Jim Peters, Director of Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and fellow member of Lawrence Central Rotary, tells the story of the underground railroad in Lawrence.
The Lane Trail, named for abolitionist James H. Lane, was established in 1856 to bypass proslavery strongholds in Missouri and provide free-state settlers a safe route into Kansas with terminus in Topeka. The trail is approximated today by US Highway 75. Settlers left Iowa City to go west into Nebraska and south into Kansas, but John Brown and others used the trail in reverse to transport slaves north to freedom.
Frequently, runaway slaves would hide in and around Lawrence as they waited to join a group traveling north to safety. Gover Barn in Lawrence was a key staging area during the 1850s. In December 1858, the barn housed slaves recruited in Missouri by John Brown as they awaited their chance to escape.
Narratives written by Lawrence and Douglas County residents tell of the perils of hiding slaves during this era. Many describe the relationships they built with the runaways and their concern for them after they left their protective barns and cellars.
Jim Ogle presents the Topeka Rotary flag to Lawrence Central Rotary.
History may often be “written by the victors,” said Jim Ogle, Executive Director of Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, but by adding in and telling the stories of other voices, “we can come to terms with the impact it’s having on us now.”
That is the mission of Freedom’s Frontier, to help the regional community never forget the history that shaped us and this country.
Freedom’s Frontier covers and area of 29 counties in eastern Kansas and 12 counties in western Missouri. While not a National Park, the organization is affiliated with the National Park system and provides financial assistance and technical support to its 240 partners, including 150 historic sites and museum,. Freedom’s Frontier boasts 23 partner organizations in Douglas County alone.
This type of “collective wisdom,” as Ogle says, helps everyone tell better stories. Since many of Freedom’s Frontier’s partners have no professional staff, the organization is able to offer:
- professional development opportunities
- workshops, such as designing exhibits
- scholarship opportunities
- marketing and signage support
- grant writing assistance
To date, Freedom’s Frontier has provided nearly $119,000 in grant funding benefiting Douglas County efforts.
Ogle is proud of more than his work at Freedom’s Frontier. As a long-time Rotarian, first joining in 1994 while living in Lexington, KY, he’s especially proud of the global impact Rotary has had on polio eradication. And here in Lawrence? He knows it’s the “15 or 20 minutes we spent at lunch making connections that make a difference.”
John Brown as portrayed by Kerry Altenbernd told the story.
When Jim Daniels, a slave in Missouri, found that his owner had died, he feared that he and his family would be sold and separated. Daniels contacted John Brown for help. Brown brought Daniels and his family out of Missouri to the Grover farm near Lawrence. The “cargo” of 12 people stayed several nights in the Grover’s new stone barn, then began a journey on the Underground Railway that would take them north and east through Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan, en route to freedom in Canada. The Grovers defied federal law by harboring the fugitives, risking fines and imprisonment.
Judy Sweets, local historian and archivist, has dedicated her energy to researching the Underground Railroad in Douglas County. She explained that there are originally thirty sites on the Railroad in the area. Two remain in Lawrence: the Grover Barn at Stone Barn Terrace and Lawrence Avenue and the Miller Farm at Haskell and 19th Street.
The stone barn was built in 1858 by Joel Grover and his wife Emily on their 180-acre farm located about a mile-and-a-half south and west of the center of Lawrence at the time. When the Grover family finally left the farm in 1953, the barn was used as a sculpture studio for many years. In 1981, the Grover Barn was refurbished by the City of Lawrence to serve as Fire Station #4.
Recently, the Guardians of Grover Barn announced that the barn has been designated as a documented Underground Railroad site on the Network to Freedom by the National Park Service.
Cecile Accilien, Ph.D., is Associate Professor and Director of the Institute of Haitian Studies in the Department of African and African-American Studies at KU. Although born in Haiti, she has lived in states all across the United States. She urged Rotarians and political leaders to reject negative stereotypes about Haiti, learn about the country’s distinguished history and connection to the United States, and understand how that history has resulted in Haiti’s situation in the world today.
Several hundred Haitians fought on the side of American revolutionaries in 1779 at the Battle of Savannah, Georgia. A statue was erected in 2010 in downtown Savannah commemorating the event.
Haiti is the world’s first black republic. Its slave revolution won independence from France in 1804, making it the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere after the United States. The United States waited nearly 50 years to recognize Haiti’s independence, fearing a contagion that would inspire American slaves to rise up to an even greater degree.
President Thomas Jefferson was able to buy the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803 because Napoleon had lost control of Haiti (then known as Saint-Domingue) due to the courageous fight of the Haitian people. The “gingerbread architecture” of homes in Louisiana, language, food, and religion all had roots in Haiti.
For 19 years (1915-1934), the United States occupied Haiti, completely controlled the country, and rewrote its constitution to benefit American economic interests. Haiti was a powerhouse supplier of sugar, rum, and indigo to its northern neighbor.
In Fall 2018, an art exhibition at the Spencer Museum of Art at KU will highlight “The Ties that Bind: Haiti, the United States, and the Art of Ulrick Jean-Pierre in Comparative Perspective.” The exhibition notes explain that “both the United States and Haiti were impacted by complex encounters among European colonizers, Indigenous populations, and enslaved peoples. These nations share common revolutions for independence and violent but ultimately successful attempts to abolish slavery. The ongoing migration of citizens between Haiti and the United States has led to hybrid forms of architecture, language, food, and religion.”
In addition to the core exhibits about Douglas County history on display at Watkins Museum, such as this 1870s playhouse, there is always something new to see, according to Steve Nowak, Executive Director.
Sometimes the “new” is an addition to an existing exhibit. For example, the story of Lawrence’s efforts to establish a Fair Housing Ordinance in the 1960’s has been added to the “Enduring Struggles—Lawrence Fights for Change.” Documents, music, photographs, artifacts, and oral histories combine in an interactive display highlighting Lawrence’s spirit of activism and community spirit in various decades.
Changing exhibits can focus attention on a particular aspect of local history. For example, “Community and Culture: the Lawrence Turnverein” tells the story of the Germans who were among the earliest settlers in Lawrence.
“Hidden Treasures: Staff Favorites from the Watkins Collection” showcases artifacts in new ways. Find a cowboy hat signed by John Wayne and a sculpture made of the soles of shoes, as well as other treasures.
“Mass St. Magic—Weaver’s Window Displays” celebrates the 160th anniversary of the local department store by recreating some of the window displays it featured over the years. Founded in 1857, Weaver’s is one of the longest running department stores in the United States. Even in 1850’s, it was known to bring NYC fashion to Lawrence.
On Saturday, December 2, the museum will host “Tails and Traditions Holiday Festival.” Stop by between 9 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. for prime horse parade-viewing spots, snacks, kids’ crafts and games, and live holiday music. The Watkins Museum of History hosted 17,500 visitors in 2017, up from 6,000 seven years ago when Nowak began his tenure.