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Culture & Progress in Modern Kansas

The history of Kansas is a saga of the interaction of diverse cultures. Early Kansas history reflects the culture of the Native American inhabitants. When immigrants came to Kansas they brought their own heritage to enrich the state's history. As the number of immigrants and settlers increased in Kansas, new and unique local cultures evolved. English, Swedish and Dutch immigrants settled in many small towns throughout Kansas. Germans settled along the Union Pacific route through Kansas. Slovenians, Lithuanians, Croatians, Poles, Serbians, Russians and others settled around ethnic churches in Kansas City. Former slaves settled in communities such as the Quindaro region of Kansas City. Mexicans immigrated to major railway cities such as Kansas City, Wichita, Emporia and Garden City. Many towns in Kansas, such as Lindsborg, which was originally a Swedish settlement, still retain much of their ethnic identity.

During the 1950s and 60s, radio and television brought a national culture to once isolated communities. Kansans could watch Vivian Vance (Ethel) of Cherryvale on I love Lucy or Milburn Stone ("Doc") of Burrton on Gunsmoke and see native Kansans in starring roles. In literature, Independence native William Inge became a playwright of lasting importance. His screenplay for Splendor in the Grass won an Academy Award. His play, Bus Stop, was made into a film starring Marilyn Monroe.

In the visual arts, John Steuart Curry of Jefferson County was an influential member of the regionalist artistic movement in America. Native American culture was expressed through the works of Blackbear Bosin. African-Americans in Kansas found a voice in Fort Scott native Gordon Parks. Parks made his name as a photographer for Life magazine as well as an author. His novel, The Learning Tree, was published in 1963. It was later made into a film for which Parks produced, directed, and wrote the musical score. 

Mural of John Brown in State Capitol in Topeka by John Steuart Curry

Another African-American of Kansas descent whose writing had an international impact was Langston Hughes. Hughes wrote of the African-American experience in Kansas during the early years of the century. He was an important figure in New York's Harlem Renaissance. Hughes also reported on international events such as the Spanish Civil War.

Kansans also made their marks in sports during the 1960s and 70s. Jim Ryun of Wichita set world records in the mile run. Gale Sayers, also from Wichita, and John Riggins from Seneca became two of the greatest football running backs of all time and are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In the late 1900s, advances in transportation and communications have further developed a national and even global consciousness. Air transportation allows people to travel around the world. Television and other media inform people instantaneously about happenings anywhere in the world. Using the telephone or the Internet, a person can communicate with their neighbor next door or with someone across the globe.

Companies now conduct business throughout the international community and are part of a global economy. Globalization has its critics. Many people believe that the poor around the world will suffer because of low pay for their work and a lack of concern about their safety on the job. Some critics say that capitalists will exploit the entire world in their drive to get new profits. Environmental concerns are also an important consideration as the world becomes more industrialized. Global warming and pollution are potential threats to our very existence.

As the 20th century comes to an end, Kansas has ceased to be the isolated frontier that it was at the end of the 19th century. As a result, communities struggle to sustain in their children an appreciation of their cultural history. Nevertheless, an understanding of our heritage remains important today. We are all products of our local culture and history. The challenge for each person is to learn about the past in order to understand its impact on the present. By using this knowledge we can plan well for the future.

Additional Resources

bulletYou can search for your ancestors and family history at Kansas GenWeb.
bulletLearn more about Pollution Prevention at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Study Guide Questions

  1. What Kansan was part of the regionalist artistic movement?
  2. What contributions did African-Americans Gordon Parks and Langston Hughes make to the arts?
  3. How have recent advances in transportation and communication changed our lives?
  4. Why are some people opposed to globalization?
  5. How have Kansas artists and writers contributed to an understanding of their cultural heritage?
  6. What ethnic groups settled in your area? From where did your ancestors come to settle in Kansas?
  7. What ethnic or cultural events are held in your area which can help you understand the heritage of your community?.

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