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Class to teach research methods, explore Wichita’s Black history

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Bethel College students will have a chance this spring to help give the gift of history to Wichita’s Black community.

Under the supervision of Wichita social scientist Galyn Vesey, an adjunct instructor at Bethel, students will contribute to the Research on Black Wichita project, which Vesey directs, by collecting data through document searches and other research methods. The specific time period in question is 1945-58.

“An underlying theme here is that history is socially interrelated by both people and ideas,” Vesey says. “We feel differently about ourselves when we find out how and why things happen, or why they may not. We take action, or we don’t, based on our knowledge of history.”

The period from 1945-58 was “the segregation era” in Wichita and there is little documentation on Wichita’s Black community at that time, Vesey says. Research on Black Wichita (ROBW) has a goal of bringing to life the areas in the city where most Black businesses and organizations thrived, which will require going through boxes of documents from archives, cemeteries and possibly even the Hutchinson salt mines, where municipal records are stored.

When Vesey took on ROBW, he says, people said to him, “This is massive. Do you know what you’ve gotten yourself into?”

“I can’t speak enough volumes about John Sheriff [Bethel executive vice president for institutional development] and his support for me personally and professionally,” Vesey says. “It was his idea to have a class.”

The course Black Wichita: 1945-1958 is designed as a collaborative-inquiry seminar for undergraduate students and is also aimed at members of the community interested in historical research. Vesey and his assistant, Sarah Price, a graduate student in public history at Wichita State University, have designed the course to be 10 percent lecture, 40 percent discussion and the rest lab – primary materials research for ROBW.

Vesey’s hope for the class is to go beyond giving students hands-on research experience while getting some help with ROBW. “A basic principle of education that doesn’t ever get old is [to give students the chance] to learn about different people without giving up the strengths they have,” he says. “This project is not about lambasting white people. It will only focus on race and racism, in a direct or explicit sense, as it is necessary. I want to dwell on the strengths and what was accomplished [by the Black community in Wichita] in spite of poverty and segregation.

“For example, how many people know that there was an all-black professional baseball team in Wichita [in the 1920s]? That shows what can happen even in the worst times. It helps me feel different about myself and what we can accomplish as a people.”

He also hopes to bring recognition to the many unsung heroes and heroines of Black Wichita history. As part of the sit-in at Dockum Drug in Wichita in 1958, the first organized sit-in for the purpose of integrating a segregated business establishment, Vesey says he has been enjoying the 50-year anniversary recognition.

“It’s nice to be recognized for one’s accomplishments,” he says, “but there were so many others who were part of the history of Black Wichita [whose names aren’t known]. For example, there were adults who organized social activities for young people and who ended up instilling values like the importance of education, community and faith in God. There are a lot of people, many of whom are deceased now, who were never recognized for their unselfish roles in the community as volunteers or as mentors, or perhaps as someone who simply encouraged local youth.”

Though it is several years down the road, the tangible product of ROBW is intended to be a book that Bethel College will help publish.

“I hope that the research for this class, and ultimately the book, will renew interest in local Black history as well as pride in the Black community and our accomplishments as a people,” Vesey says. “People who get national recognition all came from a local community and there are people who mentored and nurtured them along the way.

“We can all – not just me – leave something for Wichita that is perhaps more valuable than money: a sense of who we are as a people.”

Black Wichita: 1945-1958 will meet Tuesday and Thursday afternoons beginning Feb. 3, 2009. To learn more about Research on Black Wichita (ROBW), see the project’s Web site at www.robwks.com. For more information about the class, contact Dr. Vesey at 316-685-1174 or gvesey@bethelks.edu. For questions about enrollment, call the Bethel College Office of Admissions, 1-800-522-1887 ext. 230 or 316-284-5230 or e-mail admissions@bethelks.edu.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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