by Mary Rupert
With the unveiling of a new commemorative sign, the Quindaro Townsite National Commemorative Site was celebrated today in Kansas City, Kansas.
The event attracted several dignitaries and a crowd estimated at more than 200. The celebration was held at the Quindaro Overlook on North 27th near the Missouri River in Kansas City, Kansas.
The event was sponsored by Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, the Unified Government and the Kansas City, Kansas, Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Quindaro, an abolitionist port town founded in 1857 in an area that is now part of Kansas City, Kansas, served as a site on the Underground Railroad in the pre-Civil War days. The historic significance of the site was almost lost in the 1980s when there was a proposal to put a landfill there. An archaeological survey of the area at that time, however, uncovered many historical artifacts still in existence, and the landfill was not approved.
With the National Commemorative Site designation, there are hopes that the site can attract tourists who will visit and learn about history.
“It’s a good day for Kansas City, Kansas. This is the next step for the Quindaro townsite,” said Bridgette Jobe, executive director of the Kansas City, Kansas, Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’re excited that this is here, and we’re excited for the next step after this.”
U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, who unveiled the new sign, sponsored the Quindaro townsite national designation on a bill that passed the Senate, and it was signed into law in March. Earlier, former U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-3rd Dist., had sponsored legislation for the Quindaro site, and U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, D-3rd Dist., also introduced a bill for the Quindaro site.
Today’s ceremony presented a united group of people from different political parties and backgrounds that is not found too often on many issues.
Several speakers recognized Marvin Robinson II, and his role through the years in protecting the Quindaro Ruins, and in advocating for legislation that would help provide funding for the historic site.
Robinson, who was not one of the public speakers at the event, was receiving congratulations from many people who were arriving at the event, and remarked that “It’s really overwhelming.”
Janith English, principal chief of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas, said the area was once the home of her great-great grandparents, Ebenezer O. and Rebecca Zane.
War eventually erupted in 1861, and families in Quindaro, some part of the Underground Railroad, were evicted by the Army, parts of Quindaro were burned and the town was rendered uninhabitable, she said.
“We now live in a time when conflict, political chaos, economic exploitation, and violence are impacting millions of our brothers and sisters around the world,” English said at today’s ceremony. “We’re reminded what a simple act of identifying the marginalized and widening the circle of inclusion can be a powerful force for positive change. Like many of you and your families, we have chosen to pursue empathy, interconnection and interdependence despite a centuries-long pattern of dispersal. I believe this is a path toward true freedom, the right to a self-determination that is willing to advocate for the rights of others. Quindaro has so many stories to tell. May this space offer a safe harbor in which we can live.”
The Rev. Stacy Evans, pastor of Allen Chapel AME Church, and with the Western University Association Board, said the national commemorative site designation opens the Quindaro site to new opportunities. The AME Church and Western University Association have taken care of the Quindaro site for years, as owners.
Western University, at Quindaro, was the first and only African-American college in the state of Kansas, she said.
The next step for the Quindaro townsite is to build a team of people, which will include the Environmental Protection Agency, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the Unified Government, the Vernon Center, the Old Quindaro Museum, Marvin Robinson, Freedom’s Frontier and the AME Church, she said.
They will be working together to build trails, she said. There are foundations, believed to be at least 28 foundations still there, making it the largest Underground Railroad site in the nation, she said. Some of it can’t be seen, and there is a discussion of using radar to locate the foundations.
There are plans to build trails that will be accessible for senior citizens and children, and there is also a goal of building an interpretive center to display artifacts, she said.
“The national commemorative site is a huge part of what makes it all possible,” she said. Now they can apply for state and federal grants that would help pay for the trails and improvements.
This Quindaro site is the most requested tour in all of Wyandotte County, she said. Last year, she had people from Australia and New York asking for tours, she added.
Kansas City, Kansas, Mayor-CEO David Alvey said today was an important moment for those who fought to protect this site.
He thanked former Rep. Kevin Yoder, Congresswoman Sharice Davids and Sen. Roberts who carried this initiative to the capitol.
“I offer a special thanks to those who truly made this place a sacred ground, the escaped slaves who risked the lash and their lives to find freedom, a freedom that their creator had bestowed upon them from the beginning, a freedom due to them simply by virtue of their human nature, a freedom enshrined in the constitution but denied them as a political and economic expedient, a freedom that they rightly claimed for themselves and their children and their children’s children,” Mayor Alvey said. “We must marvel at what it must have been like for these persons as they crossed the Missouri River, as they crossed from slavery to freedom. Certainly they would have understood that in their crossing over to freedom, they were fulfilling the will of God, just as the Israelites understood in their crossing of the Red Sea that their God had missioned them to break out of the slavery of Egypt. So we offer special thanks to the runaway slaves and to those who aided them, slaves whose leap to freedom from slavery landed here at the Quindaro Townsite and whose journey of freedom to do the good they were called to do was launched here and continues today in our community.”
Brad Loveless, secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, said it is imperative to preserve, interpret and share the history of the Quindaro area.
“We know that visiting historic sites is one of the most popular activities that travelers do,” he said. Travelers are seeking authentic and distinctive areas that have historical value, he added.
The experience of visitors will “migrate over time,” he said, moving from their heads to their hearts as they understand the significance of what happened at Quindaro.
“The Quindaro experience will make this a sought-after destination, even more than it is today,” he said. “This story will become part of their story. This city and this state will be theirs. Then we will be neighbors, and as you know, neighbors come back to visit again and again, and they bring their friends.”
As an academic symposium was held last year on Quindaro history, former Rep. Kevin Yoder announced he would sponsor legislation on Quindaro.
“Today is a moment of unity, in a world in which everything is so negative and so divided, this is the kind of thing that brings our country together,” Yoder said.
“It’s a story of exploration, a story of freedom, more than anything, a story of hope,” Yoder said. “In many ways, the Quindaro story is the quintessential American story.”
Making sure the Quindaro history isn’t lost has been the work of several generations, he said. Last year, Marvin Robinson testified in front of the House Natural Resources Committee on a bill sponsored by Yoder.
The challenge now is to reach the ultimate goal of the Quindaro townsite becoming a national historic landmark, he said. That would gain resources and the ability to build the architecture and infrastructure of what it needs to be.
Jim Gulliford, administrator of the EPA’s Region 7, said there will be an opportunity for protecting natural areas as well as protecting historic ones.
The EPA is committed to continue partnership in efforts to preserve the historical site, he said. Members of the brownfield team and environmental justice program will continue to assist in efforts for redevelopment, he said.
“EPA will continue to be an active partner in the redevelopment goal for the Quindaro Townsite and Kansas City, Kansas,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri, said, “We shouldn’t shy away from the s-word, slavery. It is a part of the history of our nation.”
He cited the history of Israel and how the people never want to forget what happened, so that it would not happen again.
“I don’t think we ought to allow this celebration to go by without saying that something ugly took place, something raw and nasty,” Rep. Cleaver said. “But men and women who represented the great rainbow of America wanted people to remember.”
He said he hopes this project will lead to the complete restoration of Quindaro. He wanted the Quindaro project to be a way of showing children and grandchildren what their ancestors went through.
“We can tell them their great-great-great grandfathers and great-great-great grandmothers risked drowning in the Missouri River,” he said. “There were great men and women who lived in that village, and those great men and women gave birth to the new African-American people all over this country.
“And we will never allow that kind of thing to happen in this country again,” Rep. Cleaver said. “We will never allow the divisions that will tear us up to happen again. We must tell unborn generations what that village means.”
Rep. Sharice Davids, D-3rd Dist., introduced legislation in the House to make Quindaro a national commemorative site.
Quindaro’s story was one of facing adversity and triumph, and it intersected much of the nation’s long, complex, storied history, she said.
Rep. Davids noted that the name Quindaro meant “a bundle of sticks,” and its significance was that “in union there is strength.
“When we come together to do anything, there is strength in that, and that is what we’re striving to do,” Rep. Davids said.
She said there was a collective strength from many individuals who came together to make sure that Quindaro’s history was preserved.
Sen. Roberts told the crowd he had particular interest in Quindaro because his great-grandfathers were newspaper editors and abolitionists in the mid-1800s. The Oskaloosa Independent, edited by one of his ancestors, was burned down by Quantrill’s raiders because it was a leading voice for abolition, a free state and freedom. Another great-grandfather was kidnapped by troops from the South.
Sen. Roberts said Quindaro’s residents, surrounding landowners and native Americans all worked together to help escaping slaves to freedom.
Thanks to many individuals who worked together to unearth its historic significance, the Quindaro Ruins were saved and the Quindaro story will live on to be shared with future generations, Sen. Roberts said.
“This demonstrates the rainbow that has been referred to, of America, and that you had everybody concerned to make Kansas a free state,” Sen. Roberts said.
“It just indicates how we could work together and be leading spokespeople for the cause of unity for freedom, for independence for America, for what America truly stands for,” Sen. Roberts said.
Sen. Roberts said the National Park Service stands ready to work with the community on this project.
According to Judge Duane Benton of the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, of the Freedom’s Frontier Board of Trustees, Freedom’s Frontier covers about 41 counties in eastern Kansas and western Missouri and is dedicated to preserving history. Sen. Roberts and then Sen. Sam Brownback established the heritage area through legislation introduced in 2005.
Unified Government Commissioner Gayle Townsend represents the 1st District, where the Quindaro townsite is located.
Freedom’s Frontier approached the UG Commission about it a few years ago and asked for their support. Funds for the development of this national site now are expected to be more readily available through federal and state grants.
“This is really special to me because somewhere near here was Douglass Hospital, where I was born,” Commissioner Townsend said.
There’s so much history here, starting with Wyandots, abolitionists and slaves who went through Quindaro, risking their lives on their way to freedom, she said.
She noted that many groups came together for today’s event.
“Now the challenge is to keep the synergy going,” Commissioner Townsend said.