Dating back prior to its entry into the United States, Kansas and many of its citizens, both Black and White, have played a rich role in the development of the freedoms, culture and values of our country. Covering all corners of the state were abolitionists, Black settlers, and an abundance of heroes, thinkers, creatives and visionaries who would go on to change the face of America.
That history is often not given the recognition it deserves, but a new trail launched this month will help shine the light on Kansas’ rich African-American history. Two years in the making, the new African American History Trail connects and highlights eight of the state’s historical sites.
The trail is a project of The Kansas African American Museum, thanks in part to a $135,000 grant awarded by the Institute of Museum and Libraries Services in Washington, D.C. The grant helped pay for a manager for the project, signage at the sites, as well as a website to guide people to each location.
The website – www.tkaahistorytrail.org – is up and active. If you haven’t visited many of these sites, consider planning a vacation or trip to visit them and take the kids and grandkids along. Check out the website for more information on each of these sites, including their location, hours and entry fees, if any.
The John Brown Museum, Osawatomie
The John Brown Museum State Historic Site is located in Osawatomie. The site is operated by the Kansas Historical Society, and includes the log cabin of Reverend Samuel Adair and his wife, Florella, who was the half-sister of the abolitionist John Brown. Brown lived in the cabin during the 20 months he spent in Kansas, and conducted many of his abolitionist activities from there.
The museum’s displays tell the story of John Brown, the Adairs and local abolitionists, and include the original cabin, Adair family furnishings and belongings, and Civil War artifacts.
The Adair Cabin is located in John Brown Memorial Park, which is the site of the Battle of Osawatomie, which pitted John Brown and 30-40 abolitionist guerillas against John Reid and 250 pro-slavery militia men in the largest battle during Bleeding Kansas on August 30, 1856.
Richard Allen Cultural Center and Museum, Leavenworth
The Richard Allen Cultural Center/Museum highlights African-American history in Leavenworth, Kansas and nationally. Visitors view memorabilia from Gen. Colin Powell, Buffalo Soldiers, uniforms, freedom papers from former slaves, photographs, items from Leavenworth’s old Bethel A.M.E. Church, located just across the street from the museum. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
The museum began in the Bly family Buffalo Soldier home, which was deeded to Bethel AME in 1991. The home of the Bly family was opened as a museum in 1992. It is decorated to look as it would have in the early 1900s.
An addition was built and opened in 2002 to provide office, display space and an area for classroom tutoring. The center is named after Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination.
Educational programs are also offered through museum exhibits, tours, research opportunities and traveling exhibits for the general public. The center also operates a year-round tutoring program available for any student who needs the service.
Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, Lawrence
Freedom’s National Heritage Area is one of the Nation’s 49 NHAs intended to encourage historic preservation of an area. The Freedom’s National Heritage Area covers 29 counties in Eastern Kansas and 12 counties in Western Missouri and promotes the nationally significant stories of shaping the frontier, the Missouri-Kansas Border War, and the struggles for freedom that ensued here.
Included under their mission are nearly 200 historic sites which the NHA helps promote and preserve. You can learn more about these 200 sites on their webpage, www.freedomsfrontier.org. Many of the sites associated with Freedom NHA are historic sites included in the Kansas African American Trail and many more.
Freedom’s NHA is housed in The Carnegie Building in Lawrence. Built in 1902, the Carnegie was the home to the Lawrence Public Library until the 1970s. On the upper level of the building, the Heritage Room gives a brief overview of the history of the region on three walls. The Kansas-Nebraska Room documents the conflict and compromise that began to ignite the border war in Missouri and Kansas that led to Civil War in the nation.
The Carnegie is a Lawrence Park and Recreation Department building.
The John and Mary Ritchie House, Topeka
John and Mary Ritchie were among the earliest settlers of Topeka, were successful financially, community leaders, and eventually donated the land for Washburn University, but among their most important efforts was their fight against slavery. The Richies were abolitionist and their home served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Ritchie was known in the community as an antislavery man dedicated to keeping Kansas free of the “peculiar institution.” He joined other free-state men to capture goods from pro-slavery towns and he even helped John Brown and a party of 11 slaves flee capture from U. S. troops at the Battle of the Spurs. His actions led to a warrant being issued for his arrest, and Richie fled the state for a while until he was pardoned by the governor.
Their historic stone house is included on the Kansas Register of Historic Places as well as the National Register of Historic Places. In 1995, the house was acquired by the Shawnee County Historical Society and has undergone restoration and preservation.
Hale Ritchie, their son, built his home next door in 1887 and that building is now the Shawnee County Historical Society’s Cox Communication Heritage Education Center. It provides facilities, displays and classrooms to tell the history of Shawnee County and Topeka.
The Topeka Board of Education National Historic Site, Topeka
Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site pays tribute to the U.S. Supreme Court case and ruling that concluded that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ had no place.” The case, titled Oliver Brown et al, v. the Board of Education of Topeka, sealed both the Brown family name and the City of Topeka in the lexicon of American Civil Rights history.
The site, operated by the National Park Service, is located in the former Monroe Elementary School Building built in 1926, which was one of four segregated elementary schools for African Americans in Topeka. The site highlights the U.S. Supreme Court’s role in affecting changes in national and social policy and symbolizes the determination of citizens to insure equal opportunities for their children. In addition to the permanent display, the Park Service schedules special programs, presentations, and exhibits at the site.
The Nicodemus National Historic Site, Nicodemus
Nicodemus is an icon of the western expansion of Blacks in America. Settled in 1877, it is the last remaining “Black” town in Kansas. Billed as “The Largest Colored Colony in America” in posters recruiting settlers, the town didn’t fall short of those expectations in its earliest days. It included general stores, banks, newspapers, a town hall, schools and, of course, churches. After efforts to attract the railroad to pass near the town failed, the decline began.
Today, the population is a couple of dozen, but the National Park Service maintains the history of Nicodemus via five historic buildings that were made a part of the park system: a church, the town hall, a school, home and a business. Each year, the town comes alive for the annual Emancipation Celebration, a kind of homecoming, when descendants of the town and appreciators of history make their way to the city for the celebration held each year during the last weekend in July.
The Gordon Parks Museum, Fort Scott
The 4,000-square-foot Gordon Parks Museum is located in the Fine Arts Center on the campus of Fort Scott Community College. Part of the Gordon Parks Center for Culture and Diversity. One of the focal points of the museum is the Gordon Parks Collection, which was Gordon Parks’ gift to Fort Scott in honor of his parents Sarah and Andrew Jackson Parks, and includes over 50 of Parks’ autographed photographs and 14 samples of his poetry. Additional items have been gifted to the center by members of his family, friends and other collectors.
Parks, the youngest of 15 children, was born in Fort Scott in 1912 and lived there until the death of his mother in 1928, when he was sent to live with an older sister in St. Paul, Minn. Each October, the City of Fort Scott celebrates Parks’ legacy with the three-day Gordon Parks Celebration, which includes lectures, tours, meals and the 1st and Main Street Fest. A highlight of the festival is often the Tribute Dinner, where the annual Choice of Weapons Award is presented. In the past the honoree has been a celebrity of some stature with a connection to Parks via his great wealth of work.
Throughout the year, the center also holds numerous lectures and programs.