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Vandalism At Kansas City, Kansas, Underground Railroad Site Might Help Preservation Efforts

Laura Ziegler
KCUR 89.3
John Brown statue at Quindaro ruins apparently was vandalized for the second time in 2 years.

Residents who lived around the historic Quindaro ruins in Kansas City, Kansas, were driving to the corner of 29th and Sewell on Nov. 19, getting out of their cars and inspecting what appeared to be another act of vandalism to the John Brown statue: Part of his hand and a scroll he'd been holding were missing.

The Italian marble structure towers over the intersection. It serves as an entry point to the ruins, now recognized by the National Park Servicefor the stone foundations and caves with significant archeological artifacts linked to the activity of abolitionists and the Underground Railroad.

Marvin Robinson, a resident who grew up in the neighborhood and has long advocated preserving the ruins, comes regularly to the site for inspiration.

Standing at the base of the statue on the day after the most recent vandalism was discovered, Robinson said he had to resist becoming demoralized.

“I told (John Brown) he had to do a better job giving us strength because people seem to want to attack our efforts to preserve this site,” he said.

In March 2018, vandals scrawled racial epithets and symbols on the statue's face and body. No one was charged, and the city painted the statue white. Last week, as media reports and community outrage focused on what appeared to be another act of vandals, city officials who inspected the damage thought it had been there for “two or three years,” even though photographs from as recent as last year proved otherwise.

"It is city property," said Kansas City, Kansas, spokesman Mike Taylor. "We just haven't been able to get it repaired."

But the latest incident may help generate support for the site.

Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Preservation advocates were concerned when they saw heavy machinery used by Phillips 66 to maintain pipes adjacent to the Quindaro cemetery.

As Robinson was getting ready to leave the statue site, another resident raised concerns about the Quindaro cemetery, a vital part of the ruins accessible only through a nearby woods and up a hill.

Residents have ancestors buried in the small cemetery overlooking the Missouri River, which some of them crossed to escape slavery.

Near the entrance, where a gravel road leads to the remote spot, large construction machinery was chugging down the path. Three workmen stopped to explain that Phillips 66 was doing routine maintenance on gas lines. They said they took extreme caution not to harm any of the headstones, and that they remained on the right of way they’d been granted by the city of Kansas City, Kansas.

Phillips spokesman Rich Johnson later said the company not only was sensitive to the area as a sacred place, but that the community concerns have inspired brainstorming at the corporate level.

“After (last week) I think we have an even greater appreciation for the history of that area,” Johnson said. “And one of the things we’d like to do is talk to folks in the community who represent that area and see if there’s anything Phillips 66 can do to support efforts to help preserve the rich history of the Quindaro cemetery and the ruins.”

Johnson said it was too soon to talk about specific plans or how the company might proceed.

Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
The city of Kansas City, Kansas, has been maintaining the cemetery for more than 15 years, though some residents say it has not done an especially good job.

Also last week, members of a Quindaro Ruins working group — community members, city and county officials, Native Americans, historians and federal officials — heard an update from committtees who have been working to collaborate on a plan that creates a mutually beneficial site and honors the emotional tie many people have to Quindaro.

The group has come together every couple of months over the last three years to hear about how an ultimate destination honoring the Quindaro site would best communicate the history, archeology and riverfront heritage, how it would educate and reach out to other communities, and what amenities would best serve the public.

“We’ve got a large group of varied stakeholders all working toward the same goal,” said Jim Ogle, executive director of Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area.

Freedom’s Frontier is a federally designated area in eastern Kansas and western Missouri charged with preserving historic and cultural places relevant to frontier history.

In spite of Ogle's optimism, the planning process has been plagued with dissension and disagreement for decades. Stakeholders have come and gone. Some have died. There are questions about how to preserve existing assets on the site, how monies have been spent and where individual loyalties lie. The black, white and Native American communities all have rights to some of Quindaro’s complex history.

Ogle says there is understandable frustration and fear.

“(There are people) who genuinely feel they’ve been under siege for decades and still sometimes feel under assault,” Ogle said. “But we’re trying to reinforce enthusiasm about progress that has been made.”

Just in October, the National Parks Service allocated funds to assist in developing trails and signage through the ruins and will continue to help with efforts to attain National Landmark Statusfor the ruins.

Robinson says he'll keep coming to channel the spirit of John Brown.

“We’re getting people ready to take Quindaro seriously,” he said. “We believe this multi-layered Quindaro site is going to have its time. We hope the people are ready to take it in.”

Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on twitter @laurazig or by email at lauraz@kcur.org

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions.
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