The main reason I wanted to attend Mid-Americon/WorldCon is this: the novel I’m working on is set mostly in eastern Kansas. With my characters traveling the area in 1872, I needed to know what their experiences might be like. So I traveled to Kansas early, and did some area research.
I loved my Kansas/Missouri experience (of which more news will follow) but let’s start with the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City.
My novel contains one small but pivotal section set in Kansas City. I needed to know how this mixed-race group was going to navigate the city, and what it would be like when they got there. So I contacted the archive, as you need to let them know you’re coming. Emiel Cleaver forwarded my questions to Glenn North, who put me in touch with archivist Geri Sanders.
Geri was incredibly helpful. As I feared, there wasn’t as much about the era I was interested in as there was for later times. However Geri was generous with her time and resources, tirelessly scouring the archives for books containing valuable information about the geography of the city at the time, the history of local slavery and reconstruction, and some wonderful people who lived during the period.
In historical fiction, I always enjoy references to actual historical figures. I’m now hoping to have my characters talk about (and possibly even meet) impressive local inhabitants of the period like:
William D. Matthews (c.1827- 1906) moved to Leavenworth, Kansas in 1856, had a station on the local Underground Railroad, and recruited ex slaves to fight for the Union during the Civil War.
James Milton Turner (1840-1915) was born a slave in St. Louis, but his father was able to purchase his freedom. He attended Oberlin College until he had to return to care for his family after his father’s death. While in St. Louis, he attended John Berry Meachum’s floating Freedom School on a steamboat on the Mississippi River. The Freedom School was established to evade Missouri laws against education for blacks. Turner served in the Union Army. After the war, he was Missouri assistant superintendent of schools, helping establish Lincoln Institute (later Lincoln University), the first institution of higher education for African-Americans in Missouri. In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him ambassador to Liberia, making him the first African-American to serve in the U.S. diplomatic corps.
Mrs. Alpha Minor Smith sold notions door-to-door until 1870, when she was able to open a dressmaking shop and notions store in the West Bottoms neighborhood. Her shop was the first in Kansas City to carry ready-to-wear clothing for ladies.
Historic Church Hill neighborhood east of Troost, view to the west
In addition to the biographical information, I also have possible scene locations (early churches) and local legends (like Hiram Young) to add verisimilitude.
I can’t thank Geri Sanders (and all the people at the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City) enough for their help with my research!