‘Lamar, from afar’: The name of a forgotten 19th century statesman from Mississippi is recalled on a street where he never lived

The location where the Lamar sign will be installed.
The location where the Lamar sign will be installed.

On Saturday, local history buffs can get a close up look at the new interpretive signage Henry Fortunato has led the creation of for the Indian Creek Trail. Ahead of the unveiling event and walk — which coincide with National Trails Day — Fortunato has given us permission to post the information featured on the new signs. Yesterday, we took a look at the history of Nall. Today, we head west a bit to Lamar:

The handwritten records that remain are unclear. The facts are incomplete and less than perfectly definitive. As such, there’s probably no way of knowing with absolute certainty why the north-south thoroughfare located between Metcalf and Nall avenues is called Lamar. But tradition holds that the designation honors a notable 19th century statesman and renowned orator named Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar.

A decorated colonel in the Confederate Army during the Civil, Lamar witnessed Robert E. Lee surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. A former slaveholder, Lamar marked the 1874 death of Charles Sumner, the abolitionist Republican senator from Massachusetts, with a moving eulogy that many hailed as a heartfelt plea for national reconciliation.

Two years later, he helped broker the compromise that resolved the disputed 1876 presidential election by placing Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House and ending Reconstruction in the South. In his final years, Lamar served as Secretary of the Interior under President Grover Cleveland and became an associate justice of the US Supreme Court. By the time of his death in 1893, noted the New York Times, there were “few men who had won such general respect.”

Lamar’s political career – often punctuated by acts that seemingly placed principle above popularity – was such that John F. Kennedy devoted a chapter to the Mississippian in his 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage. Some two decades later, a group of progressive-leaning leaders of the “New South” seeking to improve race relations and spur economic development, latched onto Lamar and named their organization in his honor – the L.Q.C. Lamar Society.

But how did Lamar, a man who never lived in Johnson County and may not have ever even visited this part of Kansas, end up getting a street named for him? The story may be apocryphal, but it’s charming nonetheless.
According to the generally accepted version, the nomenclature derives from the desire of a landowner from North Carolina named John Cameron Buxton. When a road was cut through his property on the eastern edge of today’s Southmoor Gardens neighborhood, he chose to name it after a man for whom he had the utmost respect and admiration – Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar. Over time, the Lamar name replaced all the other street names.

Present-day Lamar Avenue begins at the bridge over Interstate 35 and Turkey Creek, and runs continuously for more than eight miles to 115th Street where it provides access to the corporate campus built by Sprint at the turn of the millennium. The avenue recommences at 119th Street, and with several interruptions, finally ends at 159th Street. Along Lamar’s route is a small cemetery that holds the remains of early settlers Washington and Nancy Cross, a four-building complex where Trans World Airlines once trained flight attendants, and the Overland Park Convention Center.

Tradition holds that Lamar Avenue honors Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, whose remarkable life placed him squarely in the center of many notable 19th century moments.

A Noble Name

Photo courtesy
Photo courtesy Society of the Cincinnati, Washington, D.C.

The name Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar derives from Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus,
remembered by history and embellished by legend as a selfless and virtuous statesman of ancient Rome. In 458 BCE, Cincinnatus was granted dictatorial powers to save Rome from an impending invasion. After leading Roman forces to victory, Cincinnatus relinquished his post and returned to his plow.

Buxton’s Bequest

 

Photo courtesy Johnson County Musuem.
Photo courtesy Johnson County Museum.
Photo courtesy
Photo courtesy University of North Carolina Libraries.

In 1902, John Cameron Buxton, a lawyer and politician from North Carolina, inherited a quarter-section of Johnson County land. It was on the east side of what is now Metcalf Avenue between present-day 71st and 67th streets. Buxton planned to subdivide this property into residential lots for resale. Doing so required the extension of a road along the eastern edge of his property to provide access to these lots. Other sections of this road were known as Cross Road, Miller Road, and Stevenson Road – a reflection of the names of the families who owned acreage along it, which was typical of the time. Buxton could have followed suit and given this new stretch of the road his family name. Instead, as the story goes, he was one of Lamar’s many admirers. When the naming rights opportunity arose for the road that ran by his property, he decided to name it for Lamar.

A Son of the South

Photo courtesy Library of Congress.
Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar (pictured sequentially from the 1850s to the 1890s) was born in 1825 to a prominent Georgia family of French Huguenot descent. His father – with whom he shared his Romanesque name – was a slaveholding plantation owner and state supreme court judge who committed suicide when his namesake son was a child. Lamar graduated from Emory University and was later admitted to the bar. In his 20s, he married Virginia Longstreet and moved to Oxford, Ms., where his father-in-law was president of the University of Mississippi. With these family connections, Lamar became a professor and practiced law on the side. Eventually, he acquired an 1100-acre plantation and 31 slaves.

As sectional tensions over slavery increased during the late 1850s, Lamar won election to the US House of Representatives as a Democrat from Mississippi. He became known for fiery speeches defending states’ rights and the South’s interests. He resigned from Congress in 1860 following the election of Abraham Lincoln. Shortly thereafter, Lamar assumed responsibility for drafting Mississippi’s ordinance of secession.

Present at the Cessation

Photo courtesy Library of Congress.
Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

During the Civil War, Lamar served as a colonel in the Confederate Army, earning praise for heroism under fire at the Battle of Williamsburg in 1862. Later Lamar received appointment as the Confederate envoy to Russia. Toward the end of the war, Lamar was named judge advocate for the Army of Northern Virginia and was present when General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House. Lamar went back to work in Mississippi as a lawyer and college professor, largely exiling himself from the political arena for seven years.

“My God, what a speech!”

Photo courtesy Library of Congress.
Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Lamar began his rise to national prominence in 1874 when, as a Democratic congressman from Mississippi, he gave a eulogy for Charles Sumner, the abolitionist Republican senator from Massachusetts who once had been “perhaps the most universally hated man in the South.” Nearly 18 years earlier, Sumner had delivered a blistering five-hour two-day speech titled “The Crime Against Kansas” in which he excoriated the wickedness of slavery, and the devious means by which it was being imposed on Kansas Territory. Two days later, Sumner was attacked at his desk by a congressman from South Carolina, who beat him with a cane (above). This sensational event had further inflamed the passions that led to the Civil War. Now Sumner was dead. Lamar, seeking reconciliation between North and South, saw an opportunity. In a speech that shocked and electrified the crowd, Lamar gave a powerful and emotional tribute to the patriotism and sacrifices made by Sumner and his fellow Unionists. Lamar called for the end of sectional bitterness and suspicion. He concluded with a message that left many listeners in tears. “My countrymen,” he intoned, “know one another, and you will love one another.” The words had their intended effect. “My God, what a speech!” exclaimed a New York congressman. “And how it will ring through the country!”

Compromising Position

Photo courtesy Library of Congress.
Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The presidential election of 1876 – often referred to as the “stolen election” – marked the second time in American history when the losing candidate won a majority of the popular vote. Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, governor of New York, polled 4,288,546 votes, some 250,000 votes more than the 4,034,311 obtained by Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, governor of Ohio. Tilden also won 184 electoral votes to Hayes’ 165. But the electoral votes of three southern states (plus one from Oregon because of the questionable eligibility of an elector) hung in the balance due to charges of fraud and voter intimidation. Both parties claimed the electoral votes of Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida. As the crisis mounted – there was even talk of a renewal of the Civil War – Lamar was among the legislative leaders who proposed creation of a special bipartisan commission to resolve the tensions and keep the peace. In the end, the commission voted along party lines, awarding all the disputed electoral votes to Hayes. Disappointed by the outcome, Lamar nevertheless chose to support it.

The Cleveland Connection

Image courtesy Library of Congress.
Image courtesy Library of Congress.

In the election of 1884, Grover Cleveland became the first Democratic president since the Civil War. In an appointment that recognized Lamar’s national reputation while also extending an olive branch to the South, President Cleveland named Lamar to his Cabinet as Secretary of the Interior (XXXXXX). Lamar proved to be an honest and efficient administrator. He is recognized for protecting Indian tribal lands from homesteading while conserving public lands against commercial exploitation. Under Lamar, the federal government recovered millions of acres of public land largely from railroads that held them under improper land grants. Many contend Lamar’s conservation-oriented practices prepared the way for Theodore Roosevelt’s concerted environmental policies two decades later. In 1888, Cleveland named Lamar to the United States Supreme Court. Once again, Lamar was the first Southerner in almost a quarter century to be appointed to the post. There has been little scholarship regarding Lamar’s service on the high court, where he was considered a judicial conservative, a strict constructionist, and a supporter of states’ rights.

Not Exactly Black and White

Photo courtesy Library of Congress
Photo courtesy Library of Congress

A man of his times and his region, Lamar had a decidedly paternalistic view of African Americans. This was especially the case in the immediate post-Civil War years, when Lamar believed that recently-emancipated slaves lacked adequate education and experience to exercise the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Influencing Lamar’s views was his belief that the alliance between many blacks and Radical Republicans that held power in the South during Reconstruction was corrupt and illegal. Evidence suggests Lamar may have become more enlightened about racial matters as he aged. As a senator, he took the extraordinary step of publicly encouraging President Hayes to appoint a black Cabinet member. He maintained close and cordial relations with two noted black Mississippi Republicans, Senator Blanche Bruce and Congressman John Roy Lynch. He defended black voting rights and opposed the inclusion of language in a new Mississippi state constitution that disenfranchised African American voters. However, as a member of the Supreme Court (top row, second from left), he voted with the 7-2 majority in an 1890 ruling that denied Congress the right to interfere with Mississippi’s imposition of racial segregation on intrastate rail passenger travel. Some observers contend this decision presaged the “separate but equal” doctrine enshrined into law by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, three years after Lamar’s death.

The Kennedy Connection

Cover image courtesy Harper Collins.
Cover image courtesy Harper Collins.

During his convalescence following a spinal operation in 1954, John F. Kennedy – then a Democratic US senator from Massachusetts – researched and wrote a book that won a Pulitzer Prize. Titled Profiles in Courage, Kennedy focused on eight senators “whose abiding loyalty to the nation triumphed over all personal and political considerations, men who showed the real meaning of courage and a real faith in democracy…” Among the chosen were John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, Sam Houston – and Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar. Kennedy again channeled the spirit of Lamar in 1957 when he gave the commencement address at the University of Georgia, reminding graduates that Lamar’s career “was marked by his courageous insistence upon speaking as his conscience directed him on all occasions.” Five years later when Kennedy had become president of the United States, he invoked Lamar’s name yet again this time to quell white protesters rioting against the admission of black student James Meredith to the previously segregated University of Mississippi.