A Community Out of Chaos

Leavenworth in the Civil War era

Martha Bettis Cooper was a survivor.  In spite of the chaos and destruction around it, the city of Leavenworth prospered during the Civil War, and Martha and her family prospered along with it. By November of 1860, about a year after she and her son Drew arrived, she had bought a house lot worth $120. Five years later, immediately after the end of the war, she owned real estate worth $800 and personal property of $100.  Over the next ten years she bought and sold more property, while Drew established a farm and enrolled his children in school.

Henry Clay Bruce, who arrived in Leavenworth at about the same time after escaping with his wife from slavery in Missouri, left us a detailed picture of the struggle and persistence that were needed. At the age of 28 he was “almost as helpless as a child,” not only in managing money, but even in such ordinary matters as buying provisions for his family. To his surprise and distress, the white Kansans who pretended to be his friends frequently lied to him and cheated him.

Not all of Leavenworth’s white residents even pretended to be friendly.  Bruce describes the open hostility of the Irish immigrants who settled in Leavenworth at the close of the war, and competed fiercely with the freed slaves for jobs.  On at least one occasion, that hostility nearly led to mob violence, only averted by the intercession of a white man known to be friendly to both races. There were also conflicts between the freed slaves and the African-Americans who had been born free, and who were determined to defend their status and power within the community from the new arrivals.

Nevertheless, Bruce and his wife persevered. By 1867 they had saved $500, enough for him to buy a small business. Shortly thereafter the business was destroyed by fire, but with $200 in insurance money he started another, and when that too went up in flames, a third.  When the third business was forced to close because harsh weather had left its customers too poor to pay their bills, he borrowed money to buy two express wagons and two teams, and “made a fair living” with those until politics offered him an easier life.

These strivers and survivors did not do it on their own.  Many of them, like Martha and Drew, had the support of extended families, reunited after years of separation. In Leavenworth and in many other Kansas towns, the churches played a central role in creating and supporting the African-American communities.  The African Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in 1861, and served as a station on the Underground Railroad until that role was no longer needed. By the end of the decade, as segregation of schools and neighborhoods became more and more rigid, the churches became the focus for community activities, knitting parishioners together into what sometimes felt like a large extended family.  Looking back on those times, an elderly resident of Manhattan, Kansas, remembered that “in those days everybody looked after everybody’s children.  You didn’t do something that you got away with.”  And another summed it up:  “We all seem like brothers and sisters.”

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