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In Focus

Marion Cott: Building Community in Kansas

By Shannon Hunt | HUMANITIES, September/October 2003 | Volume 24, Number 5

"We’re not all Dorothy and Toto and Carrie Nation with an axe!" says Marion Cott, executive director of the Kansas Humanities Council. "There’s a lot more to Kansas than that. We sometimes forget that in 1854, when the territory opened and settlers were given the choice of making it a free state or a slave state, the eyes of the nation were focused on Kansas."

For more than thirty years Cott has helped Kansans connect with their state’s history. Next summer, during the sesquicentennial of the Kansas Territory, the council will present a Chautauqua called "Bleeding Kansas: Where the Civil War Began." The state’s infamous nickname comes from its violent birth. Both proslavery and antislavery proponents sought to claim Kansas, often resorting to bloodshed in order to attain their goal. In 1856, John Brown and his cohorts murdered five slavery supporters in what was afterwards known as the Pottawatomie Massacre. "Border Ruffians" from neighboring Missouri killed five Free State men in the Marais des Cygnes Massacre two years later. At the time the Civil War began, Kansas had already endured seven years of slavery-related strife; by war’s end, Kansas had suffered more casualties than any other Union state.

The Chautauqua will stop in four towns and offer first-person characterizations of national players Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown. Also being portrayed are local figures involved in the struggle for Kansas, such as Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, abolitionist Clarina Nichols, and Missouri Senator David Atchison. "We’re giving Kansans an opportunity to learn about their history and about the important role that Kansas played in America’s history," Cott explains. "The questions they were dealing with then--about both individual and national identity--are exactly the questions we still deal with today.

"The great thing about Chautauqua is that it fosters discussion in venues that are nonthreatening and supportive of dialogue," she notes. Cott recalls a Chautauqua a few years ago that featured scholar David Matheny as John Brown. "It was a hot July evening, and we were sitting there fanning ourselves with these old parlor fans, sweating, and I looked down and I had goosebumps. I’m thinking, was this guy really a patriot and a defender of freedom and liberty, or was he just paranoid? And I was not the only one experiencing this, because during the Q and A, a man stands up and starts in on John Brown, challenging him for his murderous activities and for the way he went about trying to defeat slavery with violence. His wife pulled at his sleeve and said, ‘Sit down, you old fool!’ I love that this format, this manner of learning, caused those of us under the tent to suspend our disbelief."

Cott’s background is in Latin American history; she has lived in Mexico and Paraguay and participates in an exchange with an El Salvadoran church. Cott has been director of the Kansas council since its inception in 1972; she wrote the proposal for its first NEH award for $125,000. Now, with a board of twenty-two members and a five-person staff, the council funds projects all over the state. In Iola, the council funds an annual Buster Keaton film festival. "Most people don’t know that he was born in southeast Kansas while his folks were traveling through on a vaudevillian tour," Cott says. The festival draws visitors from Kansas, other states, and foreign countries to this small town.

The year 2004 is an important one for the council. Besides being the sesquicentennial of the territory, it marks the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, the latter of which the council plans to commemorate with an exhibition, "No Crystal Stairway," titled after a Langston Hughes poem. Ongoing programs sponsored by the council include TALK (Talk about Literature in Kansas), which offers guided book discussion series to local libraries and other organizations, and Stories at Work, which explores the human dimensions of different professions. "As we tell our stories and hear other people’s stories, we foster understanding and trust; we see issues that divide us and things that connect us," remarks Cott. "We as a council try to use discussions about history to strengthen the community."