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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

A Patriot’s Guide to Kansas Day

January 29th, 2024

Any red-blooded Kansan holds these truths to be self-evident: the state flower is the sunflower, the state bird is the meadowlark, the state tree is the cottonwood, and Kansas Day is January 29. We celebrate this day as the anniversary of the entrance of the state to the Union in 1861. This year (2024) the state turns 163 years old (though she doesn’t look a day over 130). But as our comrades across the state and beyond observe Kansas Day, some may wonder how to properly celebrate.

This image has text.
The front cover of the Patriotic Manual and Guide for Classroom Observance of Special Days. This guide was published by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1954, though several editions have been published over the years. Call Number: RH C6170. Click image to enlarge.

Unsure of how to appropriately commemorate the anniversary of statehood, we can look to the Patriotic Manual published by the state in 1954. Under the section on Kansas Day, it is said that Kansas Day was born in Paola in 1877, when schoolchildren became so awakened to patriotism that they searched encyclopedias and called upon their parents and community to furnish local history and interesting facts about Kansas. When Kansas Day came, the school blackboard was covered with careful drawings of the state seal and maps, along with songs and poems, with the state motto “Ad astra per aspera” written in crimson and blue chalk.

Along with the fabled history of Kansas Day, the Patriotic Manual contains state laws describing the Great Seal of Kansas and the Capitol building in Topeka as well as a selection of songs and poems that embody the fine and glorious spirit of the state. These poems are reprinted below.

This image has the text of the poems "The Call of Kansas" and "A Prairie Vision."
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This image has the text of the poems "The Prairie Schooner" and "The Wild Sunflower."
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This image has the text of the poems "My Golden Kansas," "We're from Kansas," "A Song for Kansas Day," and "In Kansas," plus "A Kansas Creed" and a description of the Kansas state banner.
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This image has the text of the poems "When the Sunflowers Bloom" and "The Gates Ajar."
Kansas poems from the Patriotic Manual and Guide for Classroom Observance of Special Days, 1954. Call Number: RH C6170. Click image to enlarge.

This patriotic manual from 1954 and an updated edition from 1973 are housed at Spencer Research Library. For digital access, the guide has been digitized by the Kansas State Library.

Ad astra per aspera and happy Kansas Day!

Phil Cunningham
Kansas Collection Curator

A “Dead Rank Jonah”: The Unlucky Travels of Guy Hatfield

October 25th, 2023

The letters of Guy Hatfield are a collection of 50 letters written by a traveling salesman to his wife, Nell, living in Kansas City, Missouri. He made his living traveling throughout the Midwestern United States. His letters document his travels between Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma Territory, Colorado, Missouri, and Illinois, all in the hopes of making a quick buck. Though little is known about Guy Hatfield’s life outside of the collection of letters here at Spencer Library, he is associated as a contemporary of the better-known George B. McClellan, a traveling medicine man and Wild West showman. [i]

Guy’s letters to his wife, Nell, give a window into his business life as a traveling salesman. Rarely was business good. Inclement weather would keep the townspeople in their homes and slow business. Sometimes “biz” (as Guy called it) in company towns was centered around payday; setting up shop at the right time was key. Risk of illness and outbreak of the “grip” (also written as grippe, an old-fashioned term for the flu) could also be a detriment to business.

This image has handwritten text.
In a letter written from Davenport, Iowa, in September 1891, Guy’s typically neat handwriting is shaky and the message short. Is Guy in the grips of the Grippe? Letters of Guy Hatfield. Call Number: RH MS 1371. Click image to enlarge.

The letters give a wealth of information beyond Guy’s correspondence to his wife. His travels, most often by train, show the rail network in the Midwest and Great Plains around 1890. The stationery and envelopes, bearing the names and proprietors of the hotels Guy stayed at, give us a list of the hotels and innkeepers that served travelers as they crisscrossed the country.

Black-and-white map of Kansas and border areas, with red dotted lines between cities.
Guy Hatfield’s travels in winter 1889/1890 outlined on a Kansas railroad map. Based on the order of his letters, he traveled to Wymore and Beatrice (Neb.) and south to Manhattan and Salina (Kan.). He then headed up to Red Cloud (Neb.) before going to Wichita and Winfield (Kan.). From there, he ventured into Oklahoma Territory. He returned, stopping in Emporia and Osage City (Kan.) before returning to Kansas City. Call Number: RH Map R452. Click image to enlarge.
This image has text.
The back of an envelope for the St. James Hotel in Manhattan (Kan.) features a verbose ad for Merchant’s Gargling Oil Liniment, November 1889. Letters of Guy Hatfield. Call Number: RH MS 1371. Click image to enlarge.

So what exactly did Guy Hatfield sell? His letters mention glasses and figurines (mislaid and broken by the railroad company), wigs, a mummy, a gorilla, a skeleton (in one letter, a gorilla skeleton), and medicine (though he does not say if it is for resale or personal use). In one of his letters, he mentions his attempts to sell his whole museum to one or more interested parties in Wichita, but bad luck seemed to prevent the sale from going through. He blames an associate named Converse, who he calls a “dead rank Jonah.”

Whatever it was Hatfield was trying to sell, few were interested in buying. With a few exceptions, the common thread through the letters are complaints of low revenue, high expenses, and excuses for why he cannot yet come home. The letters begin in October 1889 in Sioux City, Iowa, where Guy complains about losing lots of money. In the last letter, dated February 25, 1892, he is staying in Pittsburg, Kansas, a couple days longer with hopes of making a few dollars. As to his association with the famous George McClellan, a letter from January 22, 1891, suggests the nature of their friendship: “George has not answered any of my letters at all nor sent me a cent[.]”

Beyond these three years of flourishing (if we can call it that), little is known about Guy Hatfield or his wife Nell. The Kansas City addresses on the envelopes no longer exist. A search of digitized newspapers reveals two stories of a Guy Hatfield, who may or may not be the same as our ambitious and unlucky letter-writer. A newspaper report in the Kansas City Journal from January 1898 tells the story of a salesman of the same name attempting suicide in a saloon; a report from the Topeka State Journal from July of the same year reports on the impending execution of a soldier bearing the same name, who, “in a drunken row soon after pay day,” stabbed another soldier to death.

When we think of archival collections, we often give too much credit to the movers and shakers of history. It makes sense that the Kansas Collection at KU’s Spencer Library would hold the personal and professional papers of governors, senators, and other pillars of the civic community. But there is much to learn about the world of the past in collections like the letters of Guy Hatfield. He lived during an era we like to call the Gilded Age. But through his own words, we are reminded that to many, it may not have been so gilded.

Phil Cunningham
Kansas Collection Curator


[i] Finch, L. Boyd. “Doctor Diamond Dick: Leavenworth’s Flamboyant Medicine Man.” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 26 (Spring 2003): 2-13. Available online at https://www.kshs.org/publicat/history/2003spring_finch.pdf.

Meet the KSRL Staff: Phil Cunningham

April 18th, 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 Phil Cunningham, who joined Spencer Research Library in February 2023 as Assistant Librarian and Kansas Collection Curator.

Headshot of a smiling young man.
Kansas Collection Curator Phil Cunningham. Click image to enlarge.

Where are you from?

I was born in Tacoma, Washington, and as a child have lived in Los Angeles; Fort Polk, Louisiana; and Fort Riley and Manhattan, Kansas. Before coming to Lawrence and KU, I lived in New Orleans.

What does your job at Spencer entail?

I recently joined the Kenneth Spencer Research Library as the Kansas Collection Curator. The Kansas Collection documents the history and culture of Kansas and its peoples; it is one of the largest regional history collections in the Great Plains. In my role as curator, I lead collection development, instruction, and outreach efforts for that collection. That means I work to support preservation and access to the collections held at the Spencer, team up with instructors to connect students to the multitude of resources available here, and work with donors to help the Kansas Collection grow.

How did you come to work in libraries/archives/special collections?

While working towards my B.A. in history, I began to learn more about the unique history of Kansas and how it came to be what it is today. After graduating, I was eager to continue my studies in history but hesitant to jump into graduate school. I came to see academic librarianship as a desirable route to stay in academia, so I pursued my masters in library and information sciences (MLIS) at Pratt Institute in New York. I was fortunate to intern at the Schomburg Center, a research library part of the New York Public Library system, and the Gilder-Lehrman Archive at the New-York Historical Society. Those experiences helped shape my interests in special collections libraries and archival work.

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

I am still quite new to the Spencer Library, however, I have already started to come across fun and interesting collections in the Kansas Collection! One fun collection is the Agnes T. Frog collection, which documents efforts in Lawrence in 1986 to symbolically elect an amphibian as Douglas County Commissioner. The campaign was a protest against the then-proposed southern Lawrence bypass and its environmental effects on the Baker Wetlands to the south of the city. Another fun item I have come across is a high school diploma awarded to a pony named in Pansy in 1931. Pansy was the primary means of transport to school for a family in Brown County, Kansas. After “attending” school for 22 years, she graduated in 1931 and was given her own diploma!

A Kansas public school diploma awarded to Pansy, 1931. For twenty-two years, the piebald pony carried the children of Tom and Flora Hart to school in the Padonia Township of Brown County, Kansas. Call Number: RH MS P782. Click image to enlarge.

What part of your job do you like best?

As I settle into my new role at the Spencer Library, the list of things I enjoy about my job continues to grow. In no particular order, some of the things I enjoy about working here are: having an office with a window, the welcome that I received from my colleagues and in general how friendly everyone is, exploring the collections at the Spencer, and the joy of learning something new every day. I am also excited to work with classes and students to introduce them to archival research and the archives profession.

What are some of your favorite pastimes outside of work?

Outside of being a curator, you’re likely to find me on cycling around town or at a concert. Some of the bands I have seen are Kansas (of course!), Lamb of God, 3OH!3, Metallica, George Clinton & The P-Funk Allstars, Mastodon, Tool, Tech N9ne, and Gogol Bordello to name a few… don’t ever trust me with the aux cord!

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

I think research libraries and archival research can be daunting for the uninitiated as it requires prior preparation before one even steps foot into the library. But in fact, the opposite is true. If anyone wants to drop in, they are more than welcome to do so. The permanent displays in the library’s North Gallery are fun and interactive, and they give an idea of the variety of collections here. The rotating exhibitions mean there’s always something new to see and learn about with each visit.

Phil Cunningham
Kansas Collection Curator