customers alike. By this time, the company had constructed over 2,200 pipe organs for public and private institutions around the world. The company had also built a respected name in organ rehabilitation within the pipe organ community. In 2022, amid the retirement of several longtime key staff members, J.R. Neutel, the company’s current president, decided to sell Reuter’s factory and administrative facility. A major selling point of the Reuter Organ Company is the institutional and craft knowledge of its staff. There is a strong tradition of old staff mentoring new staff and passing down historic pipe organ construction techniques. Operating at the same scale without that same level of institutional knowledge was deemed impossible. And in the beginning of 2023, the Reuter Organ Company further scaled back operations to only fulfilling the customary 11-year warranties offered to their past clients with special consideration for smaller projects.

Black-and-white photograph of a pipe organ in a balcony at the back of the church's sanctuary.
Reuter Organ Company’s Opus 2044, 1982 in St. John’s Episcopal Church in Clearwater, Florida, 1982. Photo credit: Max Mayse. Reuter Organ Company Photograph Collection. Call Number: RH PH 68. Click image to enlarge.

To honor this historic company and to showcase a new addition to the Reuter Organ Company photograph collection, we here at Spencer have created a temporary exhibit to display images of a few of the beautiful pipe organs Reuter’s has constructed over the years and to dip into some pipe organ terminology. Have you ever wondered were the phrase “pulling out all stops” comes from or just how big the biggest musical instrument in the world can get? Come on by to learn more about this incredible company and the incredible instruments it made! The exhibit opened free to the public in Spencer’s North Gallery on November 1st and will continue to be on display until early January 2024. We hope you “stop” by!

Charissa Pincock
Manuscripts Processor

Spencer’s Fang-tastic September-October Exhibit

October 11th, 2023

Stoker-ed about Halloween? Count get enough spooky stories? Excited to sink your teeth into this year’s Booktoberfest Community Read at Lawrence Public Library?

But of corpse!

Stop by and check out Spencer’s current short-term exhibit (ahem, exhi-bite) featuring a selection of materials by Bram Stoker, special editions of his novel Dracula, and copies of other early vampire stories. Highlights include:

  • the first installment of The Primrose Path, Stoker’s first novel that was initially published as a serial in 1875;
  • a handwritten draft of an unpublished article written and signed by Bram Stoker in 1887;
  • an early edition of the first fully realized vampire story in English; and
  • a copy of Dracula printed for servicemembers during World War II.
This image has text. Close-up view of items in an exhibit case.
An Armed Services Edition of Dracula, undated [circa 1945]. Call Number: AK178. Click image to enlarge.
Exhibit case with items and labels.
Bram Stoker materials on display. Click image to enlarge.

We hope to see you if you’re in our neck of the woods! The display is free and open to the public in Spencer’s North Gallery until October 31. Be sure to also download, print, and enjoy Spencer’s Halloween-inspired coloring pages and Frankenstein-themed MadLibs.

Caitlin Klepper
Head of Public Services