The Old Quindaro Township in Kansas City, Kansas, finally may be getting the recognition it deserves.
Between 1857 and 1862, Quindaro was a busy commercial port on the Missouri River. It was a mecca for abolitionists and settlers and considered a melting pot of Indians, European-Americans and freed slaves. New England progressives came in the hopes of making Kansas an anti-slave state. It's best known as an important stop on the Underground Railroad.
But for decades, Quindaro stakeholders have been at odds with one another about how to preserve the site.
This week, a wide-reaching symposium will bring historians, archeologists, scholars and activists under one roof to talk about Quindaro. Advocates believe a proposal to make the site a National Historic Landmark, a distinction shared by roughly 2,500 places nationwide, is close to approval.
Long time activist
I recently met Marvin Robinson at the towering John Brown statue at the corner of North 27th Street and Sewell Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas. While the statue was erected more than 50 years after Quindaro ceased to exist, the community has imbued it with iconic significance. Residents were horrified when vandals recently scrawled racist graffiti on the statue.
But Marvin Robinson was upset to see the city cover the piece in paint that was whiter than white.
"That statue is made of Italian marble," said Robinson."It’s like a super-white (now) and it takes away from the antiquity of the marble. It just looks unusual coming down 27th Street."
Robinson was born around here and seems to be the area's longest and most vocal advocate for preserving Quindaro's history. So it caught me off guard when he said he was actually glad the structure had been defaced.
"It was good they did what they did because it showed we have not done a good enough job of trying to improve race, class, cultural relationships and tolerance in America," Robinson said. "So when they came and did this, it proved that maybe there is a problem."
Robinson believes Quindaro hasn’t gotten the attention it should because it’s tucked away in the poorer, black neighborhoods of Kansas City, Kansas. He believes it's about racism and injustice.
The legacy of slavery
Then there’s Herbert Harris. According to stories handed down from his grandfather, Harris' relatives were slaves who they made their way to Quindaro across the frozen Missouri River when they were supposed to be harvesting ice.
"Now in the process of this ice - gathering they would separate the ice with corn stalks ... and so they piled these up in the wagon on top of their family," Harris said. "(They) got on the river and kept on going to the other side."
The crumbling ruins of former-slave houses, now covered by brush, are particularly meaningful for Harris.
Janith English, Chief of the Wyandot Nation, has a slightly different perspective. The Wyandot settled at Quindaro after being pushed off land in Ohio by the U.S. Government.
The founder of Quindaro, Abelard Guthrie, was married to a Wyandot, Nancy Quindaro Brown Guthrie. He named the town after her.
Brown Guthrie reportedly helped her husband acquire more land to develop the Quindaro Township and the Kansas Territory as a free state.
"We believe the site is very important, and it is about collaboration and especially communities of diaspora," she says, "people who’ve been forcefully removed from their homes and sought a better place to live."
The church connection
For many years, the African Methodist Episcopal Church has been at the heart of challenges to preserve Quindaro, even though the church was instrumental in establishing one of the most important institutions to grow out of the Quindaro community, Western University.
Western University evolved from a school to educate children of slaves and was the first school for black students west of the Mississippi River. It’s renowned music program graduated singers who went on to become nationally known such as The Jackson Jubilee Singers, Etta Moten Barnett and Eva Jessye.
The face of the AME church in Quindaro today is Rev. Stacey Evans, pastor of the Allen Chapel AME Church.
Evans says she’s passionate about publicizing Quindaro’s significance to African American history. She’s also realistic that there are economic development benefits to preservation. She'd like to see walking trails, an interpretive center and other amenities, and is unapologetic about what some see as her assertive approach to getting things done. She says she often has to remind people that the church owns most of the land the ruins are on.
"I do say the AME Church does own this property," Evans says, "so we’re a major player - and I don’t play like a minor player - and it gets on some people’s nerves sometimes."
Long before Evans arrived, the church tried to lease the land to a trash company for a landfill. After a prolonged court battle and an archeological dig that unearthed remarkable artifacts, Quindaro won the label “the Pompeii of Kansas."
Some have never forgiven the church, even though Evans says most of those involved no longer are around. But she says a new spirit of cooperation is emerging around efforts to win designation for Quindaro as a National Historic Landmark.
"Things are moving along very nicely, very nicely," Evans says emphatically. "We are all working together because our goal is the same."
Back at the John Brown statue, Marvin Robinson walked me down to the end of 27th Street where there's a covered overlook with some commentary about Quindaro.
He gazed out over the Missouri River that once ferried slaves to freedom and over the untamed brush that now cradles the rotting foundations of homes that once hid those escaped slaves.
He remembered the day he was most worried that the Quindaro ruins would be lost. It was, he said, the same day he realized this was sacred ground.
"The whole area was bright blond and you could see these incredible brown and red foundations, and there was water coming from the center of the stones," he said. "The stones were crying. The stones cried!"
The Freedoms Frontier National Heritage Area is sponsoring the symposium that will bring a wide range people and agencies together over the next couple of days, hoping to combine the passion and plans for Quindaro before it's too late.
Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter and producer. You can reach her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via twitter @laurazig.