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Wed August 3, 2011
Taking Another Look at John Brown
By Elana Gordon
KANSAS CITY, Ks. – NPR is taking a road trip this summer with a series called "Honey, Stop The Car!" You're on a drive and you spot something that makes you want to pull over. It could be a monument to some local hero, perhaps long forgotten. In Kansas City, Kansas, there's a monument to a well-known abolitionist, erected at a time when most people could remember slavery, in a place you might least expect it. KCUR's Elana Gordon reports.
He was only in Kansas a short time. But John Brown left an indelible mark on state history...So much so, that a mural of him spans a wall of the state capitol.
Before the civil war, Brown fought to make Kansas a free state during the so-called 'Bleeding Kansas' wars. He then led a failed raid on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper's Ferry.
To some, John Brown was a violent fanatic. But to others, he was a hero.
"We celebrate the fact that he gave his life for the cause of freedom to the black man, and to erect a statue in his remembrance here is a great privilege to us."
Jesse Hope III meets me next a life-size statue of John Brown. It's on the corner of Sewell Avenue and 27th street, in a part of Kansas City, Kansas that's seen better days. Hope champions preserving the history of this place...his history. He runs a nearby museum in the house of the former caretaker of this statue.
Sitting next to the statue, Jesse Hope acknowledges it needs some work.
"It's missing it's nose, and its scroll, and the coat's broke," says Hope. "But it's still - I know who it is, it's John Brown."
Hope says exactly a century later, the statue is still an important reminder of the fight for freedom and the history of this neighborhood. It's called Quindaro, meaning 'a bundle of sticks,' or 'in union there is strength,' in the Wyandotte language.
The John Brown statue stands on what was once Western University, the first black university west of the Mississippi. Western's predecessor was a school for escaped slaves right after the Civil War. And by the turn of the century, the whole area was thriving.
"People came from all over the country," says Hope. "From Pennsylvania, from the South, to make a better life. And they came to this area to do it."
Hope says it was during this time efforts got underway to commemorate John Brown.
"We had the students and faculty and all people and interested parties - churches, everyone that could help with nichols, dimes, pennies, quarters, and there were probably some dollars, though not very many," says Hope. "But they raised this with a minimal amount of change."
It took a few years to come up with the $2,000 needed for the statue. It was carved from marble in Italy, and placed on a granite base, engraved with the phrase: "Erected to the memory of John Brown by a grateful people."
It was then unveiled to a crowd of thousands at college commencement in the spring of 1911. Hope says it was a spit and polish event, bringing in people from all over - including white officials, like the current and former governors of Kansas.
But before the University, Quindaro was a major part of the Underground Railroad. This pro-abolition, Native American community, nestled on the river right across from Missouri, existed before Kansas even joined the union, next to towns that supported slavery.
"Wyandotte City at one time had been pro-slavery, and thought that would be a good thing for the territory," says Hope. "However, Quindaro was founded and confirmed on the idea of freedom."
And while John Brown waged battles in other parts of Kansas, Jesse Hope's great, great grandparents and other escaped slaves found refuge here.
Today, vegetation covers most of the remaining ruins of the old free-town of Quindaro. At one point, Jesse Hope and others successfully fought efforts to turn the site into a landfill. The John Brown statue is pretty much all that's left of Western University.
But Hope says just a few hundred yards North of the statue, you can stand at an overlook, look out over what would have been old Quindaro, and see the spot near the river's bend...That's where Hope's own family fled slavery by sneaking across the frozen Missouri river in the dead of winter.