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 some of the most influential civil rights sites in Kansas.
I visited some of these sites as part of hosted tours, but, as always, all opinions are my own.
1. Fight education segregation 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.
Roxie’s reliable report: Find Brown v. Board-themed murals across the street from the national historic site and the Kansas State Capitol’s third level.
2. Set the stage for Brown v. Board with a Kansas civil rights warrior
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 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. The school became the Philadelphia Missionary Baptist Church. An exhibit about the case hangs in Merriam Park Elementary‘s hallway.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: 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.
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. The Mid-America Education Hall of Fame inducted him the same year along with Corinthian Nutter.
4. Listen to Martin Luther King Jr. at Kansas State University
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Kansas State University’s Ahearn Fieldhouse on January 19, 1968. K-State President James McCain asked King to come. He did, but he was concerned about how the overwhelmingly white student body would accept him. He had reasons because King and McCain received death threats. Instead, King’s 7,000-person audience rewarded him with multiple standing ovations during his talk, “The Future of Integration (PDF).”
He concluded with the immortal words of his “I Have a Dream” speech. “With this faith, we will be able to speed up the day when all of God’s children all over this nation will be able to join hands and sing … ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”
Roxie’s reliable report: The speech’s recording disappeared, probably in a 1968 fire, and officials believed the audio was lost. Fortunately, Galyn Vesey of Wichita had preserved a copy. Visit the Hale Library to listen.
King died less than 3 months later when an assassin’s bullet found him in Memphis on April 4, 1968. King’s mourners found a note in his coat pocket, listing McCain and others who had joined him on K-State’s stage (PDF).
Roxie’s reliable report: King spoke at Sumner High in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1958. He predicted that segregation was doomed. Segregated Sumner was proud of its academic excellence. Ironically, desegregation closed Sumner High in 1978. However, the school is now the Sumner Academy of Arts and Science Magnet School.
MLK in MHK
Board of Regents Member Dan Lykins and K-State President Jon Wefald unveiled King’s bust in front of Ahearn Fieldhouse 38 years after his speech there. Lykins had interviewed King during his Manhattan visit. The event (PDF) came 20 years after King’s birthday became a national holiday. In the same year, 17th Street became Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Drive, which runs past the fieldhouse.
K-State hosts Martin Luther King Jr. Observance Week each January, including the MLK Day of Service.
Roxie’s reliable report: George Washington Owens became the first Black K-State graduate in 1899. Two years later, Minnie Howell Champe became the first Black female graduate. Both became educators.
5. 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.
6. 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.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: The Lane Trail crossed the Mount Mitchell Heritage Prairie near Wamego. During the summer, the tall grasses can reach 7 feet tall.
Related: Explore destinations on the Road to Oz ending in Wamego.
7. 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.
8. 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.
Related: Visit more Kansas City Kansas sites.
9. 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.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: 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.
10. Evade kidnappers in Leavenworth
Despite his protests, slave hunters abducted hotel barber Charles “Pete” Fisher from Planter’s Hotel in Leavenworth. 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. Fisher’s “owner” tried to catch him a second time. Again, free-staters rescued him. For a third time, in 1863, the owner returned him to slavery, but Fisher came back to Leavenworth again. 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.
Related: Walk in history’s footsteps in Leavenworth, on the Kansas Lincoln Trail.
11. Celebrate Black military pioneers at Fort Leavenworth
Former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell spearheaded the creation of the Buffalo Soldiers Monument at Fort Leavenworth. The Army formed the 10th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Leavenworth. The soldiers adopted the title “Buffalo Soldiers” and added a bison to their unit crest. Powell helped break ground for the monument on July 28, 1990. Sculptor Eddie Dixon finished the monument two years later.
The Buffalo Soldier Commemorative Area below the monument includes the “Circle of Firsts,” recognizing Black Americans in the military. Those honored include the first Black West Point graduate, Henry Ossian Flipper. He was also the first Black officer to command regular Army troops. Roscoe Robinson Jr. was the first Black full General.
Related: Visit Flipper’s grave in Thomasville, Georgia.
The circle also honors two units. One is the first all-Black airborne unit, the 555th Parachute Infantry Company, nicknamed the “Triple Nickels.” The 555th became the world’s first smoke jumpers, parachuting to fight fires in the Pacific Northwest. The second is the only unit of Black women to serve overseas during World War II, the 6888th Central Postal Battalion. The “Six Triple Eight” sorted and sent years of backlogged mail in cold, filthy, rat-infested aircraft hangars. The accomplished their mission faster than anyone believed possible.
12. Immerse yourself in Black history at the Richard Allen Cultural Center, Leavenworth
Army Captain William Bly served as a Buffalo Soldier during World War I. In 1992, his home became the Richard Allen Cultural Center & Museum. The center returned his home’s interior to the early 1900s. The former Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church escorted freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad. The center expanded 10 years later to offer more insight into Black history.
While at the center, explore the Black Dignity Collection, memorabilia from Powell and other notable Black Americans, plus Buffalo Soldier artifacts. Hear the story of Cathey Williams, the only known female Buffalo Soldier. Her bust sits outside the Bly Home. She enlisted because “I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relatives and friends.”
13. Fight for freedom in Osawatomie
King used non-violent methods to combat segregation. Unlike King, John Brown fought slavery with violence. Two of his most famous battles occurred around Osawatomie. On August 7, 1856, Brown led other free-state settlers to attack pro-slavery settlers from Georgia and torched their homes.
The slavers sought revenge three weeks later. Two hundred fifty raiders intended to torch abolitionist Osawatomie. In response, Brown and about 30 other free-staters faced the raiders on the Marais des Cygnes River’s south bank. They intended to buy time for the residents to flee, but the raiders soon overwhelmed the defenders. Brown’s group retreated to a stone corral where they shot at the raiders until they ran out of ammunition. Then they fled to draw the raiders away from the town. However, the tactic failed, and the slavers looted Osawatomie. Brown lost his son Frederick and five other free-staters. Two raiders died. They retreated into Missouri with their prisoners.
Brown’s half-sister and brother-in-law Samuel and Florella (Brown) Adair lived in a log cabin on Osawatomie’s outskirts. During the battle, she sheltered women and children. Afterward, the raiders looked for Brown at the cabin, but Florella insisted that her brother was not there. The leader accepted her word and prevented his followers from burning it.
Related: Ride with history in Osawatomie.
The John Brown Museum State Historic Site preserves the Adair Cabin in a limestone brick building constructed around it. It sits within John Brown Memorial Park, the battlefield site.
Roxie’s reliable report: Theodore Roosevelt spoke to 30,000 people at the 1910 John Brown Celebration in Osawatomie. When Roosevelt lost the Republican nomination to President Taft, Roosevelt used the speech as the platform for his National Progressive (or Bull Moose) Party in 1912.
14. Muster in at Fort Scott
During the Civil War, Kansas was the first state to enlist black soldiers, jumping ahead of the Lincoln Administration’s wishes. James Lane organized the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry in 1862. Leavenworth business owner William Matthews was the first to enlist. He became a captain and convinced others to join. By October 1862, the First Kansas had enrolled around 600 men with headquarters in Mound City. While still in state service, they marched into Bates County, Missouri, to fight guerrillas. The regiment built earthworks they called Fort Africa on a farm at Island Mound. After a two-day siege, the regiment and the Fifth Kansas Cavalry forced the Confederates to withdraw. The skirmish was the first time Black soldiers fought in the Civil War.
After Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, the regiment became the First and Second Kansas Colored Infantry. The regiments mustered into service on the Fort Scott parade ground. Unfortunately, the unit’s federalization meant Matthews lost his captaincy because the federals refused to allow Black officers.
Roxie’s reliable report: Matthews later became a first lieutenant in Douglas’s Independent Colored Kansas Battery.
The First Kansas experiences combat
The First Kansas won battles at Cabin Creek and Honey Springs in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. The Kansas soldiers captured a Texas regiment’s flags at Honey Springs in 20 minutes. Confederate soldiers ambushed Union foragers during the Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas. The regiment defeated two attacks, but a third one broke their lines. The Confederates executed many of the wounded and captured Black soldiers. Afterward, other Black troops used the battle cry, “Remember Poison Spring!” The soldiers remained in Arkansas for the rest of the war. By the war’s end, they had endured more casualties than The Kansas Museum of History preserves its battle flags.
Roxie’s reliable report: Noted Black scientist George Washington Carver began his education at the Fort Scott Colored School at the fort. He did laundry to support himself.
Related: Honor unsung heroes in Fort Scott, one of our 12 best Kansas places.
15. Smash barriers at the Gordon Parks Museum
Gordon Parks rose from an impoverished, segregated childhood in Fort Scott and St. Paul, Minnesota, to become a world-renowned author, composer, choreographer, and publisher. His resumé includes numerous national and international awards. He was the first Black person to direct and produce a major Hollywood movie. The movie was based on his autobiographical novel The Learning Tree. The Library of Congress included it in its National Film Registry Classics.
In 2005, Parks received the William Allen White Award for journalistic merit from the University of Kansas. He was too frail to attend the award ceremony. Instead, a film crew interviewed him. The interview was his last. He died March 7, 2006, in New York City and his remains rest in the Fort Scott Evergreen Cemetery.
16. Celebrate civil rights in Kansas at The Kansas African American Museum
The Kansas African-American Museum (TKAAM) opened in 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.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Visit the Hattie McDaniel marker at her birthplace. 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.)
17. 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.
Roxie’s reliable report: 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.
18. 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, boasting 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.
19. 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.
Roxie’s reliable report: The Wyandot tribe split. The Oklahoma tribe used “Wyandotte” and the Kansas tribe used “Wyandot.”
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 indigenous 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.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Download Lyda’s Supreme Court argument.
20. Honor Eisenhower as a civil rights President
Dwight Eisenhower’s civil rights record is underrated. He implemented President Harry Truman’s military desegregation order. He also stopped segregation in the District of Columbia and the federal workforce.
When Arkansas’s governor refused to integrate Little Rock Central High in 1957, Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to enforce Brown vs. Board. The 101st ensured that the nine integrating students, the Little Rock Nine, entered the school safely. In 1957, Ernest Green became the first Black Little Rock Central graduate.
Eisenhower’s administration passed the first two civil rights acts since Reconstruction. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 created the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department. It empowered federal prosecutors to obtain court injunctions against voting rights interference. It also established a federal Civil Rights Commission.
Three years later, the Civil Rights Act of 1960 forced election officials to preserve election records. The records eventually proved unequal registration processes and laid the foundation for future action.
Learn more at the Eisenhower Library, Museum, and Boyhood Museum.
Related: Walk in Ike’s footsteps in Abilene.
21. Discover civil rights heroes at the Lowell Milken Center
While the 101st Airborne protected the Little Rock Nine outside Little Rock Central High, two White students and a single White teacher offered Black students a haven inside. The integrating students needed the haven because they endured relentless harassment.
When Uniontown (Kansas) High students interviewed Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Nine, she cited Ken Reinhardt, Ann Williams, and speech teacher Shirley McGalin (PDF). Reinhardt especially endured abuse, “but you continued your bravery,” Eckford recalled. Reinhardt’s father received calls that typically began, “I suppose you’re proud of your ***-loving son.” He answered, “Yes, I am.”
Their kindness placed them in the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes in Fort Scott. The center enshrines many unsung heroes’ stories.
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.