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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.

Recent Acquisition: The Facts Behind the 1970 Police Shooting of a KU Student

July 19th, 2023

In 1970, the United States was deeply divided along social, racial, economic, generational, and political lines. Young people across the country were protesting in favor of civil rights action and against the Vietnam War and military recruiting on college campuses. That spring the National Guard killed four student protesters at Kent State University. While the incident at Kent State holds a place in the national consciousness, many are unaware that there were two shootings near the University of Kansas (KU) that summer.

Later dubbed the Days of Rage, pipe bombs, dumpster fires, and sniper fire were not uncommon in Lawrence, Kansas, during the summer of 1970. Arsonists burned the KU Union in the spring. The lethal violence began when Lawrence Police Officer William Garrett killed former KU student and Black Student Union activist Rick “Tiger” Dowdell on July 16, 1970. During protests in response to the police shooting, police shot and killed KU student Nick Rice on July 20.

Black-and-white head and shoulders portrait.
Photograph of Harry Nicholas “Nick” Rice, undated. Esther Christianson Rice Papers. Call Number: RH MS P617. Click image to enlarge.

According to a newspaper interview of a fellow member of the Zeta Beta Tau Fraternity, Nick Rice supported civil rights and was against the war, but he was not a protestor. He was one of the students who helped to put out the fire in the Union and received a commendation from the city of Lawrence for his bravery.

The night that a city officer shot him, Rice was with his girlfriend and friends playing pinball at the Rock Chalk Cafe while protesters gathered outside. Officers were throwing teargas as Rice and his friends were leaving. One protester tried to start a car on fire but was unsuccessful. Police fired at the short, long-haired, would-be arsonist and hit tall, clean-cut Rice in the back of the head. Officers continued to throw teargas as bystanders attempted first aid.

No one was ever charged for killing Nick Rice or Tiger Dowdell. An all-white coroner’s inquest found that Lawrence Police Officer William Garrett did not have felonious intent when he killed Tiger Dowdell. The official statements released by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) and at Rice’s inquest claimed “insufficient evidence” of wrongdoing in the shooting of Nick Rice. However, the KBI files in the newly-processed Personal Papers of Harry Nicholas Rice (Call Number: PP 647) tell a different story.

The Lawrence Times had access to the lightly redacted KBI Nick Rice case files before they were donated to Spencer. In 2021, they published a series of articles on the Nick Rice case based on these files, suggesting an intentional cover up of the evidence.

The KBI summary of the incident, submitted in August 1970, makes it clear that Officer Jimmy Joe Stroud thought he shot someone and Lawrence Police Officer Virgil Foust found a bullet from Officer Stroud’s gun near the site where Nick Rice fell. Foust gave the bullet to Police Captain Merle McClure, who put the evidence in his pocket and took it home, breaking the legal chain of custody and causing the “insufficient evidence” of wrongdoing. Captain McClure did not turn over the evidence until the KBI investigators asked him specifically if he had the bullet. Neither the KBI nor the Lawrence Police Department shared this information with the public or with Rice’s family.

Nick’s mother, Esther Rice, was a supporter of President Richard Nixon. She wrote to the President, asking him to end the kind of violence that caused the death of her son, an innocent bystander at a protest.

This image has text. Esther Rice argues that her son Nick was not protesting the day he was killed.
Esther Rice’s letter to President Nixon, August 4, 1970. Personal Papers of Harry Nicholas Rice. Call Number: PP 647. Click image to enlarge.

Nixon responded to the national situation with the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest. Mrs. Rice wrote to the head of the Commission, former Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton. She describes the inquest that seemed to implicate her son rather than the police and her hope that the Commission’s report would set the record straight.

This image has text. Esther Rice describes the day her son was killed and her experiences since that date.
This image has text. Esther Rice asks for help "revealing what really happened" the day her son was killed.
Esther Rice’s letter to William Scranton, head of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest, November 11, 1970. Personal Papers of Harry Nicholas Rice. Call Number: PP 647. Click images to enlarge.

While the Commission admonished law enforcement for responding to mostly peaceful protests with violence and advised the U.S. President that ending the war in Vietnam would lead to more peace domestically, it did not go into the details of the Nick Rice shooting. In a social and media environment that blamed their son and the protesters for the violence, the Rice family filed a suit against the city of Lawrence for damages in the wrongful death of their son. After years of litigation, including fighting the KBI for access to their full investigation, the family decided to drop the case.

Esther Rice wrote of the experience in a manuscript called “Who Killed Our Son? An Account of the Circumstances and Subsequent Investigation of the Death of Harry Nicholas Rice” (Call Number: RH MS P617) that is also available at the Spencer Research Library. Over the years she continued to respond to news outlets that reinforced common narratives misrepresenting the case, such as the Kansas Alumni Magazine. While the files don’t include a copy of her letter, the editor’s response to her objection is included, along with the magazine in question.

This image has text. The letter concludes with "I hope you did not get the impression that the University's compassion and sympathy about the tragedy has lessened. It certainly has not."
The Kansas Alumni Magazine response to Esther Rice’s objection, April 17, 1985. Personal Papers of Harry Nicholas Rice. Call Number: PP 647. Click image to enlarge.

In absence of hard evidence, many newspapers reported that the overturned car burned that night, and some suggested that Rice was shot by sniper fire. It is unclear what “eye-witness accounts” the Alumni editor is referring to, but the KBI files include nearly one hundred eyewitness accounts. These files are the basis for this summary of the events, and they make it clear that the Volkswagen was turned over, but never burned. The files also show the statement “no proof existed that (the police) had fired the fatal shots,” to be untrue. The proof existed; it just wasn’t released to the public.

According to The Lawrence Times, Nick’s brother Chris Rice paid thousands in legal and copying fees to gain access to the files from the KBI. More than fifty years after the shooting, Chris finally learned the truth. Rice donated the files to the Spencer Research Library, and they are now ready for viewing in the Reading Room.

The Personal Papers of Harry Nicholas Rice include those photocopies of the KBI investigation, as well as Mrs. Rice’s correspondence with federal officials and personal papers dealing with the case against the city of Lawrence. Also included are magazines, newspaper clippings, and correspondence kept by the family. Spencer Research Library is honored to preserve these papers and to make the facts of the police shooting of Nick Rice available to the public for the first time.

Erika Earles
Manuscripts Processor

Meet the KSRL Staff: Erika Earles

January 11th, 2023

This is the latest installment in a recurring series of posts introducing readers to the staff of Kenneth Spencer Research Library. Today’s profile features Erika Earles, who joined Spencer Research Library in June 2022 as a Manuscripts Processor.

Headshot of a woman standing in a field.
Manuscripts Processor Erika Earles. Click image to enlarge.

Where are you from?

I grew up on a farm in Baldwin, about fifteen miles southeast of Lawrence. My mom taught at Lawrence High, and I was glad to attend high school there as a result. We were the last class to graduate before Free State High opened. With about 800 graduates, the lengthy graduation ceremony was held at Memorial Stadium. Then I went to school in Upstate New York, worked trails across the West and in Yellowstone National Park, and settled in Teton Valley, Idaho, where I worked at the local library.

What does your job at Spencer entail?

My job is to look through the items that have been accepted into the library collection, put them in acid-free containers, and describe them in the KU Libraries online catalog so researchers can find them. I’m a manuscripts processor, so most of the items I deal with are papers and unpublished writing, but occasionally there are audiovisual materials, photographs, slides, or objects like scarves, flags, and toys. You never can tell what you’ll find.

What is one of the most interesting items you’ve come across in Spencer’s collections?

In my first weeks at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, I processed the collection of Martha “Matt” Mueller, a KU graduate, librarian, and newspaper columnist. In addition to some of her writing, the items included several autograph collections. One of the pieces was a 5-pound check written out to cash, signed and underlined three times by Charles Dickens! He is one of my favorite authors. He’s still funny after 150 years! I was star-struck and astounded that I was touching the same piece of paper that he touched so many years before. My supervisor was unfazed – just a regular day at work for her – but I still get excited when I think about it.

That was the most exciting thing for me personally, but one of the most interesting things I’ve processed is the Pamphlets on Cherokee Neutral Lands. This was a bound volume, separated for preservation and ease of use, that included writing from people on many sides of a contested land issue in southeast Kansas. In 1866, the Secretary of the Interior sold the land to his brother-in-law, who represented a railroad company.

This collection includes the federal court papers detailing the two suits filed by the railroad to establish title to the land; pamphlets circulated by white farmers who asserted their right to the land as homesteaders and criticized the government support of corporate interests over the working man; and a statement from the chief of the Cherokee tribe stating that the tribe had paid for and continuously occupied the land, nullifying the right of the government to sell or the settlers to occupy it. It also includes an Indiana Representative’s report to the Indian Affairs Committee decrying a government that breaks its own treaties with various tribal nations despite their peaceful negotiation and warning that the recent Civil War had shown the United States what comes of denying legal rights to an entire group of people.

These documents are a reminder that racial and economic issues that we may think of as modern are not. People have fought for and against equity and fair distribution of resources since the founding of the country. The struggle for tribal sovereignty, full rights of citizenship, and racial equity – and the relationship between the federal government, corporations, and workers – are still being negotiated in our culture and our legal system 150 years later. Reading how people talked about these issues in their own words and how decisions were made helps you understand how we got to where we are today.

What part of your job do you like best?

Learning about local history is always interesting to me. I recently learned that the fire department in Lawrence used to be alerted by bells that would ring a certain number of times for each fire district. According to a local woman who gave a talk at Pinckney Elementary School in the 1970s, they rang those bells when World War I ended. When people called the local telephone operator to find out what was going on, they were told the good news. She said when World War II ended it was announced on the radio.

These kinds of details give you a real glimpse into the past. I enjoy learning about people and places this way and helping to ensure that their legacy will be available for future generations.

What are some of your favorite pastimes outside of work?

Walking in the woods with my dad under the Kansas sky is one of my favorite things ever. I also enjoy going to art museums, painting, drawing, reading, dancing, and hanging out with my stylish cat, Iyla View, a.k.a. Miss Pants. (The unusual spelling of Iyla’s name is a nod to her home state of Idaho, where people spell names however they choose.)

Gray tabby cat with white stomach, nestled in pink tulle.
Pants loves dresses. Click image to enlarge.

What piece of advice would you offer a researcher walking into Spencer Research Library for the first time?

Search the catalog for something that interests you and let the friendly staff in the Reading Room help you find it. Don’t leave without getting something in your hands. There is nothing like looking at original materials.

Erika Earles
Manuscripts Processor