Fire And Smoke
April 20, 1970
An explosion rocked the Kansas Union at approximately 10:38 p.m. on April 20, 1970. The blast sparked a major fire on the upper levels of the building that raged out of control for several hours. Eventually ruled as arson, the conflagration was the culminating act in a day of mayhem and a week of civil unrest in Lawrence, a period some have called the “Days of Rage” that included racial confrontations, student protests, bomb threats, arson, and incidents of sniper fire directed at firefighters.
The Kansas Union fire started in a sixth floor women’s restroom near the Pine Room and soon burst through the roof of the building. Bill Rowlands, night manager of the Union, first discovered the fire. “I heard something pop,” he said, “it sounded like a light bulb exploding and I ran upstairs. I think that everyone in the building noticed the smoke about the same time and evacuated the building.”
The Lawrence Fire Department and over 100 student volunteers fought the blaze for more than three hours. The fire fighters and students struggled against the fire from positions both inside the building and on top of the roof. One fireman told the student volunteers: “If the roof caves in, you’re all dead.” At times the fire’s intense flames shot 30 feet or more into the night sky eventually causing sections of the roof to collapse. The fire was finally brought under control at 2:00 a.m. Tuesday.
The firebombing of the Union took place against the backdrop of a nation in turmoil over the ongoing Vietnam War, the Cambodian incursion of 1970, and racial unrest. College towns were often a flashpoint for these conflicts. In fact, Lawrence was considered a “hot bed” of political activism and protest during these years.
In the days preceding the Union fire, several incidents occurred which contributed to local tensions. According to the Lawrence Journal-World, for example, on April 10, John Spearman, chairman of the Black Student Union, urged all KU African-American students to arm themselves. Citing “attempted and threatened” violence aimed at BSU members, Spearman claimed his organization was taking simply responsibility for “protecting Blacks on campus.” Then, on Saturday, April 11, the Kappa Sigma Fraternity house was set on fire and sustained over $200,000 worth of damage. Four days later, Gambles Furniture Store in downtown Lawrence was also firebombed and destroyed as the flames burned out of control for nearly two hours.
And on the evening of April 20, just several hours before the Union building firebombing, a crowd of approximately 200 African Americans stormed out of a school board meeting when their demands for an expanded Black Studies curriculum and more representation in student activities were tabled. Within 10 minutes, at approximately 9:13 pm, the first calls into the Lawrence Police and Fire Departments reported acts of vandalism and fires at Lawrence High School. Reports cited evidence of Molotov Cocktails and gunshots. Several windows were broken and some fire damage was discovered. Responding fire fighters reported hearing gunshots while they worked to put out the fires at the high school.
Beleaguered city fire fighters, police, and local and university officials were bewildered by the week’s events. Others reacted with a mix of caution and hope, trying to find a bright side to the tragedy by citing the role the students played in saving the Union’s art and furnishings and their heroic role in fighting the fire. Still others reacted with indignation and outrage. In an editorial titled “With the Devil’s Help” printed in the April 24, 1970 issue of the Iola Register, the author called for swift and terrible punishment to those found guilty. “Black, brown, and yellow students are members of minority groups which have been troublesome in the past and have been involved in numerous protests. Those individuals who can be positively identified as trouble makers are put in jail with the first group [those the author identified as not being able to prove where they were the night of the fire]. The others, it seems clear, should be expelled. Expulsion is proper, it is explained to the public, because it has been demonstrated that these groups tend to be unhappy with things as they are.”
Although such draconian steps were never taken, city and county officials asked Kansas Governor Robert Docking to declare an emergency and establish a strict curfew because of a general state of civil disorder. The curfew lasted four days and a number of students, including the president of the student body, David Awbrey, were arrested for violations.
Who was responsible for the Union fire? Although ruled as arson, no arrests for the fire were ever made. The case remains unsolved. KU Chancellor E. Laurence Chalmers stated publicly that he believed the perpetrator to be a “pyromaniac.” Some, like Awbrey, suggested that it was “outside agitators,” quite possibly a faction of the Students for a Democratic Society known as Weathermen. Although the tensions of the previous week were of a decidedly racial sort, there was no shortage of possible suspects in that social climate of anti-war activism, racial confrontation, and anarchy. City and University officials downplayed the racial aspect of the week’s incidents noting that only three of the several dozen people arrested for curfew violations were African-Americans.
Following the firebombing, the university community quickly got down to the business of guarding campus buildings and surveying the damage to the Union. Just as students helped firefighters the night of the blaze, they teamed up with faculty and staff to take positions at each campus building during the duration of the curfew and beyond.
The civil disturbances in Lawrence and at KU did not end with the Union fire. Over the course of the next few weeks, anti-war protests and racial confrontation continued at the high school as well as in the general community, and the Kent State University shootings on May 4, 1970 prompted additional protests in Lawrence. KU’s spring semester was cut short by a suspension of final examinations when university officials attempted to defuse the high level of campus tensions by an early retreat into summer vacation. But even summer offered no respite from civil unrest as two young men – one black and one white – were shot and killed in confrontations with Lawrence police in July.
Although sustaining nearly a million dollars in damages, the Kansas Union did not have to close entirely. The northwest addition to the building, housing the Oread Book Shop, the Alumni Center, the Jaybowl and Woodruff Auditorium, was relatively untouched. The Union was insured for the majority of the damages and by August 1970 the Union was back in business although repairs continued throughout the course of the fall semester.
William C. Towns
School of Education
University of Kansas