Sit-in memorialized in new remodel

Civil rights-era activism immortalized in new school artwork


Owen Musser

Sit-ins are recorded on the new school mural. In addition to the murals, the stories of civil rights activism are told through display cases recently added inside the remodeled building.

Dating back to 1857, Lawrence High School boasts a rich history. The building is full of stories of those who have walked its halls: stories of triumphs and victories, friends that became family, but also of failures and shortcomings. 

As LHS reached the later stages of the ongoing remodel, concern arose when construction planned a significant overhaul to the site of a civil rights sit-in. Due to increased awareness of this history, the space has been preserved as a classroom. The sit-in has been honored in the school mural, and plans are underway to include it in an ongoing school museum effort.

Room 234, Stephanie Clements’ classroom, was the location of two civil rights stands that took place in 1968 and 1970. Prior to recent construction, the space was formerly room 105, AP US history and African American history teacher Valerie Schrag’s classroom. At the time of the sit-ins, the room was Lawrence High’s main office and the office of principal William Medley. 

Leading up to these protests, Lawrence experienced a number of other civil rights demonstrations, one of which being the push to create an integrated community swimming pool in the 1950s and 1960s. Michael Spearman, a Lawrence High School graduate and former resident, recalls the opposition to the creation of the pool. 

“Each time it came up for a vote, whether or not to fund a community pool, it was voted down, several times,” Spearman said. “We perceived the unwillingness to fund that pool as just an extension of the racism that existed in Lawrence, and we certainly felt it as students.”

Spearman emphasized the lack of representation Black students experienced at the time. 

“Our sense was that we were almost perceived as non-existent in [the student] population,” Spearman said. “We weren’t really represented in any way in terms of administration or social activities, other than sports.”

Furthermore, African American history wasn’t taught or acknowledged to any degree, Spearman said. 

“There was really no discussion or any sort of teaching about the African American history either on a national level or even on a local level, about what the history was in Kansas,” Spearman said. “In fact, our perception was it was pretty much swept under the rug.”

In the winter of 1969-70, Spearman and other students formed a Black Student Union at Lawrence High and created a list of demands to address the racism they were experiencing. These demands included the creation of an African American history course, the inclusion of Black students in homecoming royalty elections and as cheerleaders, and the hiring of Black faculty.

“We made efforts to talk with the principal, and he was not interested in having discussions with us,” Spearman said. “We made a decision that we were going to gather one day and go to the principal’s office and demand that he respond to the demands that we were making.”

My hope, ultimately, for this project, in whatever form it becomes, is that Lawrence High students have a sense of what a special place this is, what a unique high school Lawrence High school is, and [a sense] that they stand upon the shoulders of giants, and that one day, Lawrence High students, their contributions will be the giants’ shoulders future students will stand upon.

— Valerie Schrag

This decision led to the sit-in, which took place on April 13, 1970. The Lawrence Journal-World reported that about 50 students were in the office, leaving within an hour. Police were called by Principal Medley, and after being removed from the office, students decided to return to school the next day to protest. They boycotted school for several days, only returning after their parents, who were supportive of their stand, stepped in. 

“The reason we went back was because our parents got involved and also started negotiating on our behalf with the school, and we did get some commitments that they were going to expand the faculty to include Black folks and Black professors and teachers and that there was going to be a course on African American history, and that there was going to be a new process for electing cheerleaders and electing the royalty that would give Black people a better chance to hold those positions,” Spearman said. “It was a very emotional time, and I think it also did bring about some good changes.”

In late 2020, construction plans revealed the intention to add restrooms in the location of the sit-in. Schrag learned of this plan after she had packed her room. 

“Logistically it made a lot of sense from a design as well as a construction perspective,” Schrag said. “But for me, the historian and last teacher occupant of that space, it feels like we are losing a sacred space in our collective history. People will literally be urinating on the place where students took a stand for civil rights.”

Schrag sent out an all-staff email commemorating the space and paying tribute to the protests that helped shape Lawrence High as it is today. She wasn’t expecting anything to come of it, however. 

“I kind of set it out there, and I had grieved the loss of the room with a number of close friends but not in any type of, ‘lets change this,’ it was just OK, this is what it was,” Schrag said. “I felt like that email said what I needed to say to the issue that called for ‘Let’s find a way to preserve some of our history and display it in this new, beautiful space that we have’ and left it there.”

Between December 2020 and the beginning of this school year, several plans for the space were explored, leading to the continued classroom space present today. 

“I’m simply very thankful that that classroom is a classroom and not restrooms because I think that bears honor and witness to what happened in that room in a way that honors the space,” Schrag said. 

The sit-ins have been paid tribute to in the murals located in the newly-renovated courtyards, completed by Phil Shafer, Kansas City based muralist. At the South end of the mural, one student holds a “RM 105” sign, others walk and gather in a circle, depicting this sit-in and others like it LHS students have led. 

In planning the mural, Shafer worked with former and current students, faculty and community members to establish a design that accurately represents the school. 

“Tradition is a huge aspect, and we talked a lot about tradition, and also how Lawrence is very progressive in its thinking,” said art teacher Todd Poteet, a member of a planning group for the mural. “There’s such a great tradition of activism here, and I think that’s very present in the mural.”

Jafiya Birdling

Members of a committee, including Schrag, are working toward creating a school history museum in some form to honor the sit-in and all aspects of Lawrence High’s history. Plans for a “walking museum” with exhibits located around the school are in progress. Initial displays of donated items telling the story of various time periods from the school’s history are on display between the Learning Commons and Maker’s Space.

“The whole Lawrence High faculty is on board [with the museum],” Schrag said. 

The museum effort has long-term goals, hoping to impact the student body’s awareness of Lawrence High’s legacy.

“My hope, ultimately, for this project, in whatever form it becomes, is that Lawrence High students have a sense of what a special place this is, what a unique high school Lawrence High school is, and [a sense] that they stand upon the shoulders of giants, and that one day, Lawrence High students, their contributions will be the giants’ shoulders future students will stand upon,” Schrag said.