CAMBRIDGE, Mo. — Two hours east of Kansas City in mid-Missouri lies the almost forgotten story of an enslaved man.
Isaac Franklin Bradley Sr. became a legal pioneer, civic leader and community activist in Kansas City, Kansas.
His truth is told by his granddaughter Francis Bradley Robinson, 78, of Olathe.
A man she never met but a life she’s researched, Robinson journeyed to the place where her grandfather’s story began in 1862.
“He often spoke about going to the Missouri River,” Robinson said.
The vanished town of Cambridge, Missouri, faded away with the rechanneling of the Missouri River paired with railway construction away from the town.
“It just means so much to be here finally,” Robinson said. “It’s just breathing it all in, and I’m in the midst of maybe what I would consider history.”
History saved by Stan Hinnah who now owns the 28 acres where the town once stood, making sure isn’t lost to time.
“I thought it ought to be marked, and there was no marking when I talked about Cambridge,” Hinnah said. “They didn’t know where it was, so I thought, 'Well, there’s no excuse for that.'”
Hinnah had never heard of Robinson’s grandfather but says he is humbled to now have a connection to Bradley's legacy.
“My father told me you never really own the land, you’re just a caretaker. And that’s true,” he said. “I’m just really proud of the fact that a young man was born under those circumstances, and slavery was a big circumstance. He didn’t have the same opportunities as other people and made him into what he was.”
Part of Bradley's legacy includes his refusal to let his enslaved history define his future.
“He never considered himself a victim of being enslaved,” Robinson said. “He had the attitude of determination to learn and achieve and to do better.”
With less than 18 months of education, Bradley graduated from the Lincoln Institute, now known as Lincoln University, in 1885.
Two years later, he made history in 1887 when he became the first Black man to graduate from the University of Kansas Law School.
He then became the first elected Black judge in Kansas City, Kansas.
“It’s not about dwelling on or being angry, it’s about achieving,” Robinson said.
Bradley also helped found the historic Douglass Hospital, the first hospital for people of color in KCK.
Other accomplishments include finding success as a businessman, author, editor and owner of the Wyandotte Echo newspaper. Additionally, he was an original member of the Niagra Movement, which predates the NAACP.
Visiting Cambridge and reminiscing, sharing a renewed sense of pride, Robinson said she couldn't help but feel fate had brought her there.
“I’m very happy to be here, to be on the actual ground he walked on and the home and community he was raised — it’s just awe-inspiring,” she said. “I don’t know what to say. I’m speechless almost. It’s a testament to what people can achieve.
“He had determination, not only was he the first in whatever he did, he wanted to make sure others did, too. If we don’t know our history, we are doomed to repeat it, and it gives us a foundation in which to advance.”
Before leaving, Robinson took a keepsake of soil, a reminder of her past with the hope it spurs seeds of inspiration for a new generation.
“If we’re going to improve history, we would improve it by including the accomplishments of African Americans,” Robinson said. “Rather than just, ‘Oh, it was so terrible.' Yes, it was. It was not easy, but despite that, African Americans have been able to accomplish so much.”
Bradley was 76 when he died in 1938, but his legal legacy continues.
His son, Isaac Franklin Bradley Jr., graduated from KU Law in 1917.
Nearly 100 years later in 2020, Robinson and her family started a scholarship in his name to help other students of color attend law school at KU.
Bradley's commitment to civil rights also continues to this day.
His great-granddaughter is the executive director of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission.
For more information about Bradley's life, view Robinson's video she made about her grandfather's legacy.