A Black History Month Visit To Topeka

In celebration of Black History Month,   we visit in this blog the African American community of Topeka, Kansas through Sherrita Camp’s book  "African American Topeka" (2013).  Camp gives the reader the opportunity to learn about the history of African American life in a medium-sized American city west of the Mississippi River, Topeka, Kansas. A long-time resident of Topeka, Camp is a historian and a genealogist.

As Camp's pictorial history emphasizes, Topeka’s African American community has played  significant  roles in American history.  After the end of Reconstruction in 1877, African Americans in the South sought to escape the coming Jim Crow regime. They moved in large numbers to Kansas and more specifically, Topeka. This migration has become known as the "Great Exodus of 1879". The African Americans settling in Topeka were called "Exodusters". Because many of the migrants were from Tennessee, the community they established became known as "Tennessee Town", and it retained its character for generations.

african americans in topeka pg. 13
This 1876 photograph shows the steamboat Hillman departing from Nashville, Tennessee filled with Exodusters  bound for Topeka and other communities in Kansas in search of freedom and a better life.

African Americans travelled to Kansas from all points in the South.  In 1879, the prominent journal “Harper’s Weekly” presented  a series on the Exodusters to a national audience. The following photograph, for example, shows  Exodusters in Vicksburg, Mississippi  awaiting the first step of their journey to Kansas.  The Exodusters would use a combination of ship and rail travel to reach their destination. 

american american topeka pg 16

Camp's book  features many photographs from the “Harper’s Weekly” series which eloquently document the adventures of the Exodusters. The Harper's series shows stages of the migrants' long and frequently hazardous journey to Topeka, as well as scenes of provisions made in the new Topeka community to accommodate the sudden influx of immigrants. The Exodusters arrived in a city that did not have the extremes of Jim Crow even though it was segregated in many respects.

african american topeka pg. 14

This drawing from Harper’s Weekly shows the Exodusters arriving in Topeka. The city did not have housing available to accommodate all the newcomers.   The city provided temporary housing at Floral Hall. The site is now the home of the Kansas Expocentre.

african american topeka pg. 18
The Exodusters settled in a Topeka location that became known as Tennessee Town.  This image shows children in Tennessee Town in about 1900. 

A second crucial national contribution of Topeka’s African American community reached its climax in 1954 when the Supreme Court decided the famous case of Brown v. Board of Education, which held that segregated public schools violated the Constitution. The Brown decision had its origins in Topeka. The city had segregated its elementary schools but not its junior high or high schools. Four Topeka families with young children, including the Browns, brought suit challenging Topeka's "separate but equal" policy in the city's elementary schools.

african american topeka pg. 50

McKinley Elementary School was one of four black elementary schools in Topeka at the time of the Brown case.
African American attorneys trained and practicing in Topeka took the case through the lower courts and, with the assistance of the local NAACP, brought the national organization into the case for the Supreme Court proceedings. Camp's book strongly emphasizes the role of Topeka's African Americans in Brown.

John Scott
John Scott

Charles Scott
Charles Scott

John and Charles Scott were Topeka natives who became distinguished attorneys.  The Scott brothers filed the legal papers in Brown and worked on the case before the proceedings in the Supreme Court.

 In 2004, the 50th Anniversary of the Brown decision, the Monroe School in Topeka became a National Historic Site under the administration of the National Park Service. 

In 1968 the Oliver Brown family established the Brown Foundation to commemorate the historic Supreme Court decision.  In 2004, the Monroe Elementary School was designated a National Historic Landmark and is today operated by the National Park Service. This photograph shows the founding members of the Brown Foundation in front of the Monroe School.

The Topeka African American community also has a rich, local history. 

Kaw Movie Theatre

This photograph shows a portion of a flourishing African American business district in 1962, including the Kaw Movie Theater.  The area was lost to urban renewal.

 Many African American residents of Topeka and its environs have achieved prominence in education, medicine, business, and the arts. 

Langston Hughes

The poet Langston Hughes was raised in Lawrence, Kansas, about 25 miles from Topeka.  Hughes’ 1930  novel “Not Without Laughter” offers an unforgettable portrait of African American life in Lawrence.  Hughes lived in Harlem for most of his life and was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance.

We hope you have enjoyed this brief visit with Sherrita Camp to African American Topeka in celebration of Black History Month.

Robin Friedman