Audio tours of civil rights sites begin in Topeka

Associated Press Modified: October 2, 2012 at 4:15 pm •  Published: October 2, 2012
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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.