Explore five Topeka, Kansas, civil rights historical sites linked to the abolition of slavery, school desegregation, LGBTQ equality, plus John Brown, too!
Table of Contents
- 1 Topeka
- 2 Civil Rights and Me
- 3 Kansas Museum of History
- 4 Kansas State Capitol
- 5 The Ritchie House
- 6 Brown vs. Board of Education NHS
- 7 Equality House
- 8 John Brown Memorial Park and Museum
- 9 Resources
- 10 The Burger Stand
- 11 Map It!
- 12 We Would Love to Hear From You
- 13 Pin this Post!
- 14 Helpful Links
It was the fourth day of my Kansas road trip, and it was also my birthday.
That morning I had driven the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway and spent an hour or so at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. At noon, I stopped for lunch in Council Grove and spent a couple more hours exploring sites on the Santa Fe Trail.
Before embarking on this journey, my civil rights travels had taken me to Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, Jackson, Atlanta, and other cities throughout the South.
I was familiar with civil rights events from Kansas history, but somehow I never connected the dots to recognize Topeka as the civil rights epicenter it had become during the last two centuries.
Mid-afternoon I pulled into Topeka to begin connecting some of these “dots” in Kansas civil rights history.
Things were looking up for it to be the best birthday ever!
Civil Rights and Me
I will go out an a limb and say that the struggle for civil and human rights is the cause most dear to my heart. I believe that unconditional equality for all people is the starting point, and every other issue falls in line behind it.
During my 35 years as a public school teacher, I know my units of study on the European Holocaust and the American Civil Rights Movement were my greatest contribution to my students. My hope is that the content of these lessons expanded their collective worldview, and helped them become more compassionate, understanding citizens of the world.
In my second chapter as a travel writer I have had the honor of visiting many of the sites I taught about over the years. The most moving and meaningful destinations have been those associated with some of my personal heroes in the struggle, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Civil Rights martyr Medgar Evers, and Holocaust rescuer Corrie Ten Boom.
That is why arriving in Topeka to visit civil rights sites on my birthday was one of the greatest gifts I could have received.
And now I share this gift with you.
Note: In order to assist future travelers to Topeka with planning their itineraries, I am writing about these sites in a logical sequence, rather than the order in which I visited them.
Kansas Museum of History
In my opinion, the Kansas Museum of History is the best place to begin any visit to Topeka, if not the state. Even if your time is limited like mine was, a walk-through will acquaint you with the state of Kansas from it beginnings to the recent past, and give you an overview of this state’s intriguing history.
The grounds surrounding the main building are a key part of the Kansas history experience, beginning with its wildflower garden and prairie grass setting.
A nature trail leads to the one-room 1877 Stach School, built for the children of Czech immigrants in Jackson County. The school was moved to its current location in 1984. Today, elementary students participate in a 4-hour history field trip led by a period school teacher. I learned this first-hand when I peeked through a window and saw a room full of children seated at their desks.
Another structure, the 1848 stone Potawatomi Mission, remains in its original location as part of the 80-acre property the Kansas Historical Society purchased in 1974.
The Main Gallery of the museum tells “A Kansas Story” sequentially as visitors walk a path through seven periods of history from 5,000 B.C. to 1990 A.D.:
- Early People
- Forts & Trails
- Civil War
- Settling the Frontier
- Trains & Towns
- Early 20th Century
- Recent Past
Additional themed exhibits cover:
- Fast Food
- African American History
- Kansas Families.
Historical vehicles on display include an 1880s Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe locomotive, a 1914 Longren biplane, a 1933 Chevrolet Eagle.
Because the purpose of my visit was to explore Topeka’s Civil Rights history, I was particularly interested in two exhibits.
The first was a John Brown display that held a surveyor’s compass he used for scoping out potential battlefields, an unused 1859 pike intended for the raid on Harpers Ferry, and a portrait of a beardless Brown.
The next day, at another location, I would delve deeper into John Brown’s crusade to ensure that Kansas entered the Union as a free state.
Also on display, a clipping from the May 17, 1954, edition of the Topeka State Journal announcing the end of school segregation.
A Topeka school that had become a National Historic Site due to its role in the struggle for educational equality was on my itinerary, as well.
Kansas State Capitol
Another great introduction to Kansas history is the Kansas State Capitol, also known as the Kansas Statehouse.
Again, due to limited time, I opted for a self-guided tour, and focused on the historical aspects of the lower floors rather than the governmental aspects of the upper floors.
Construction on this native limestone structure began in 1866 and officially reached completion in 1903. An extensive modernization project was completed in 2014.
The interior of the capitol building is exquisitely beautiful, and the view of the dome from ground level is stunning.
Visitors can opt for a guided tour to the top of the dome for “close up views of the inner and outer domes.” Expect to climb 296 steps over a “series of straight, steep, narrow, spiral, and irregularly spaced landings and stairs” and be rewarded with a breathtaking perspective of the capital city.
Perhaps the most recognizable element of the Kansas Statehouse is the massive Tragic Prelude mural by John Steuart Curry in the west wing adjacent to the second floor rotunda. The painting depicts abolitionist John Brown during the Bleeding Kansas period.
The inscription beneath the mural reads:
“In John Brown’s outstretched left hand is the Word of God. In his right a “Beecher Bible.” Beside him, facing each other, are contending free soil and proslavery forces.”
Other interesting elements of the capitol building are the door to the governor’s office, the working 1923 caged elevator, and a 1904 dome window.
The ground level visitor center has a network of corridors and hallways running through its massive limestone block construction. Many walls are lined with quotes and photos from Kansas civil rights history.
As my luck would have it, John Brown’s sword had been temporarily removed from display.
Note: The underground parking garage on 8th Avenue is a little tricky to access, but still very convenient. I found the easiest method was to circle the capitol block in a clockwise direction and approach the entrance slowly.
The Ritchie House
John and Mary Jane Ritchie moved from Indiana to Topeka in 1855. John had scouted the area the previous year in search of cheap land with hopes of settling in a free-state community. By 1856, the Ritchies had completed construction of a two-story brick and limestone house that would become their home and a eventually a prominent location in Kansas civil rights history.
Over the years, the original house had been renovated several times to the point that it no longer looked historical. In 1995, the Shawnee County Historical Society acquired the home and began an extensive restoration to return the house its 1856 appearance.
The home is open for public tours on Mondays and Wednesdays from 10 AM to 3 PM.
Soon after moving into their new home, John and Mary Jane began to actively engage in antislavery activities, and the Ritchie House became a station on the Underground Railroad. In 1859, John Ritchie assisted John Brown in orchestrating the escape of eleven slaves to Nebraska.
As a representative for Shawnee County at the Kansas constitutional conventions, John was considered a radical extremist.
The July 27, 1859, edition of the Leavenworth Times described John Ritchie as “an ultra-abolitionist, women’s rights man, teetotaler and general advocate for reform, looking eagerly and earnestly for the ultimate redemption of mankind from all oppressions, abuses and vices, of whatever nature and kind.”
Sounds like my kind of man . . . well, except for that “teetotaler” part.
Ritchie enlisted in the Union army during the Civil War, and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the 5th Regiment Kansas Volunteer Cavalry.
At the end of the war, Ritchie helped newly freed African Americans acquire land to settle in the Topeka area. These lots were known as “Ritchie’s Addition.” In 1868, as the community grew in number, the Topeka Board of Education decided to purchase several lots for a black school. This plot of land, located five blocks from the Ritchie House, would become the site for the Monroe School.
Almost 100 years later Monroe School would be at the center of a high-profile national Civil Rights battle, resulting in a decisive Supreme Court ruling.
Brown vs. Board of Education NHS
If I asked the average educated American to name a landmark Supreme Court decision, I am certain Plessy v. Ferguson or Brown v. Board of Education would be among the responses. I remember learning about these cases during my school years, and I taught about them for years as a public school teacher.
The opportunity to visit the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka was almost like a pilgrimage to me, and I felt the typical euphoria I sense the first time I visit a location I have studied or taught about for many years.
In the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) case, the Supreme Court ruled that the “separate, but equal” doctrine as it relates to racial segregation was constitutional. This ruling allowed states and local governments to pass what were known as Jim Crow Laws. These discriminatory laws, common throughout the South, required that black and white Americans have separate facilities such as water fountains and seating sections on public transportation. Many of these statutes and ordinances were downright laughable, such as a law in South Carolina that forbade black and white workers to look out the same window.
The Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) Supreme Court decision partially reversed the Plessy decision by ruling that state-sponsored segregation in public education was unconstitutional because “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
The case before the Supreme Court was actually a consolidation of five NAACP-sponsored cases from different states across the country. Lawyers chose to name the federal case after the Topeka lawsuit because local segregated schools were essentially equal in quality. That way segregation, not equality, would be the issue.
The Topeka case, and eventually the Supreme Court case, took the name of one of the plaintiffs, Oliver Brown. Brown’s third-grade daughter Linda was not allowed to attend the white Sumner Elementary that was closest to their home. Due to segregation laws, Linda was forced to attend a more distant black school.
That school was Monroe Elementary, built on land formerly part of “Ritchie’s Addition.”
Today, the Monroe School building is home to the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. One former classroom has been re-created by the National Park Service as a fully functional 1950s-era kindergarten classroom. The interactive classroom has fourteen points of interest to help visitors immerse themselves in education of the past.
Exhibits dedicated to various branches of the Civil Rights Movement are located in the main hallway and other former classrooms. One artifact is a black doll used by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s to study black children’s attitudes about race. Their research revealed that the majority of black children identified the white dolls as good and the black dolls as bad because segregation had labeled them “with a badge of inferiority that would last the rest of their lives.”
The exhibits also display a wealth of primary sources in the form of letters, quotes, photographs, and other documents from both the struggle for equality in education and the greater Civil Rights Movement.
It was moving to see photos honoring Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers who was assassinated in his own driveway, and first-grader Ruby Bridges who single-handedly integrated her school. I had visited the Evers house in Jackson, Mississippi, and Jerry and I scouted the former William Frantz Elementary School once on a New Orleans road trip. These two heroes of the movement were both prominent figures in my annual Civil Rights unit of study.
Almost six decades after the Brown decision, Topeka once again became a setting in the struggle for equality of all Americans.
As the story goes, Aaron Jackson who is founder of the nonprofit organization Planting Peace, was using Google Earth to view the Topeka neighborhood where an infamous hate group is headquartered.
That group, the Westboro Baptist Church, is known for its funeral protests and hate speech against other religions, the American military, celebrities and politicians, and especially the LGBTQ community.
While scanning the community with the streetview feature, Jackson happened to notice a “for sale” sign located across the street from the group’s headquarters, and it gave him an idea.
Planting Peace was already supporting orphanages, conservation, and disaster relief, so why not branch out with a peaceful counter-offensive in Topeka?
Jackson learned the house directly across the street was no longer available, but the house next door was. In 2013, Planting Peace purchased the corner lot, and volunteers painted the house the colors of the rainbow flag.
Since then, an initiative led by an 8-year old transgender child and funded by a generous donor has allowed the organization to purchase the house next door and paint it the colors of the transgender flag.
The day I visited Equality House, I parked by the curb and happened to notice a group of tatted and pierced young men dressed in black milling in the street. My own preconceptions made me wonder whether they were up to no good or simply there to visit the Equality House like me. I approached the group cautiously, and soon realized through their body language and hand gestures that they too were not fans of the hate group.
I volunteered to take a group picture for them, and before long we were chatting it up like old friends. As it turned out, they were members of a touring heavy metal band called Media Solution. In conversation with bassist Jay Dot CA we learned that we were both former Assembly of God church boys, and even though our paths had led in different directions, we both held a core belief in equality for everyone.
Today, the Equality House serves as a Planting Peace resource center “for human rights and bully prevention initiatives.” Together with the Transgender House, it is a vivid symbol of “compassion, peace, . . . social change,” and “equality for all.”
In Topeka, location is everything.
After all, its not the first time Kansas has been “over the rainbow . . . .”
John Brown Memorial Park and Museum
The final stop on my Kansas Civil Rights journey (the +1 part) was the John Brown Museum located in Osawatomie, about 75 miles southeast of Topeka.
I first heard of John Brown’s actions in Kansas while watching the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War many years ago. And I learned more about Jayhawkers, Bushwhackers, and the Border Wars in the Ang Lee film Ride with the Devil.
I was also familiar with John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry, and I had visited the National Historical Park in West Virginia with Jerry while on a road trip from Pennsylvania to Florida in 2013.
John Brown was and still is a controversial character, considered a fanatic by some, a martyr by others. John was an extreme abolitionist, a religious zealot who believed violent insurrection was the only way the institution of slavery would be abolished.
Personally, I believe Brown’s motives were right, but his methods were wrong.
John Brown acted on his beliefs, and in 1855 he left New York to join his sons who were living in the Kansas territory. Their first major action was at Pottawatomie Creek where, as an act of revenge for the Siege of Lawrence, the group hacked five pro-slavery men to death with broadswords.
I originally thought my final stop would be Pottawatomie, the site I remembered from the Burns series, but I was a few letters off.
This was John Brown Memorial Park in Osawatomie, the site of the largest battle during the Bleeding Kansas era.
I would walk the battleground later, but a guided tour of the John Brown Museum was first on my schedule.
Upon entering the 1928 stone museum building, I quickly realized it was only a shell that fully encased another building.
That structure, known as the Adair Cabin, is a rare treasure in Kansas history, well-preserved here for posterity.
Missionaries Samuel and Florella Adair traveled from Ohio to Kansas in 1854. They moved into this cabin, at the time located northwest of Osawatomie, the following year. Florella was John Brown’s half-sister, and John’s five sons soon followed the Adairs to Kansas. As a home to pacifist abolitionists, the cabin eventually sheltered fugitive slaves as a station on the Underground Railroad.
John Brown, transporting a wagonload of weapons, joined his family members in Kansas later that year. Brown made the Adair Cabin headquarters for his operations.
On August 10, 1856, the anti-slavery settlement of Osawatomie was attacked by a band of 250 Missouri “Border Ruffians” led by John W. Reid, a pro-slavery leader. The first person killed in the attack was John Brown’s 26-year old son Frederick. When John heard the news, he rallied 40 men to protect the town. But his efforts were in vain. When they realized they could not withstand the attack, the men fled in many directions. Reid’s men proceeded to burn the town, sparing women and children. Five free-state men, including Brown’s son, lay dead.
Due to its distant location, the Adair cabin was spared.
The two-room Adair cabin is a combination of staged living areas and exhibits. Authentic Adair family possessions and John Brown artifacts are on display, including the melodeon played at Brown’s funeral.
For museum guests interested in visiting additional historical sites beyond the park, there is also a 10-stop Osawatomie Driving Tour.
There are two publications I recommend for readers who plan to explore Kansas Civil Rights history.
From Brown to Brown: Topeka’s Civil Rights Story
The National Park Service brochure entitled From Brown to Brown: Topeka’s Civil Rights Story is available in both print and PDF formats. It includes a driving tour of Civil Rights locations in Topeka and an audio option. If you would like to request a print copy of the brochure, the mailing address and phone number are listed at the bottom of the website page.
Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area Brochure
Map Scan Credit: Wabaunsee County Historical Society
The Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area includes 41 counties along the Kansas and Missouri state line that were involved in the Border Wars between 1844 and 1861. A comprehensive brochure identifies scores of locations connected to the historical struggle for freedom and equality throughout the region. The brochure is not available for download, but you can request a print copy by clicking the image on the website home page or by email at: [email protected].
The Burger Stand
I only had one meal in Topeka, but it was a good one! The Burger Stand, located in the College Hill neighborhood, has an open, airy warehouse feel with a casual, friendly atmosphere. The chalkboard menu offers a variety of gourmet burgers, hot dogs, and fries, with low carb and vegetarian options, as well. As I recall, I ordered the Kobe burger with truffle parmesan fries.
We Would Love to Hear From You
We enjoy dialogue with our readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you ever explored Civil Rights history in Kansas, or elsewhere for that matter? If so, we would love to hear about your experience. We invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and we always respond!