Born in Ohio in 1866, Seaman made his way to the territory in 1886 as a teacher, later to become a two-term Wabaunsee County attorney, and briefly a newspaper publisher. One of the goals had been to open the first Kansas high school north of the Kaw River.In their research, the student journalists uncovered stories referring to Seaman’s Klan ties in 1925 editions of the Atchison Daily Globe, the Topeka Capital-Journal and The Hutchinson News. They also found a Jan. 29, 1926, story in The Kansas City Star with the headline “Seaman a Klan Problem,” regarding the possibility of his receiving the Republican nomination as the state’s superintendent of public education.
After so many years, many people weren’t sure if it was fiction. But the rumor that the Seaman School District in Topeka had been named for a member of the Ku Klux Klan existed for decades.
In October, it was confirmed as truth. Two enterprising journalists on the Seaman High School newspaper — searching historic news accounts — found that Fred Seaman, the founder of the school for whom the district is also named — not only was a member of the KKK, but also was a local leader, a robed and hooded “exalted cyclops.”
Now, in the face of what they see as four months of Seaman school board inaction, students in the district are calling for change. Turning just days ago to Facebook and other social media, they began circulating a change.org petition demanding a new name for their district and high school on Topeka’s north side.About 1,500 people signed as of the afternoon of Feb, 17.
“It’s definitely something to be embarrassed about,” said sophomore Rene Cabrera, 16, who with senior classmates Kaya Pyle and Forrest Brungardt created the petition.“When October happened, and the article was released, we just expected for the board to say, ‘You know, you’re right. We should change the name.’ We’ve waited all these months to get a response. We just never got one.”
Critics maintain that changing the name of the school — founded in 1920 by Seaman, its first principal — is an example of wiping away history, similar to complaints voiced over removing monuments to figures related to slavery, racism or the Confederacy.
“I know that some students of color have transferred out of the district because they don’t feel comfortable here,” Brungardt said. The district has just over 4,000 students in nine schools. Seaman, with about 1,200 students, is the one high school. Some 80% of students in the district are white.
“I don’t think it is right that we honor a man who glorified hate and oppression,” Brungardt said.
Pyle said, “I hate telling people that I go to Seaman. I have friends in Lawrence and Kansas City, and when I’m like, ‘I go to Seaman,’ they say, ‘Oh, you’re the ones who have the KKK.’ Unfortunately, yes.”hool board President James Adams told The Star in an email that the board is gathering public feedback on the issue.
“We continue to welcome those who want to reach out to us,” he wrote. “I believe it is the board’s role to facilitate this community discussion and process. Obviously, this is new ground for us that we are trying to navigate while in the midst of a pandemic but I look forward to working with our community as we develop a process for feedback and a resolution.”School board President James Adams told The Star in an email that the board is gathering public feedback on the issue.
“We continue to welcome those who want to reach out to us,” he wrote. “I believe it is the board’s role to facilitate this community discussion and process. Obviously, this is new ground for us that we are trying to navigate while in the midst of a pandemic but I look forward to working with our community as we develop a process for feedback and a resolution.”In the Kansas City area, the Shawnee Mission school board last month voted to remove “Indian” and “Brave” mascot names from a high school and three elementary schools, after thousands of people also petitioned for a change. Shawnee Mission North had been the “Indians” for almost a century.
Seaman’s connection to the Klan was brought to light on Oct. 16, when seniors Tristan Fangman and Madeline Gearhart, co-editors of the school paper, The Seaman Clipper, published their piece, “New research proves Seaman High founder’s connection with KKK.”
The piece states, “But Seaman is so well known as a klansman that his claims cannot be ignored entirely by the klan.”
Seaman did not receive the party’s nomination. He died in 1948.The school’s newspaper story did not address the question of whether to change the name of the school or the whole district. Gearhart, who has gone on to write additional stories on Seaman for her school paper and for the Topeka-Capital Journal, said the response was immediately split.
“On one side of the spectrum we have people telling us that we’re erasing history,” said Gearhart. “On the other side of the spectrum, we have teachers and former alumni who have congratulated us repeatedly, telling us that we’re doing good work bringing the truth to light.”
Cabrera said that motivation to change the name of the district and school should be even more pressing given that the district is located less than 10 miles from the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education National Historic site. The site was erected in 1992 to commemorate the 1954 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision aimed at ending racial segregation in public schools.
“If we continue to keep that name,” Cabrera said, “we’re excusing racism and not doing anything about it.”