Kansas civil rights title

Experience the top 14 Kansas civil rights sites

Experience the top 14 Kansas civil rights sites

Kansas was born in blood and fire. While people like John Brown and William Quantrill violently pursued the conflict, others used quieter means. During the fighting, free-staters helped freedom seekers escape slavery through the Underground Railroad. After the raids ended, civil rights activists turned to the courts.

These are the best civil rights sites in Kansas.

I visited some of these sites as part of hosted tours, but, as always, all opinions are my own.

Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, one of the greatest Kansas civil rights icons
The Brown v. Board National Historic Site is in the former Monroe Elementary.

1. Fight segregation in education at Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site

Brown v. Board is the nation’s most famous civil rights case. Linda Brown’s family wanted her to attend her neighborhood school. But Sumner was limited to white students only. The Browns and others sued the Topeka school board. Eventually, the Supreme Court overturned legal segregation. Monroe Elementary, the black grade school, later became the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site.

Pro tip: Find Brown v. Board-themed murals across the street from the national historic site and the Kansas State Capitol’s third level.

Esther Brown Memorial Park, named for a Kansas civil rights warrior
Merriam honors civil rights warrior Esther Brown at Brown Park. (Karen Crane/Explore Merriam)

2. Honor the Kansas civil rights warrior who helped set the stage for Brown v. Board

The conditions at Merriam’s Walker School appalled Esther (Swirk) Brown, a white Jewish woman. In 1949, Walker’s roof leaked. It lacked good heating and indoor plumbing. The schoolbooks mirrored the building’s pathetic condition. They were hand-me-downs from white schools. The whites had deemed them unusable.

In contrast, Merriam had spent $90,000 constructing South Park Elementary. South Park was a modern school — for white students. Even though black taxpayers were also paying for South Park, their children were denied admission.

Brown was outraged. She raised funds to sue the school district. Her decision cost more than money. People threatened to burn her home. Her husband lost his job — when his own father fired him.

While they worked to integrate Merriam’s schools, parents hired Corinthian C. Nutter to teach their children at home.

In Webb v. School District No. 90, the Kansas Supreme Court ordered the board to let black students attend both schools. In the middle of the night, arsonists burned Alfonso and Mary Webb’s back porch. The Webbs had continually pushed the school board about Walker’s condition. Despite the harassment, segregation’s opponents persisted.

Merriam honors Brown’s fight for Kansas civil rights at the Esther Brown Memorial Park. It’s across the street from the Walker School. It’s now the Philadelphia Missionary Baptist Church. An exhibit about Webb hangs in Merriam Park Elementary‘s hallway.

Use Otocast to tour historic Merriam.

Fun fact: Elisha Scott of Topeka was the plaintiff’s attorney in the Webb and Brown v. Board cases. He became so famous that letters sent to “Elisha Brown, colored lawyer” arrived in his mailbox.

Anthology of Argentine Mural
The Anthology of Argentine Mural depicts the Argentine neighborhood’s development. (Visit Kansas City, Kansas)

3. See the school that turned into a Kansas civil rights victory

In 1925, Kansas City maintained separate high schools for white and black students. But Mexican students had no high school. Their school stopped at eighth grade.

Saturnino Alvarado tried to enroll his children, Jesse and Luz Alvarado, into Argentine High. Marcos de Leon and Victorina Perez joined the Alvarados. Instead, the school turned them away. The school board decided to admit them into another school, but only if they were segregated from other students. When the parents refused, the board offered to send them to a Mexican-only school. The school was in Kansas City, Missouri.

The parents rejected that offer. Instead, they held their children out of school for a year.

The parents contacted the Mexican consulate. The consulate pressured the board. Wyandotte County Attorney Harry Hayward added more pressure. He said the school board was breaking the law. The law mandated separate but equal education. The board could not refuse to educate Mexicans.

In 1926, de Leon and the Alvarado children enrolled in Argentine High. They graduated with high marks in 1930.

Argentine High is now Argentine Middle School. The school named its auditorium for Saturnino Alvarado in 2003. That was the same year that the Mid-America Education Hall of Fame inducted him. Corinthian Nutter was in the same induction class.

4. Conduct freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad

During the territorial period and the Civil War, many freedom seekers escaped through Kansas. They grabbed the ultimate civil right, freedom. The National Park Service has documented 21 Underground Railroad sites. Only some of them are open to the public.

Mount Mitchell Heritage Prairie
Follow the Lane Trail at Mount Mitchell Heritage Prairie. (Scott Bean)

5. Follow the Jim Lane Trail to freedom

In 1856, abolitionist Jim Lane marked a trail for free-state settlers from Iowa into Kansas. He marked the trail with stone cairns, called Lane’s chimneys. While settlers came south into Kansas, freedom seekers poured north, away from slavery. Present-day Highway 75 roughly follows the route. The state has installed a marker half a mile north of Sabetha on 75.

Pro tip: The Lane Trail crossed the Mount Mitchell Heritage Prairie near Wamego. During the summer, the tall grasses can reach 7 feet tall.

The Ritchie House, a Kansas civil rights gem
John and Mary Jane Ritchie fought for civil rights in Kansas. He petitioned to remove the qualifications that all militia members be white in the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention. The measure failed.

6. Bolster the Underground Railroad at the Ritchie House

When John and Mary Jane Ritchie came to Topeka in 1855, Topeka already preferred freedom. Ritchie intended the town to stay that way. His house became an Underground Railroad station. He also was a free-state delegate at two Kansas constitutional conventions, and he ended the Civil War as a brigadier general. The Ritchies’ home is open for visitors.

John Brown at Quindaro
The abolitionist John Brown at Quindaro.

7. Escape from slavery at Quindaro

Quindaro’s 1859 founders constructed a port for free staters and freedom seekers. In 1862, a Presbyterian pastor and his wife started a school. In 1881, the school became Western University. It was the first college for blacks west of the Mississippi. Its music department produced several famous alumni. One of them, Eva Jessye, became the “Grand Dame of Black Music.” Falling enrollment and political opposition doomed the college, and it closed in 1944. At the site, see John Brown’s statue holding a diploma and pause at the overlook.

8. Elude slave hunters at the Grover Barn

After stopping at the Ritchies, John Brown led a dozen freedom seekers to the Grover Barn south of Lawrence in January 1859. Joel and Emily Grover had hosted at least one other freedom seekers group before this one. The group went all the way to Canada. Before he left, Brown watched them cross to freedom. He would never return to Kansas.

The barn remained in the Grover family for a century. Now it’s available to visit.

Pro tip: For more information about the Underground Railroad in Douglas County, visit the Wakarusa Valley Heritage Museum nearby. In Lawrence, see the Watkins Museum of History.

9. Evade kidnappers in Leavenworth

Despite his protests, slave hunters abducted hotel barber Charles “Pete” Fisher from Leavenworth’s Planter’s Hotel. The hunters dragged him to Missouri, but Fisher escaped. He returned to Leavenworth. Even though the law prohibited blacks from testifying against whites, he testified against his kidnappers. A second time, Fisher’s “owner” tried to catch him. Again, free-staters rescued him. For a third time, in 1863, the owner returned him to slavery. One more time, Fisher came back to Leavenworth. He outfoxed his former owner and remained a free man.

Abraham Lincoln had spoken from the Planter’s steps in 1859. Some believe that Lincoln entered Leavenworth’s tunnels, which the Underground Railroad used to shelter freedom seekers. A marker commemorates his visit.

Fort Scott NHS with flags
The first black soldiers mustered in at Fort Scott.

10. Muster in at Fort Scott

During the Civil War, Kansas was the first state to arm black soldiers. Fort Scott was the First and Second Kansas Colored Infantry’s base. The regiments mustered into service on the fort’s parade ground.

The Kansas African American Museum, honoring famous Black Kansas women
The former Calvary Baptist Church is now The Kansas African-American Museum.

11. Celebrate civil rights in Kansas at The Kansas African-American Museum

The Kansas African-American Museum (TKAAM) occupies Wichita’s former Calvary Baptist Church. When an urban renewal project threatened to destroy the building, Doris Kerr Larkins fought to preserve it. TKAAM opened in 1998. At the museum, admire the African art collection.

Visit the Hattie McDaniel marker at her birthplace nearby. For her performance as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, McDaniel was the first black woman to win an Academy Award. (McDaniel is one of our 10 famous Kansas women.)

Pro tip: Leavenworth’s Richard Allen Cultural Center stands across the street from the former Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The church was part of the Underground Railroad. While at the center, explore the Black Dignity Collection and Buffalo Soldier artifacts. Visit the Buffalo Soldier Commemorative Area at Fort Leavenworth.

Dockum Sit-In Sculpture
The Dockum Sit-In took place near Chester I. Lewis Memorial Park. The sculpture represents lunch counters from the period. (Visit Wichita)

12. Welcome the dawn of civil rights in restaurants at the Dockum Drug Store Sit-In

In July 1958, Carol Parks-Hahn and Ron Walters decided to push segregation’s boundaries at Wichita’s Dockum Drug Store. Dockum, a Rexall affiliate, discriminated against black customers. Kansas law mandated equal access, but the law sank under community tradition.

Parks-Hahn, Walters, and others sat in the store for three weeks before the management caved in. The Wichita students had won the first successful student-led sit-in protest. In consequence, Rexall integrated all its Kansas lunch counters.

More famous sit-ins followed Wichita’s pattern. Greensboro, North Carolina, integrated its Woolworth lunch counter 1.5 years later, after a five-month protest. As a result, the Woolworth chain desegregated its lunch counters.

The Ambassador Hotel sits on the former Dockum site. Toast Kansas civil rights in the hotel’s speakeasy-style bar, Dockum.

Pro tipChester I. Lewis mentored the sit-in students and the Dockum sit-in sculpture stands in Chester I. Lewis Park. He was also an attorney on the winning Brown v. Board legal team. His hometown, Hutchinson, honors Lewis with a mural in Chester I. Lewis Plaza.

Nicodemus Township Hall, home of the Exodusters, fighters for Kansas civil rights
Nicodemus Township Hall is now the Nicodemus National Historic Site Visitor Center.

13. Emigrate to Kansas to escape discrimination

After Reconstruction fizzled, many blacks fled the South. Some of them settled in freedom-loving Kansas. Nicodemus is the most famous of these settlements. After its 1877 establishment, Nicodemus grew rapidly. Then the railroad skipped the town. Additionally, the High Plains’ frequent droughts hurt the community. Even so, the town grew until 1910, when it boasted 400 residents. The World Wars and the Dust Bowl pushed Nicodemus into decline.

The original settlers’ descendants still live in Nicodemus, now a National Historic Site.

Huron Indian Cemetery, Kansas City
The Conley sisters fought to save their ancestors’ graves all the way to the Supreme Court.

14. Fight for Kansas civil rights at the Huron Indian Cemetery

Because Lake Huron is a long way away, the sign “Huron Indian Cemetery” seems out of place in Kansas City. How could a Huron cemetery appear in Kansas City? “Huron” was the French name for the Wyandot tribe. If “Wyandot” sounds familiar, it should. Kansas City is in Wyandotte County.

In 1843, the Wyandots’ Trail of Tears ended in Kansas City. Disease and floods killed numerous tribe members. Between 1844 and 1855, the tribe buried 400 people in the cemetery.

For more than 125 years, the Wyandots fought developers. In 1906, a Congressman hid permission to sell the cemetery within a 65-page bill.

The first Native American woman to fight for Kansas civil rights before the Supreme Court

In response, Lyda, Helene, and Ida Conley moved into a shack at their mother’s grave. Between guard shifts at Fort Conley, Lyda attended law school. She graduated in 1902.

Lyda and her sisters sued to protect the cemetery. Eventually, Conley v. Ballinger (PDF) went to the Supreme Court. She was the first Native American woman to argue a case before the high court.

The court ruled against them, but their fight had attracted a powerful champion, U.S. Senator Charles Curtis. He was from Topeka and belonged to the Kaw tribe. In 1916, through Curtis’s efforts, Congress funded it as a national historic site.

Finally, in 2017, the government designated the cemetery as a National Historic Landmark. Fittingly, the Conley sisters are buried there.

Pro tip: Download Lyda’s Supreme Court argument.

More to explore

Many of these sites are on the Kansas African-American History Trail. Visit them all and collect their stamps. Take a Topeka civil rights tour, including the Equality House, with this PDF brochure.

Fort Scott and Leavenworth are among our 12 best places to visit in Kansas. See more places to visit in Kansas City. Wichita is a terrific foodie city.

Learn more about Kansas and the Midwest.

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