As a once-again divided nation votes, Kansas history shows one way forward

The Quindaro Ruins Overlook in Kansas City, Kansas, was dedicated on Juneteenth in 2008. A plaque reads: "Quindaro must live on in our hearts forever. The area, once mighty, also serves as a reminder of man’s mortality and of our quest for freedom, dignity and above all humanity. As the freedmen and the Exodusters passed through this place, there rang a commonality through their voices: that no man shall be subjected to slavery and that all men are free!" (C.J. Janovy/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas is graced with countless places to reflect on the arc of history.

We can look back 80 million years at Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park, which opened last October near Scott City, and similar spots like the Castle Rock Badlands and Monument Rocks, all places where 70-foot-tall chalky formations testify to the days when western Kansas was under an ocean.

Sometimes I need that kind of spiritual reminder that all we are is dust in the wind.

Other times, when I need a reminder of how humans overcome their worst situations, I head to the top of a bluff in Kansas City, Kansas.

There, a quiet street rises past the site of the old Western University, an esteemed college for Black students (it began in 1865 as Freedman’s University) that closed in 1943. Its historical marker is tenuously guarded by a John Brown statue that’s seen more than its share of defacement.

A life-sized statue of John Brown at the end of North 27th Street in Kansas City, Kansas, was dedicated in 1911 at what was then Western University. (C.J. Janovy/Kansas Reflector)

At the end of this road is the Quindaro Ruins Overlook, a slab of roofed concrete where I can spend a few moments looking out across the Missouri River or, if I’m feeling brave, tromp down a path to the site of the old Quindaro township, established in the 1850s, which became a stop on the Underground Railroad:

  Mrs. C. I. H. Nichols recalls that many slaves took the Underground Railroad at Quindaro for the interior of the territory and freedom. Just west of town in the bottom land was the home of a bachelor who was dedicated to 'emancipation without proclamation,' so that his place was called 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' by the residents. Of the many slaves who took refuge there, only one was ever taken back to Missouri and many escaped to the comparative safety of the interior. She told the story of a poor fellow who escaped from near Parkville. On learning he had been sold South, he had tried to get away but was caught and manacled. Another slave assisted him and he managed to draw one foot out of the encircling iron, bringing with him the chain attached to the other foot. Afraid to take a boat at Parkville, they found an old dugout, paddled up the river for ten miles before they could steal a boat, then drifted down to Quindaro. A few days later in two large dry goods boxes they were freighted to Lawrence. If they could get by Six-Mile tavern, the critical part of the journey was past.   – Alan W. Farley, Annals of Quindaro: A Kansas Ghost Town

 

Everyone has their sacred places in Kansas. This is one of mine. I come here once a year or so, to just stand on what feels like hallowed ground, looking out over to Missouri and thinking about what it must have been like to cross that river.

Usually no one’s there when I visit — but I know others have been there if for no other reason than some bright orange spray-paint scrawls on the concrete floor. Last week, someone was walking far down the path below.

A path leads from the overlook down to the site of what once was Quindaro. At right, a lone walker on the path in late October 2020. (C.J. Janovy/Kansas Reflector)

Last February, the Quindaro Ruins earned designation as a national commemorative site — not the prestige of a national historic landmark, but a lot better than a landfill, which was once planned for the hillside. Rescuing the site from what was then Browning Ferris Industries and getting some of the ruins preserved and an overlook built has been a decades-long effort by a handful of local activists and advocates, Marvin S. Robinson II among the most dedicated.

Considering the momentousness of this week, during another time of extreme division, it felt like a good time to revisit these ruins. First, I called Robinson.

“These people sacrificed everything they had,” Robinson said, referring not just to the people who escaped slavery but everyone who helped them: members of the women’s suffrage movement and the New England Immigrant Aid Company and Wyandot Indians who allocated land — all groups putting their money and their bodies into the effort, at no small physical risk.

“And the African fugitives had the sweat equity,” Robinson continued. “It doesn’t get more Americana than that.”

The name Quindaro was a Wyandot word for a “bundle of sticks,” taken to mean “in union there is strength.”

“We are at a brutal crossroads, and no matter what happens in the election, we still have to figure out how we want to go forward as a nation from all elements and corridors,” Robinson said.

“There’s so much to learn from lessons of the past,” he said. “We don’t have to go reinvent the wheel. We need to go forward like never before. Everybody needs to roll up their sleeves.”

I asked him what Quindaro’s message would be for people today.

“We haven’t a moment to waste,” he said. “Time never stands still.”

Not here on the eastern edge of Kansas, and not out west.