Axe exhibits Kan. immigrant heritage

Michael Bauer | reporter

Pittsburg is one of many towns in Kansas with a unique immigration history. It has a strong Balkan and Italian heritage.
Even though Pittsburg State University students come from all over the globe, they will have an opportunity to learn more about the legacy of their university’s hometown.
From Feb. 12 to May 12, Axe Library will host a traveling exhibit, known as “Americans by Choice: The Story of Immigration and Immigration and Citizenship in Kansas.”
The exhibit will show the history of Kansas settlers from across the globe and their stories of becoming American citizens through photos and interactive books from the previous century and a-half.
“The traveling exhibit is one of two that are going on around the state of Kansas,” said Randy Roberts, university archivist. “It is used to celebrate the 150th anniversary of settlers coming to Kansas.”
Most Kansans can trace their heritage back to another country. From 1865 and 1880, Kansas attracted immigrants at a faster pace than anywhere else in the country.
It was not just immigrants from the Balkan region who migrated to the Sunflower State, but immigrants from nearly all of Europe. Examples include Hays, founded by German settlers, and Lindsborg, which has Swedish ancestry.
“We have a very interesting history of immigrants coming here to Kansas,” Roberts said. “Fifty-plus (groups of) immigrant settlers to came to Kansas.”
The exhibits have already or will make stops to those towns in the future.
“It’s been in all of those different communities,” Roberts said. “There are a lot of clusters of different heritage around the state.”
Many of these settlers worked in the coal mines of Pittsburg. This surge of foreign-born settlers led to a state population increase from 107,000 in 1860 to more than 1.4 million in 1890.
“There were a lot of opportunities for them to work in the mines and others who came to our state,” Roberts said. “Not just in the large urban areas but also here since we were in kind of a melting pot. Other parts of the state have had that experience.”
Today, 6 percent of Kansas’ population is foreign-born.
“Each of the two traveling exhibits is going around the state of Kansas. After this one is here, it will be going to Fort Scott,” Roberts said. “This one came to us from Leavenworth.”
The other exhibit is traveling around western Kansas.
To host this exhibition, Roberts worked with the project’s developer, Jean Svadlenak, who is a museum consultant based in Kansas City, Mo., and is not new to helping PSU on other projects.
Since most students did not grow up in this town, or this part of the state, for that matter, Roberts says he is hoping this exhibit will teach them more about the town’s heritage.
“This is the kind of thing the library likes to do to bring people in and help educate our own students about what is going on around here,” Roberts said.
In addition to the traveling exhibit, the library will show a small companion exhibit that will focus on immigration specifically in Southeast Kansas.
Having speakers who experienced first-hand what it was like is always a plus for any historical exhibition.
“I know that there are a lot of our original immigrants who are still here who would like to share their experiences,” Roberts said. “We are planning on having some people share with us their experience.”

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