The winner of the 2021 KSPA Courage in Journalism Award is Madeline Gearhart of Seaman High School. Her work in the Seaman News and the Topeka Capital-Journal revealed that her school is named after Fred Seaman, a leader in the KKK during his lifetime in the Topeka area.
Madeline was co-editor-in-chief of the Seaman News, the school newspaper that published the story that soon made national headlines. Many community members criticized the newspaper for publishing the story and resisted any consideration of a name change.
The first story on the topic, published with Tristan Fangman as the co-writer, was headlined, “New research proves Seaman High founder’s connection with KKK.” One excerpt of the article read, “Seaman High School’s founder and Principal, Fred Seaman, has been rumored for years to have been a Ku Klux Klan member. The information was never substantiated and the community moved forward. However, information from various sources has recently surfaced verifying this fact.”
The story also quoted the USD 345 communications director as acknowledging that research by “our teachers and students” had revealed the connection to the board of education.
The school board re-evaluated the connection with Fred Seaman through a series of meetings and studies of the issue. According a Nov. 12, 2021 editorial in the Topeka Capital-Journal, “the board unanimously passed a resolution late Monday to keep the name but remove all references to the namesake himself.”
KSPA congratulates Madeline on her work to report on this sensitive topic in the face of public criticism. Her work is a fresh example of what student journalism can accomplish by substantiating facts that are widely understood in the community, but never fully reported.
Gearhart accepted the award remotely during KSPA’s State Awards that were hosted virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
More about Madeline’s work
Gearhart wrote subsequent stories on the controversial connection between the school and its namesake in the Seaman News:
- Klan connection prompts community conversation
- Equity Action Network aims to mend racial issues, despite district’s historical struggles
- Name change advisory board set to construct after district board meeting
Gearhart also began reporting on the issue for the Topeka Capital-Journal, often sharing a byline with staff writer Rafael Garcia:
- Educator, community icon and KKK leader: Who was Fred Seaman?
- Seaman’s namesake was a Ku Klux Klan leader. A panel is considering a change. Here’s how it’ll seek public input.
- Seaman board commits $70K to start discussions on a potential name change. District’s namesake was KKK leader.
- Discrimination has long been part of Seaman students’ experience. Here’s why they’re speaking out now.
- These Seaman students want the district to move on from KKK-connected name, so they took advantage of a snow day
Coverage of the controversy
Regional and national news outlets wrote about the issue, often quoting Gearhart in their coverage:
- From Vox’s podcast “Today Explained.” An episode titled “KKK High”
- The Capital-Journal of Topeka: Seaman district’s namesake was long rumored to be tied to the KKK. These student journalists found proof of it.
- from the story: Fred Seaman, the namesake of the high school and district and a prominent education figure in early 20th century Kansas, had long been rumored to have ties to the Ku Klux Klan. But in the decades following his death in 1948, those rumors remained just that in the district.But then seniors Tristan Fangman and Madeline Gearhart — co-editors-in-chief of The Clipper, the high school’s student newspaper — got the tip of their high school journalism careers: Seaman was not just tied to the KKK. Per newspaper reports, he was also an “exalted cyclops,” or chief officer of a local klan in the organization whose nomenclature borrows heavily from European mythology.
- The Kansas City Star: Kansas school district is named for a Ku Klux Klan leader. Students demand a change
- from the story: Seaman’s connection to the Klan was brought to light on Oct. 16, when seniors Tristan Fangman and Madeline Gearhart, co-editors of the school paper, The Seaman Clipper, published their piece, “New research proves Seaman High founder’s connection with KKK.”
- The Capital-Journal of Topeka: Seaman school board members tried to compromise. That’s why they fell short of doing the right thing.
- from the story: Those who uncovered Fred Seaman’s past expressed disappointment.“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,” said Madeline Gearhart, a journalist at Seaman High School.