In one of the northernmost points of Kansas City, Kansas — nestled in between the Missouri River to the north and the bluffs that rise above it to the south — lay the historic ruins of Quindaro, Kansas. Founded by abolitionists in 1856, Quindaro originally served as a port-of-entry for emigrants dedicated to the cause of keeping Kansas a slave-free state.
Shortly after it was established, Quindaro became a critical stop on the Underground Railroad as its residents helped slaves from nearby Missouri escape to freedom. Such efforts included John Brown’s December 1858 raid into Missouri, where he liberated 12 slaves and led them from Quindaro north to Nebraska and east into Iowa. From northeastern Iowa, they traveled by train to Chicago, then Detroit, before being ferried to freedom in Windsor, Ontario.
In 1862, one year after Kansas had entered the Union as a free state, the town site along the river was slowly abandoned. Following the Civil War, many African Americans settled on the bluffs above, and by the end of the century the small town of Quindaro was a predominantly African American settlement. Among its many treasures was Western University, the first Black university west of the Mississippi River and one of the finest musical conservatories in the nation.
The town was incorporated into the rest of Kansas City, Kansas during the early years of the 20th century. After nearly eight decades of providing a world-class education in music, business, theology, and industrial studies, Western University closed its doors in the 1940s.
Today, driving into the heart of Kansas City’s Quindaro neighborhood and closer and closer to the original town ruins along the river below feels like moving farther and farther away from the rest of the world. It is as if the neighborhood has been completely forgotten.
Quindaro, which is essentially cut off from the rest of the city with the Missouri Pacific Railroad (and Missouri River) to the north, state and federal highways to the east and south, and undeveloped land to the west, is among the poorest areas in America.
In one census tract along Quindaro Avenue, just blocks south of where Western University once stood, the child poverty rate is an astonishing 62 percent. This is higher than 96 percent of all other neighborhoods in the United States.
Likewise, the annual median income is lower than 86 percent of American neighborhoods, and the real estate vacancy rate is approaching 30 percent, which is higher than 94 percent of other U.S. Census tracts. And as if that was not enough, the Kansas Sierra Club revealed in a 2013 report that the Quindaro neighborhood is one of the most industrially polluted places in America, with the local coal-fired power plant directly causing a multitude of illnesses and even deaths each year.
This is without a doubt a cruel and disheartening fate for such a historically significant and once proud place. In 1988, there were plans to turn the old Quindaro ruins below into a landfill. Strong resistance by several groups including the Underground Railroad Advisory Commission, Quindaro Town Preservation Society, and Concerned Citizens of Old Quindaro thwarted that effort and helped to place Quindaro on the National Register of Historic Places designated as an historic archaeological district.
Additional initiatives by the Kansas Humanities Council, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Kansas City Community College (KS), Kansas State University, and the University of Kansas were instrumental in preserving and documenting much of the history of this extraordinary piece of African American history. While this is significant and should be celebrated, the fact remains that on the bluffs above old Quindaro, many descendants of its Black pioneers are plagued by abject poverty and de facto segregation.
I’ve been thinking about the issue of segregation a lot lately, particularly in light of the recent violence, unrest and despair that have dominated America’s 24-hour news cycle for the past two months. There have been a number of pundits, scholars, activists and others who have debated the role that poverty and segregation play in this seemingly never-ending crisis.
I recall one gentleman on television referring to the historic manner in which freeways, railroads, bridges, and other man-made barriers have been constructed either through or around poor minority communities, effectively isolating them from the rest of the city.
This is clearly representative of a place like Quindaro, not to mention St. Paul’s historic Rondo community or the neighborhoods of North Minneapolis. In July, The Washington Post ran a story on this particular phenomenon where they mapped how the infrastructure in numerous cities helped to establish and continues to reinforce racial segregation. Among the cities highlighted were Pittsburgh, Detroit, Washington, DC, Tampa, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri.
The truth, of course, is that these structural blockades exist in nearly every major city in America. So as segregation and poverty increase while civility, understanding and goodwill appear to be in decline, what will happen to our nation? We must understand how the legacy and persistence of poverty contribute to this calamity so that places like Quindaro and other American neighborhoods are not neglected, discarded, and essentially written off the map.
America’s cities are in desperate need of renewal. America’s communities require dialogue, empathy and reconciliation. America’s spirit seeks healing. So, where do we begin?
Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.