Student journalist questions Seaman board's having acted without warning on Fred A. Seaman resolution

·9 min read
Seaman High School students who supported changing the name of their school held signs during a protest prior to Monday's Seaman USD 345 school board meeting.
Seaman High School students who supported changing the name of their school held signs during a protest prior to Monday's Seaman USD 345 school board meeting.

A student journalist who helped expose Seaman Unified School District 345 namesake Fred A. Seaman as a Ku Klux Klan leader criticized its school board Tuesday for acting without warning.

The board passed a resolution late Monday seeking to find middle ground — keep the name but remove all references to the namesake himself.

The board voted 7-0 to adopt the proposal 23 minutes after it was put forth by President Keith Griffin. No advance notice was given that the measure would be proposed, and the public wasn't allowed to weigh in on its specifics after Griffin read it aloud.

"I am disheartened to hear that the board has made a decision without any prior warning to community members like myself who have been involved in the process," Madeline Gearhart said.

The Seaman board has been under public pressure to consider changing its name since an October 2020 report from then-Seaman High student journalists Gearhart and Tristan Fangman confirmed Fred A. Seaman's connection to the Klan.

Seaman then became Seaman High School's first principal when it opened in 1920.

The USD 345 Board of Education on Monday evening unanimously approved a resolution disavowing all associations with Fred A. Seaman but keeping the Seaman name.

"From this point forward, the district and its buildings shall be associated with the Seaman community and its long and proud history that have developed over the past 100-plus years, not the individual who initially founded the high school," the measure says.

It also:

• Condemns Fred A. Seaman's racist beliefs, actions and conduct in regard to his involvement with the Ku Klux Klan as being "revolting" and "vile," having "no place in civilized society" and being "contrary to those who live, work and go to school in Seaman USD 345."

• Mandates that "all references to Fred A. Seaman, including his image and likeness, shall be removed and permanently banned from all district buildings."

• Makes one exception to that by calling for the high school student museum class to be encouraged to create an exhibit in the museum "that focuses on Fred A. Seaman's repulsive involvement and association with the Ku Klux Klan."

The measure adds, "Fred A. Seaman's repugnant participation with the Ku Klux Klan should not be allowed to disappear into history."

More: Educator, community icon and KKK leader: Who was Fred Seaman?

'A relatively good option'

Board members Griffin, Cherie Sage, Michelle Caudill, Frank Henderson, Kyle McNorton, James Adams and Christy Weiler voted 7-0 to approve the measure.

The vote came six days after Sage and Griffin lost their seats in last week's general election to Donna J. McGinty and Chris Travis, who support keeping the Seaman name. McGinty and Travis are to take office Jan. 10.

Griffin said the proposal he put forth was an alternative to the two previous options being considered: Keeping the name or getting rid of it.

Before reading the proposal aloud at Monday's meeting, Griffin stressed that the board had received a great deal of input regarding the issues involved over the previous 13 months.

He asked everyone to remember "that we are all in this together."

Adams said he hoped people would see Griffin's proposal as being "a relatively good option" at a time when no "great options" are available.

"Somebody's going to get mad at anything we do," Adams said.

Ramona Allen, 6, held a sign during a protest urging Seaman school board members to change the district's name. The district's namesake, Fred A. Seaman, was a Ku Klux Klan leader.
Ramona Allen, 6, held a sign during a protest urging Seaman school board members to change the district's name. The district's namesake, Fred A. Seaman, was a Ku Klux Klan leader.

'Hardest thing I've ever been a part of'

Monday's vote appeared to end 13 months of often-contentious debate, which divided the Seaman community over the topic involved.

"It's the hardest thing I've ever been a part of," Griffin said.

Griffin said he sought middle ground on the name change issue after participants in an Oct. 25 community workshop held by the district found themselves with only two options. Griffin said he walked from that workshop asking "What is Option C?"

"This, ladies and gentlemen, is my Option C," he said in putting forth his proposal Monday evening.

Caudill said she was glad to see a third option become available after a year that had been "heart-breaking," "heart-wrenching" and "devastating."

"The stress on the community, the students, the administration, the school board, all of us, is just phenomenal," she said.

Keeping a legacy alive

Sage said she thought Griffin's proposal was "very well thought out and laid out, and for the betterment of the school district and for the community."

McNorton said he was glad the Seaman district would keep its legacy alive.

"We have a great school. We're a great community," he said. "Hopefully we can keep that growing and going forward. And it's a shame that this has really divided a lot of people over something, to me, that is pretty petty. I mean, it (the name) has been here for 100 years and all of a sudden it's an issue now."

Henderson, who has lived in the Seaman district for almost 35 years and is one of the board's only two Black members along with Weiler, said he didn't believe it when his children, who were then in high school, told him Fred A. Seaman was a Klansman.

But Henderson said it became clear last year that Seaman was not only a Klansman but also an exalted cyclops in that organization.

"Everybody in this room should agree that that's not in step with what we want to believe," he said.

Henderson expressed disappointment that some members of the Seaman community in recent months had "attacked" students who advocated changing the district's name.

"I don't think that's right," he said.

Henderson described Monday's vote as being "a step that can bring people together, because we want to be a community that supports our students."

McNorton asked if further wording needed to be added to the measure to expressly say that the Seaman name was being kept.

Griffin said he thought the resolution spoke to that.

McNorton was then told that the word "Seaman" is not part of the legal name of the district.

'Larger than one person'

After Monday's vote, Griffin read a statement to those present.

"The action taken by this board tonight is an incremental step towards removing racism in our district," he said. "By separating from Fred A. Seaman, this board is supporting that our community is larger than one person, and does not support or uphold the actions of Fred A. Seaman."

Monday's vote "effectively removes all ties to Fred A. Seaman in name and association," Griffin said.

"We stand united with our community in striking down racism in any form and recognize the name 'Seaman' is synonymous with our community," he said. "Unity, equality and equity are baselines for this community. We can do better. We must do better. And together, we will do better."

Issue will inevitably come up again

Gearhart suggested the USD 345 board's actions Monday evening lacked transparency.

"Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the first time because on numerous occasions, I have had to reach out to keep up," she said. "Their lack of effort to ignite proper conversation and changes when they first knew of the information makes me wonder if their efforts toward equity and moving away from Fred Seaman will ever be realized."

At this point, it is up to the Seaman board to "make sure this history is not forgotten by acknowledging their roots in KKK history," Gearhart added.

"They will have to find a way to take proper respect in a state that was the first to outlaw the Klan and host the landmark Brown v. Board case," she said. "This issue needs to be settled properly and without hesitation. Otherwise, it is my greatest fear that other young writers and board members will have to relive my experience when this issue inevitably comes up again."

Fred A. Seaman references removed from high school

USD Superintendent Steve Noble told the district's families and staff in a letter Tuesday that before school buildings opened Tuesday morning, the district's only two known places of references to Fred A. Seaman were removed from Seaman High School.

Those were one photo and caption in the Seaman High School Hall of Fame and one class photo poster showing an image of Seaman when he was principal, Noble said.

"Those have both been moved to the museum," he said. "If you see any reference to Fred A. Seaman in our district, let us know so we can remove those items and move those items to the museum."

The resolution approved Monday represents USD 345's values of diversity, equity and inclusion, Noble said.

“This has been an intense topic with preserving history on one side and providing a healthy learning environment for all on the other," he said. "I have found both sides to be compelling, but I find our students, who have experienced bullying and racism, to be most compelling."

The resolution describes USD 345 as being “an increasingly diverse school district that values and supports the personal identities of all of our school students and staff, while acknowledging that more work must be done to address the issues of racism and bullying that negatively affect the educational experiences of some students and staff.”

USD 345 is against racism and all types of bullying, and strives for an inclusive environment for everyone, Noble said.

"Those issues deserve our full attention right now and I am hopeful that our community can support and actively embrace that work," he said. "As I have stated before, our history is important and so is our future."

Rally preceded Monday board meeting

All available seats were filled for Monday's meeting in the Seaman Education Center at 901 N.W. Lyman Road.

About 35 people rallied outside prior to the meeting in support of changing the district's name. Most rally-goers carried signs. Many were students.

Monday's vote came after the USD 345 board last March formed a nine-person namesake committee, which put out a report Oct. 11 that shared considerable information but didn't address whether the district should change its name.

Each namesake committee member then chose three people to serve on a namesake advisory committee, for which members discussed the issues involved in an Oct. 25 workshop.

This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Seaman board denounces all association to namesake Fred A. Seaman