Abolitionist's Monument Central To Town's Pride

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One hundred years ago, a community of African-Americans raised money for a monument to abolitionist John Brown in Kansas City, Kan. NPR's summer road trip, Honey Stop The Car!, visits the statue, which is still a sense of pride to the community. Elana Gordon of member station KCUR reports.

JOHN YDSTIE, host: We're back with our summer road trip, Honey, Stop the Car! This time, we're pulling over in Kansas City, Kansas by a monument honoring a well-known abolitionist. Elana Gordon of member station KCUR reports.

ELANA GORDON: Here on the corner of Sewell Avenue in a part of Kansas City, Kansas that's seen better days, there's a life-size statue of John Brown. Brown's controversial, failed raid on Harper's Ferry took place a thousand miles east of here, and he's buried in New York. But to the community that erected a statue of him here one hundred years ago, John Brown meant a lot.

JESSE HOPE: We celebrate the fact that he gave his life for the cause of freedom to the black man, and to erect a statue in his remembrance here is a great privilege to us.

GORDON: Jesse Hope champions preserving the history of this place - his history. This neighborhood, called Quindaro, was a pro-abolition haven before the Civil War, and later became a prosperous black community. Sitting next to the statue of Brown, Jesse Hope acknowledges it needs some work.

HOPE: It's missing it's nose, and its scroll and the coat's broke. But I know who it is; it's John Brown.

GORDON: Hope says a century later, the statue is still an important reminder of the fight for freedom and the history of Quindaro. The statue stands on what was once Western University, the Tuskegee of the North, Hope says. Western's predecessor was a school for escaped slaves right after the Civil War. By the turn of the century, the whole area was thriving. And it was during this time efforts got underway to commemorate John Brown.

HOPE: We had the students and faculty, churches - everyone that could help with nickels, dimes and there were probably some dollars, but not very many - but they raised this with a minimal amount of change.

GORDON: It took a few years to come up with the $2,000 needed for the statue. It was carved from marble in Italy and unveiled to a crowd of thousands at college commencement in the spring of 1911. Before the university, Quindaro was a major part of the underground railroad. This pro-abolition community, nestled on the river across from Missouri, existed before Kansas joined the union, next to towns that supported slavery.

HOPE: Wyandotte City at one time had been pro-slavery. However, Quindaro was founded and confirmed on the idea of freedom.

GORDON: And while John Brown waged some battles in other parts of Kansas, Jesse Hope's great-great grandparents and other escaped slaves found refuge here. Hope says just a few hundred yards north of John Brown's statue, you can stand at an overlook and see the spot near the river's bend. That's where Hope's own family fled slavery by sneaking across the frozen Missouri River in the dead of winter. For NPR News, I'm Elana Gordon in Kansas City, Kansas.

YDSTIE: Our road trip, Honey, Stop the Car!, continues through the summer on WEEKEND EDITION and MORNING EDITION. You can follow us at NPR.org. This is NPR News.

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