KANSAS CITY, Kan. — There's a link to the fabled Underground Railroad located in Kansas City, Kan., though many people still don't know about Quindaro's connection to the secret network of routes and safe houses that helped slaves escape to free states during the pre-Civil War era.
"There's a lot of history out here in Quindaro, and that's what I really want people to know about," Luther Smith, director of the Quindaro Underground Railroad Museum, said.
He oversees a collection of artifacts, pictures and stories that reveal an important snapshot of Black history in Kansas and the Kansas City area.
The museum is housed in the old Vernon Elementary School building on North 27th Street in KCK and may seem modest or unassuming at first glance.
But the fascinating collection comes from homes that were part of the Underground Railroad, so the exhibits depict Black people during some of the hardest times in U.S. history but also celebrate a place where Black lives were appreciated and protected during that era.
The feeling of deep-rooted history reverberates in the small space, which includes a framed map Smith pointed to on the wall.
"These are some of the routes that the slaves took trying to get to freedom," he said, "and there's a little circle there going right through Kansas."
Quindaro was an underground railroad stop along the Missouri River. It originally was home to the Wyandot Native American Tribe and also used to be a small town, established as a free-state port of entry in 1856, where enslaved people could reclaim their freedom.
From just across the river in Missouri, which was a slave state at its founding, many people made risky plans to reach Quindaro and the prospect of freedom.
"It was actually like a little city and it only lasted from 1857 to 1862, when the Civil War started," Smith said.
Some folks stuck around, building houses, hotels, a post office, a hospital, and a historically Black college in 1865. Freedman University later became Western University, which is where Smith's mother was graduated.
The college closed in 1944 and only a cornerstone with a statue of John Brown, the famous abolitionist, remains. What is left standing of the town, the Quindaro Ruins site, is located just down the street.
In 1988, Smith and other concerned citizens successfully fought the city's plans to the turn the area into a landfill and preserved the ruins.
Plaques have now been installed at an overlook, which remind those who visit that such an important landmark was almost reduced to trash.
"We'd like to get a lot of that uncovered and make a beautiful historical site out of this place," Smith said. "That's what I want to do anyway."
Quindaro Underground Railroad Museum's collection includes pictures of students who went to the Vernon school and their families.
The school, which was designated only for Black children, taught students from first to eighth grades. It survived desegregation in the mid-1950s before closing in 1971.
Smith often thinks about what their lives might have been like and said their legacy inspires him to do more for the museum.
"It's just history," Smith said.
Eventually, he would love to turn the museum into a visitor's bureau. It is a designated historical site. People have talked about it and an artist even drew renderings, but nothing has happened yet.
Smith said he's hopeful to get more federal funding to do much-needed renovations.
The museum is mostly closed due to the pandemic, but private visits with Smith can be arranged by calling 913-287-9830.