Books

Readorama: KC author Whitney Terrell talks segregation, race relations at Central Library

Whitney Terrell
Whitney Terrell

It’s been 10 years since local novelist Whitney Terrell published “The King of Kings County,” which detailed the dynamics of white flight and segregated real estate practices in a fictionalized version of Kansas City.

The novel told of real estate entrepreneur Alton Acheson and his scheme to build an empire upon the arrival of the interstate highway system in Kansas City in the 1950s. He found ways to persuade white homeowners to abandon their homes in the urban core and invest in new suburban developments just down the road.

What was startling to many readers then may not be so much today, Terrell said.

“A lot of the issues that I was writing about in (Terrell’s first novel) ‘The Huntsman’ and then in ‘The King of Kings County’ was how, in large Midwestern and northern cities, the lack of effect that the civil rights movement seemed to have had regarding issues like segregation,” he said recently.

“That was a surprising thing to say at that time but now, since Ferguson, that has become part of the national conversation.”

That dialogue continues Wednesday when Terrell will join a discussion regarding “Kings County” and contemporary Kansas City racial relations. The event at the Central Library is presented by the Kansas City Public Library and KCUR-FM.

“I think that the more cities confront and talk about their racial histories, the more likely we are to move past those divisions,” Terrell said. “We certainly can’t move past them without talking about them.”

Joining Terrell on Wednesday will be Gwen Grant, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Kansas City, and Emiel Cleaver, manager of the Black Archives of Mid-America.

As for Terrell’s next novel, it’ll be out next June.

His new book, “The Good Lieutenant,” was inspired in part by his time as an embedded journalist in Iraq in 2006 and 2010, covering the war for The Washington Post, Slate and National Public Radio.

Today Terrell serves as an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

The discussion begins at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. For more info, go to KCLibrary.org.

Cherokees faced disease, violence

During Colonial times, the smallpox virus often decimated the indigenous peoples of North America.

Members of American Indian tribes who had not been exposed to smallpox and other diseases often were defenseless against them.

The widespread deaths that followed helped facilitate, historians believe, the continent’s conquest by Europeans.

But Paul Kelton, history professor at the University of Kansas, considers that an incomplete picture.

“In my work, violence and the spread of disease were intimately related,” said Kelton, the author of “Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs: An Indigenous Nation’s Fight against Smallpox, 1518-1824.”

While smallpox and other diseases no doubt played a role, Kelton said, “they did so in a larger Colonial context that included a lot of violence.”

In the 18th century, Cherokees were involved in two brutal wars, Kelton said.

One, running from 1759 through 1761, featured British armies using scorched earth tactics, burning down Cherokee villages and creating a refugee crisis.

A second conflict occurred during the Revolutionary War when settlers opposed to monarchical rule interpreted some American Indian attacks as precursor for larger British invasions.

What followed, Kelton writes, was “total war.”

In 1776 Colonial militias destroyed many Cherokee settlements, killing some tribe members or taking others into slavery. They also destroyed or stole Cherokee food supplies, leaving many survivors unprepared for the ensuing winter.

Some historians may have neglected to fully consider the devastating effect of such encounters, Kelton said.

“They elevated germs to such an extent that acts of violence seemed to be minimized,” he said.

Kelton speaks 6:30 p.m. Thursday, also at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. For more info, go to KCLibrary.org.

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

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