The story of the enduring struggle for freedom that exists in Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area is the story of the struggle for freedom in the nation. From escaping slavery to fighting for equal rights, Missouri and Kansas have been a testing ground for debates concerning rights, freedom, and their meaning in American democracy.
The stories at the following historic sites resonate within the nation’s collective conscious and inform our current understanding of freedom. To begin with, the Kansas Museum of History in the state capital of Topeka tells the story of Benjamin “Pap” Singleton and the Exodusters. In 1878, Singleton cried “Ho for Kansas!” and urged freedmen to travel to Kansas to escape the oppression of the post-Reconstruction South. That Singleton chose Kansas for this “exodus” was unsurprising. Its reputation as a Free State with abundant land and a population that would welcome African Americans was born prior to the Civil War and grew to mythic proportions during the 1879-1880 period of the Exodusters.
During your visit, keep in mind that despite Truman’s public support of Civil Rights, he still held traditional prejudices. Likewise, despite Kansas’s reputation as a Free State, free did not always mean welcome. An exhibit in Lawrence’s Carnegie Building explores the enduring struggles that Lawrence residents, like Wilt Chamberlain and Langston Hughes, faced during their time in the city.
Also during this time period, larger cities such as Topeka and Kansas City, had separate black business districts. While many black business districts throughout the nation have been razed in the name of urban renewal, the 18th and Vine District of Kansas City has gone through a renewal of its own. To explore the vibrant community that arose here in the face of segregation, visit the American Jazz Museum, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and The Black Archives of Mid-America.
The area surrounding Overland Park was home to many great African-American artists. Famous jazz musician Charlie “Bird” Parker was from Kansas City, Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes lived as a child in Lawrence, Kansas and artist Aaron Douglas hailed from Topeka. Douglas is honored with murals at 12th and Lane Streets in Topeka and 9th and New Hampshire Streets in Lawrence.
While the Webb case reached Kansas’s highest court and challenged segregation on the basis of a state law, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling was national in scope. Kansas law allowed certain larger cities to maintain segregated schools. In 1950, the Topeka NAACP began to organize a challenge against this law. A group of 13 parents agreed to be plaintiffs in the case and one of them, Oliver Brown, lent his name to the case. When the case reached the United States Supreme Court, the court had four other school segregation cases on their docket and consolidated the cases under the Brown v. Board of Education. Visit Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site housed in the African-American Monroe Elementary School to learn about the impact and legacy of this case. Continue to explore the history of this case and the Civil Rights movement in Topeka with the new audio tour “From Brown to Brown: Topeka’s Civil Rights Story.”
There is so much to explore and discover along the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area. It’s truly a multi-generational experience and a can’t-miss during your travels to the Overland Park area and Kansas City region.