Landscapes change over time and are sometimes forgotten. But Dennis Domer, a Professor Emeritus of American Studies and Architecture from Kansas University, has a passion for history and untold stories. He has recreated a forgotten landscape with his work on the East Bottoms neighborhood of old Lawrence. However, this piece of history will likely to make some people uncomfortable.
From 1890 to 1920 the East Bottoms was a bawdy red-light district. Residents of the neighborhood were Black, but liquor, prostitution, and gambling attracted outsiders, especially male students from KU. Presiding over the neighborhood was a formidable woman named Aunt Jane Williams. She controlled the illegal liquor trade which kept some twelve speakeasies in business. She owned several ware houses and operated a very popular restaurant by day and speakeasy by night.
The East Bottoms consisted of a low-lying area bounded by the railroad on the north and Ninth Street to the south; the eastern boundary was Delaware Street and on the western edge was New Jersey Street. Housing in the East Bottoms was run down. Most dwellings had a privy in the yard. Sewage flowed through the streets and open ditches and several slaughter houses contributed to a prevailing stink. The was no lighting or trash pickup service.
The East Bottoms was comparatively prosperous at a time when Black laborers could earn no more than subsistence wages. Vice and sin was very profitable, even for city courts and government. Aunt Jane was taken to court about once a month as she could be counted on to pay off a hefty fine in cash. Illicit activities were periodically suppressed, but never for long. The Kansas prohibition law actually contributed to the operation of the Bottoms as the law was difficult to enforce. The passage of a national prohibition law in 1920 finally put the Bottoms out of business.
The lost landscape of the East Bottoms will be the subject of Domer’s forthcoming article to appear in Embattled Lawrence: the Enduring Struggle for Freedom, Volume II.