Arts News: Underground Railroad Sites in Kansas and Missouri Gain Heightened Visibility

The Historic Ritchie House in Topeka, Kan., is one of the many Underground Railroad sites that are part of Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, which was recently added to the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. (courtesy of visittopeka.com)

The Civil War and its struggle over the freedom of an enslaved people came early to Kansas and Missouri.

The Border Wars began in 1854 with passage of the Kansas Nebraska Act, seven years before the rest of the nation was torn asunder. The act provided for “popular sovereignty” to determine the future of the Kansas Territory. It pitted free-state and pro-slavery Kansans against one another, both supported by outside elements from across the country, including “border ruffians” from the slave state of Missouri, in what became known as “Bleeding Kansas.”

In 2006, Congress authorized Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area (FFNHA) to work with the National Park Service to advance three major themes from the era: settlement of the frontier, the “border wars” and the nation’s enduring struggle for freedom. Today, FFNHA partners with approximately 323 historic sites, museums, historical societies, libraries and other cultural-heritage tourism destinations in 41 counties across Kansas and Missouri in addressing these themes.

On Sept. 30, 2021, the National Park Service recognized a vital part of that struggle, the storied Underground Railroad, and the role it played in the struggle along the Kansas/Missouri border. The National Park Service added FFNHA to its National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom (Network to Freedom), the first National Heritage Area to receive such recognition, to tell the story of those who escaped slavery and those who assisted them in the midst of the Border Wars.

Established by Congress in 1998, the Network to Freedom recognized the Underground Railroad as one of “the most significant expressions of the American civil rights movement during its evolution over more than three centuries.” Its mission is to “serve, honor, preserve, and promote the history of resistance to enslavement through escape and flight, which continues to inspire people worldwide . . . (and) to advance the idea that all human beings embrace the right to self-determination and freedom from oppression.”

By most estimates, between 1854 and 1865, as many as 2,000 people escaped the bonds of slavery following underground railroad routes across Kansas northward into Canada. The FFNHA offers a guide to underground railroad sites on its website including the Quindaro Underground Railroad Museum and Overlook in Kansas City, Kansas; the Fort Scott, Kansas, National Historic Site; the African-American Quilt Museum and Textile Academy, Grover Barn, and Watkins Museum of History in Lawrence, Kansas; Constitution Hall in Topeka, Kansas; the John and Mary Ritchie House in Topeka, Kansas; Mount Mitchell Heritage Prairie near Manhattan, Kansas; and the Battle of Island Mound State Historic Site near Butler, Missouri.

As of this writing, the Network to Freedom represents over 695 locations in 39 states, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands. When he received word that FFNHA was to be included in the Network, Grant Glenn, chair of the FFNHA’s board of trustees, commented: “We are proud to be the first National Heritage Area to be accepted on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom and are eager to work alongside the Network to Freedom in sharing our region’s Underground Railroad history with the public.”

Jim Ogle, FFNHA executive director, offers his perspective on the designation’s relevance to the challenges the nation faces today. Referencing the difficulties we face once again in our daily discourse, he explains, “Perhaps we can draw upon the lessons learned from the border wars and the peace that eventually followed in reconciling the differences between the peoples of Kansas and Missouri and the nation, in building a freer and stronger nation.”

For more information on FFNHA and its Freedom Tour go to freedomsfrontier.org. On the Network to Freedom go to the National Park Service website: www.nps.gov.

Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau is retired from the University of Saint Mary, where he served as Professor of History, Provost, and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is the author of several books on American cultural and religious history.

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