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Past and Present: A President's Kansas Heritage

U.S. Embassy, Jakarta / Flickr / Creative Commons

Recently, two students and I had a chance to work on a project that looked at the Kansas ancestors of President Barack Obama.

Given today’s political climate, where the president inspires either praise or ridicule, venturing into such a topic is fraught with danger. The goal from the outset, however, was not to justify or celebrate the policies of a sitting president, but reflect on roots and origins, allowing a glimpse into a handful of families whose stories tell us much about this state.

The two main families, the Dunhams and the Paynes, have complicated stories. Obama’s grandfather, Stanley Dunham, spent his early childhood in a crowded home in west Wichita. Then, following his mother’s death in 1926, he went to live with maternal grandparents in El Dorado.

Stanley’s paternal grandfather, Jacob Dunham, was born in Indiana, grew up on the family farm in Labette County, and moved with the family to the newly-founded community of Oklahoma City before Jacob went out on his own to Wichita, eventually running the Gem Pharmacy in Delano.

Obama’s grandmother, Madelyn Payne, was a popular girl in school in Augusta. Her father, Rolla, got his start in the oil fields of Peru, Kan., but grew up in Johnson County. Rolla Payne married Leona McCurry, a farm girl from Peru whose ancestors came from southwestern Missouri and endured the brutalities of bushwhacker attacks during the Civil War.

Of these direct ancestors, not one died in the same community in which they grew up. They were mobile, relocating for new opportunities. In a state like Kansas, where rootedness is revered and being a “fourth-generation Kansan” is a source of pride, families like the McCurrys, the Paynes and the Dunhams present a different view of the state’s heritage. It is this heritage that still needs to be documented and preserved, regardless of one’s politics.

Dr. Price's project can be found at obamakansasheritage.org

Jay M. Price is chair of the department of history at Wichita State University, where he also directs the public history program.