Topeka hosts Underground Railroad scholars

TOPEKA — Professors and historians are doing more than spotlighting on a national level Kansas' contributions to the freedom movement.

They also are using the 2010 National Underground Railroad to Freedom Program Conference to explore the state's roots in Topeka and northeast Kansas — from Underground Railroad locations to the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site.

The conference at the Capitol Plaza Hotel ends today.

Quintard Taylor, a professor of American history at the University of Washington, gave the keynote address Thursday morning and emphasized the importance of exploring the legacy of African-Americans' freedom in Kansas. He noted the state's key role in fighting slavery with abolitionist John Brown and later tackling segregation in the Brown v. Board case.

"It's not just your story," Taylor said, "it's a story that inspires people around the world."

Carol Mull, who has researched the Underground Railroad in Michigan for 10 years, said she hasn't read much about Kansas and the network of tunnels and houses that helped transport slaves to freedom.

"In order to understand the Underground Railroad, you need to have the experience from every location," Mull said. "All these places in the Midwest have been neglected for a very long time and now they're a part of this whole story that is coming out, and that's wonderful."

Mull, who published a book this month titled "The Underground Railroad in Michigan," said understanding the local stories and how they tie into the national picture allows for a more complete view of history.

She used the noted abolitionist Brown, a controversial figure in history who led slaves along the Underground Railroad from Kansas to Canada, as an example. Mull said to understand Brown you need to know Michigan because he traveled through there with slaves.

"You can't just tell the story and say that a person went from one place to another and skip what happened in between," she said.

James Morgans of Council Bluffs, Iowa, has written two books on the Underground Railroad.

Morgans said he visits Topeka regularly. Kansas, he said, was instrumental in stifling the continued spread of slavery.

Close to Topeka are such important locations as Lawrence, Lecompton and Holton, which helped Kansas' battle against slavery, Morgans said, making the capital city an ideal place to hold a national conference.

"You couldn't think of a better place than Topeka, as far as historical importance," Morgans said.