TOPEKA, Kan., and JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau’s political career has been filled with firsts that often go unnoticed.
The Wichita Democrat was the first Black woman elected to the state Senate. She was the first Black person to serve as minority whip in the chamber. And the first Black person to become assistant minority leader.
She’s been in the Kansas Legislature since 2003 and throughout that time people have often assumed she’s not a member.
It’s a common sight in Topeka for lobbyists and advocacy groups to provide lawmakers with free boxed lunches. But consistently when Faust-Goudeau goes to pick up her lunch she said she’s stopped and told the lunch is just for state senators.
She’s gotten used to cracking a joke in response. But last year two of her white male Republican colleagues — Olathe Sen. Rob Olson and Senate President Ty Masterson — stepped in to correct a lobbyist’s mistake.
“Other people are seeing this, seeing the injustice and they are speaking up, they’re not being complacent,” Faust-Goudeau said.
It’s been more than a century since the first Black lawmakers were elected in Kansas and Missouri, yet Black members still make up an overwhelming minority of policymakers in Topeka and Jefferson City.
The Kansas City Star spoke to 16 Black lawmakers in both states from both parties and with experience ranging from one month to 30 years about their realities as elected officials in the overwhelmingly white state capitols.
Despite these moments of hope, Faust-Goudeau said she often feels she has three strikes against her in the Kansas Legislature. She’s Black. She’s a woman. And she’s a Democrat.
In the Republican-dominated Legislature, Faust-Goudeau said she still struggles to gain traction when she’s advocating for the Black community.
Her bills banning discrimination on hair style and mandating racial tracking of maternal mortality have died year after year.
“Sometimes it breaks my heart. Sometimes I leave from the Capitol and I feel, how do I go back to my district and give my Black constituents some good news?” she said.
Each Black lawmaker approaches the job differently and holds a range of perspectives. Many shared stories of challenges fighting implicit and direct racism as they advocate for often marginalized communities.
Others spoke about how much harder they have to work to get bills passed or their voices heard.
“My Blackness is under attack. My gayness is under attack. And then my womanhood is under attack constantly,” said Missouri state Rep. Ashley Bland Manlove, a Kansas City Democrat.
It’s disheartening for Bland Manlove to watch her colleagues in the Missouri General Assembly file bills that ban schools from teaching lessons on the role of systemic racism in the U.S. Her grandmother, Mary Groves Bland, is a big part of that history — an advocate for minorities and expanded health services who was elected to the state legislature in 1980. She served more than two decades, first in the Missouri House and then the state Senate.
“They’re attacking our ability to be able to learn about her,” Bland Manlove said.
Rep. Ford Carr, a freshman lawmaker from Wichita, said he planned to invite all lawmakers of color to some meetings with the Black Caucus.
“It’s difficult just because of numbers to get your point across in a sizable and meaningful fashion,” said Carr, a Democrat, who added that it can be disheartening in Topeka to watch the overwhelmingly white chamber make decisions that seem deeply isolated from the lives of Kansans.
Black lawmakers reflect on treatment inside statehouses
Black lawmakers in both Kansas and Missouri have experienced racism — both overt and implicit — inside their respective statehouse buildings.
Rep. Valdenia Winn’s career in the Kansas Legislature was nearly derailed in 2015 when she spoke about a bill barring students in the U.S. through the Dream Act from getting in-state tuition.
The Kansas City, Kansas, Democrat said she wanted to apologize to students whose lives were “being hijacked by the racist bigots who support this bill.” When a colleague objected she responded, “If the shoe fits.”
Republican lawmakers launched a formal complaint against Winn that could have led to her censure or expulsion from the chamber for using inflammatory language. The proceeding is rare in the state Legislature and was not used when white Republican members of the Legislature made offensive comments in open committee, like when then-state Rep. Virgil Peck suggested shooting illegal immigrants from helicopters like feral hogs in 2011.
After a several month process the committee hearing the complaint ultimately ruled in Winn’s favor.
But she said it was a wake-up call.
“We see up here that, not only are there some very narrow-minded people, both African American and European, they don’t like to be challenged. And they sure don’t like an African American woman who doesn’t kowtow to them,” she said.
In Missouri, state Rep. Richard Brown, a Kansas City Democrat, has served as assistant floor leader of the Missouri House since 2019. But sometimes when he goes to public events, no one speaks to him until they realize he’s a state lawmaker, he said.
“You hear a lot of Black people say we seem invisible to other folks,” Brown said.
But he added that racism hasn’t affected his ability to advance to leadership roles within the legislature. “As far as racism, I haven’t been affected by it at all,” he said.
Bland Manlove, the Kansas City Democrat, said there is one lawmaker in the Missouri General Assembly she refuses to speak with because he used a racial slur in a conversation. She declined to say which lawmaker.
State Rep. Michael Johnson, a Kansas City Democrat, said he hasn’t experienced anything in the Missouri Capitol he would explicitly label as racist. But, there are systemic boundaries put in place, he said.
Oftentimes, when Republicans in the GOP-controlled House schedule bills for floor debates, Black members are told about it at the last minute, he said. This means Black Democrats have to spend more time playing defense on bills instead of forging relationships.
“I think that we could all get a lot more done on both sides if we had a better understanding of each other’s history — where we’re from — the same way that people sit down at a table and have a cup of coffee,” he said.
Some Black lawmakers said they’d never felt limited by their race operating in the statehouses. Rep. Barbara Ballard, a Lawrence Democrat and associate director of University of Kansas’ Dole Institute of Politics, said she had never felt racism in the state Legislature.
“I’ve been able to navigate like everybody else,” Ballard, both the longest serving current member of the Kansas House and the longest-serving Black member in state history.
“Maybe that’s because I came here with a Ph.D, maybe because I’m at a university, I’m from Lawrence, Kansas, I served on a school board before I came here I was the first African American president of the board.”
‘You’re trying to whitewash my history’
Earlier this month in Missouri, Republican state lawmakers used the first day of Black History Month to debate a bill that would ban schools from teaching lessons on the role of systemic racism in the U.S.
During the tense debate on the Missouri Senate floor, state Sen. Barbara Washington, a Kansas City Democrat, accused state Sen. Rick Brattin, a Harrisonville Republican, of interrupting her while she tried to explain how the legislation would eradicate important parts of Black history.
“I think we have a lot of cultural insensitivity and uneducation more than just flat-out racism,” Washington told The Star. Washington said she believes that some of her colleagues in the Missouri General Assembly are prejudiced. It’s why she thinks there needs to be more cultural diversity in education.
Republicans in both states have considered bills that seek to ban schools from teaching critical race theory, a college level academic theory that examines the role of institutions in perpetuating racism. Because most of the bills do not define critical race theory, some Black lawmakers say the legislation targets Black history as a whole.
“How do I explain to my children why we celebrate Dr. King’s holiday, as well as the Juneteenth holiday without breaking that law?” Brown said. “You’re trying to whitewash my history. Because Black history is American history.”
At the same time, Black lawmakers say they have to work much harder than some of their colleagues to get their bills passed or their voices heard.
For Kansas state Sen. David Haley, operating as a Black senator in the statehouse has meant consistently introducing legislation that at the time is seen as too far to the left only for it to become mainstream years later.
The Kansas City, Kansas, Democrat watched this happen when the Kansas House passed a bipartisan medical marijuana bill in 2021. He believes it may happen with the elimination of the death penalty.
Haley is the longest-serving current member of the Kansas Senate of any race. When he first entered the Legislature in 1995, Haley said, he constantly encountered members who had seemingly never interacted with an outspoken Black man.
“There’s still this undercurrent of ‘you’re an anomaly, you’re not mainstream and what you represent may or may not be something that we have to pay attention to,’” he said.
Representing Wyandotte County he’s become used to losses as the county’s needs are often brushed aside in the Legislature — a prime example coming in the decision to split the state’s most diverse county during last year’s redistricting debate.
“I don’t know if that’s partisan or if it’s elitist, or even if it’s racist,” Haley said.
Last year in Missouri, state Rep. Mark Sharp, a Kansas City Democrat, was able to successfully add an amendment to an education bill that would have required all public schools to acknowledge Black History Month during one class period in February. After passing the House, the amendment was stripped at the last second in a committee meeting. Sharp said it was stripped out by state Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, a Shelbina Republican.
“I’m working my ass off down here to have a good report, good relationships, try to sponsor legislation that’s not crazy, stuff that most folks can get done, do all the right things, make all the right steps, make all the right moves, and then they just strip it off for no good reason,” he said.
It felt personal for Sharp. A former teacher, he worked at a school in Texas where students weren’t taught about Black History Month. It was eye-opening to learn that there are schools in rural parts of Missouri that don’t acknowledge Black history.
“We wonder why we have so few Black teachers and so few male Black teachers,” he said. “It’s because of things like that.”
Black Republicans offer their perspective
Kansas state Rep. Patrick Penn, a Wichita Republican, and Missouri state Rep. Justin Hicks, a St. Louis Republican, are each the only Black Republican state lawmakers in their respective legislatures.
Unlike their colleagues on the other side of the aisle Hicks and Penn have supported legislation that would govern how history about racism is taught in public schools.
Hicks said he agrees with Missouri Republicans who are pushing to ban lessons about critical race theory.
“It kind of instills this mentality of us versus them when, in reality, we all are people. We all want the same thing,” he said. “I see it as a dividing point between people and not a uniting point. And that’s why I’m here in the legislature — to make sure that we unite people.”
Penn has been an enthusiastic advocate of Kansas legislation allowing families to use public dollars for private schools. In floor speeches he has framed it from a lens of providing opportunity to Black students whose needs may not be served in the public school system.
In a recent interview, Penn said his Republican positions are driven by his Christian faith and conservative principles.
“I’m a free thinker and that causes a lot of heartache and pain with a lot of individuals,” Penn said. “For those that preach diversity I think you can have diversity of thought even from the Black members of the Legislature as well.”
Penn said his role as a Black Republican in the Kansas Legislature, and the first Black Republican elected in Sedgwick County, is important to show others it can be done – just as those who came before him served as an example.
“We are here not necessarily to represent a skin color but to represent the folks that sent us here,” he said.
But he said his ideological differences with other Black lawmakers has meant he is viewed by other Black lawmakers and Kansans as not Black enough and that instances of racism against him are excused or dismissed.
A billboard in Wichita for Black History Month shows the three Black Democratic lawmakers from Wichita but omits Penn’s photo.
“Black people are not a monolith,” he said, noting that it is not considered unusual when white people fall on both sides of the political aisle.
Penn said there is “great opportunity” in being one of a small number of Black lawmakers in the statehouse.
“I look at my caucus and say I have a voice, I have a perspective that they might not know, they might not be used to or just don’t have around,” Penn said. “Sometimes people are blind to their blindness so you’ve got to work with them and bring them along.”
While Penn is a member of Kansas’ Black caucus, Hicks said he does not plan to join Missouri’s version of the group — which represents the Black members of the Missouri House and Senate.
“I’m here to support them. I’m here to help them and their agendas, depending on what the agenda is, obviously, so I’m not against anything like that,” he said, referring to the Black Caucus. “But as far as just being a member of the caucus, I don’t believe I’m going to end up doing that at this time.”
‘I try to walk with pride’
State Rep. Marlene Terry, a St. Louis Democrat, leads the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus — a group that represents Black lawmakers in the Missouri General Assembly and pushes for legislation that advances equality.
Terry and her group are pushing Missouri House leadership to allow the Black Caucus to receive a monthly stipend — similar to the Democratic and Republican caucuses. This stipend would pay for administrative costs, staff and events.
“How is it fair or equal that we have two individuals that assist our caucus and neither one of them are granted a stipend or anything?” Terry said. “The Black Caucus is a much needed caucus and a very strong caucus within that field and they need to be treated as equal.”
In Kansas, there are no hired staffers for individual caucuses. Instead, individual lawmakers have paid assistants during session and members of leadership in both parties have full time staff and additional pay.
The longest-serving members in the Kansas House and Kansas Senate and the assistant minority leader in both parties are members of the Black caucus.
“We make our presence known and make our leadership known,” said Rep. KC Ohaebosim, a Wichita Democrat.
Black lawmakers across both states say they head to their respective statehouses with pride because they’re representing their communities.
“Have you heard the saying ‘don’t let them see you sweat?’” said Terry, the St. Louis Democrat. “We’re there for the people of the state of Missouri and that’s what keeps me pushing. I’m not there for me. I’m there for the little children, the grandchildren, the mothers, the fathers, the forefathers. That’s what I’m there for.
“So I try to walk with pride regardless.”