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Sculpture, monument dedication commemorates dark chapter in Atchison

Little was known about the town's history of lynching until a Benedictine professor rediscovered the story of George Johnson.

Posted: Jun 21, 2021 1:52 AM
Updated: Jun 21, 2021 10:17 AM

(ATCHISON, Kan.) The city of Atchison dedicated both a sculpture and monument that recognizes a dark chapter in the city's past.

The sculpture called "Reflections," is the newest piece of public art located in the pedestrian mall near 4th and Commercial St.

This past Saturday, the sculpture was dedicated along with a national monument that tells the story of a black man who was lynched in January of 1870.

Joshua Wolf, an associate professor of American history at Benedictine College, said rumors had spread  around the city for years.  His involvement began while discussing current efforts to pass anti-lynching legislation in class, when a student posed a question.

"A student put up his hand and asked me if there had ever been a lynching in Atchison," Wolf said.

Wolf said he started researching the issue by going through old newspapers archived by the local public library; it was there where he found the story of George Johnson.

According to the monument, Johnson accidentally injured a white man and feared retaliation. He turned himself into the local jail where he was found by a mob of about 50 white men. Johnson was dragged and shot at before finally being hanged in front of a massive crowd near where the current monument now stands.

Though there were thousands of witnesses, no one involved in the lynching faced charges.

More than a century and a half later, the national monument along with the sculpture aims to get current residents and visitors to reflect on this past.

"People will see this and they’ll engage with it," Wolf said. 

Each person’s interpretation of the sculpture is different.

"It has movement, it's one line that doesn’t break," Deborah Geiger, executive director, Atchison Arts Association said. "That common thread of humanity."

"It means harmony, it means a group," Kevin Mongeon, a resident said. "They all stand together because they are together."

Wolf said national monuments such as this recognize the failures of American society in the nineteenth century and remind present day audiences of the work that still needs to be done to create a more inclusive community. 

That work is still ongoing, as the sculpture and monument are just one part of how the town is evolving.

Other examples of the city making steps to become more inclusive include the renaming of Division St. to Unity St, and the local school board’s decision to retire the nickname “Redmen”.

"When you have a more inclusive community history, you have a more inclusive community." Wolf said. 

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