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Audio tours of civil rights sites begin in Topeka

Published on -10/3/2012, 6:52 AM

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Historic sites in Topeka are working together to offer audio tours of attractions ranging from a Statehouse mural of fiery abolitionist John Brown to an all-black school that played a key role in the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case.

Through the audio tours, history buffs can call a phone number (785-338-4041) and listen to information about more than a dozen historic places in the city. Brochures are expected to be printed within the next month, and eventually signs will mark the sites.

A new billboard highlighting the tours was unveiled Monday, and organizers say more details will be released Wednesday.

"What is so interesting about Topeka and this area of the country is how much history you can compact into the last century and a half, particularly as it relates to civil rights-type issues," said David Smith, superintendent of the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, which is helping organize the effort.

The featured sites tell a messy racial story that begins in 1854, when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act that allowed settlers to decide for themselves whether to permit slavery. Fighting ensued as people for and against slavery rushed to the Kansas Territory, leading to the name "Bleeding Kansas."

Visitors can stop at the former home of John and Mary Ritchie and listen to a National Park Service ranger describe how the family turned their property into "a sanctuary for enslaved men, women and children fleeing north." John Brown, who made a name for himself in the Kansas Territory before leading a failed slave revolt at Harpers Ferry, reportedly visited the home in 1859 with escaped slaves.

The Ritchies, according to stories passed down through the family, often hid slaves in the thick underbrush and rock outcroppings near their spring house. The ranger says the location allowed Mary Ritchie to carry buckets of food to the fleeing slaves without raising suspicions.

At nearby Constitution Hall, visitors can learn about the building that served as the first Kansas Capitol during most of the Civil War. Just five blocks away at the Kansas Statehouse, visitors can learn about the John Steuart Curry mural that depicts a larger-than-life John Brown standing with his arms outstretched, holding a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other. A tornado and a prairie fire rages behind him.

Another featured site is the Topeka Cemetery, which contains a monument dedicated to Civil War casualties and the grave of Charles Curtis, the only American Indian to become vice president, serving under Herbert Hoover.

A century after Bleeding Kansas, race was again at the forefront. The Rev. Oliver Brown joined a dozen other black families suing to send their children to white schools in the state's capital. The Topeka lawsuit was joined with cases from Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C., and led to the historic 1954 Supreme Court ruling that overturned segregated education.

The story of the case is told in the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, which is housed in the former Monroe School where Brown's daughter, Linda, and another plaintiff child were students. The audio tour also will provide information about Sumner School, the all-white school where Oliver Brown sought to enroll his daughter.

History buffs also can stop by the building where the Topeka case first was argued before a three-judge panel that voiced concerns about segregated school. But because the judges were bound by the "separate but equal doctrine" of the day, they ruled against the black families, finding that the education provided to their children was substantially equal to what was provided to white children.

"You have the Underground Railroad. You've got the Brown case and just how important that was and all the schools that were associated with that," Smith said. "There are a number of sites that often get neglected by normal visitors coming to Topeka, coming to Kansas. We're just trying to highlight them."

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Online:

Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site: www.nps.gov/brvb and www.facebook.com/brownvboardnps

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