TOPEKA (KSNT) – One of the oldest standing homes in Topeka, the historical Ritchie House was once a stop on the Underground Railroad aiding slaves on their paths to freedom – now it serves as an educational and historical reminder about what the city of Topeka and its people truly embody.
“Topeka’s history is based on freedom for slaves and considering this quest in 1854 to 1861, and then in 1954 with the Brown case. Topeka has a rich history in promoting freedom and equality for all,” Executive Director of Shawnee County Historical Society Bob Totten said.
The home is the last surviving structure of the Underground Railroad in Topeka and was owned by entrepreneur, developer, philanthropist, reformer and one of the city’s founders John Ritchie. Ritchie and his family were avid abolitionists and fought for women’s suffrage among other progressive social causes.
Ritchie was so committed to such causes that he made their Topeka home a stop on the Underground Railroad and continuously put himself and his family in danger with federal authorities so that they could supply fugitive slaves with materials, food and shelter.
John Ritchie arrived in Topeka in 1855 with his young son Hale and his wife Mary who was also a well-respected and known member of the community. As a founder of Topeka, Ritchie claimed the 160-acre land on 1116 SE Madison that the house stands on today for $300 and began his journey to build Topeka into a strong and free community for all.
Ritchie decided to abandon his stable lifestyle in Indiana and move his family to Kansas after the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 which effectively abolished the Missouri Compromise and established Kansas and Nebraska as their own territories – meaning that Kansas citizens would now have the power to vote on the legality of slavery in their state.
This decision caused national debate, influencing both abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates to flock to Kansas to defend their respective stances on the matter – including Topeka abolitionist John Ritchie.
This migration is what led to “Bloody Kansas” – a series of violent confrontations between the two groups leading up to Kansas’ admittance into the Union as a free state under the Constitution of the State of Kansas in 1861 before the commencement of the Civil War. Ritchie played an active leadership role for the abolitionists throughout this series of confrontations, prompting the pro-Democrat Topeka Tribune to label the abolitionists in the region as belonging to the “Ritchie Clique”.
“They were the bad guys if you were from Missouri,” Totten said, “But you were hassled on both sides.”
Among supplying fugitive slaves with vital resources during their journeys and participating as a stop for the Underground Railroad, Ritchie assisted abolitionist John Brown during his final visit to the state of Kansas during the Bloody Kansas conflicts.
He even led a rescue posse for Brown who was trying to escort fugitive slaves from Missouri to freedom in Iowa during the Battle of the Spurs, in which their pro-slavery adversaries are reported to have fled on horseback in fear.
Leading up to the conclusion of the conflict and Kansas finally claiming its statehood, Ritchie participated in the Kansas Constitutional Convention in 1859, advocating for the progressive social causes on which he had fought for since his arrival in the state. He advocated for women’s suffrage (although universal suffrage was not granted in Kansas until 1912) and voted “no” with the majority on a vote to exclude African Americans from public schools.
There was a proposal at the convention to establish a “black law” that would have excluded African American immigration to Kansas once admitted to statehood. Ritchie was the one who called to table the proposal, which the convention voted in favor of, proving the majority opinion against it and eliminating it from discussion.
There were times, however, when the majority did not agree with Ritchie, but that never stopped him from standing strong on his morals. On a motion to strike out the word “white” from the clause on the qualification of electors, Ritchie was one of only three members at the convention who voted “yea”.
Ritchie’s dedication to aiding former and fugitive slaves did not end with the constitutional convention. After the Kansas Constitution was passed into law in 1861, Ritchie worked hard to foster an African American settlement in the vicinity of Topeka which has remained until this day.
According to the 1868 Topeka City directory, the residential listings show that the settlement Ritchie had been working on already housed a significant number of African Americans by that time. With Ritchie’s help, Topeka had managed to become a haven for former slaves a whole decade before the 1879 “exodus” from slavery (a mass black migration from the south).
Totten points out that while Ritchie did a lot for the foundation of Topeka’s black community, the city was still heavily segregated until Brown v. Board of Education decided it wasn’t constitutional.
“Blacks could not swim in Gage Park for a long time and then we had the KKK come here in the 1920s,” Totten said, “There has been a lot of history and a lot of growth.”
Ritchie not only established Topeka as a haven for African American settlement; he played an instrumental role in the development of the city itself. He opened a limestone quarry on his property which was utilized in much of the building of early Topeka.
Ritchie even built the first brick commercial block which was referred to appropriately as “Ritchie’s Block”. Located at 6th St. and Kansas Ave., the block housed the first legislature in the state of Kansas. Additionally, Ritchie mortgaged his own home to purchase the land that Washburn University now occupies in hopes of building a college there.
Ritchie’s vast and dedicated work towards fostering a sense of community, inclusion, and belonging is what the foundation of Topeka stands on today. Ritchie and his family’s sacrifices and willingness to stand up for what is right influenced Topeka’s future as an inclusive city and set the city up for the progression that would take place during the Civil Rights Movement with the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.
“It’s an interesting story on Topeka’s relations with everyone and its history of trying to provide an equal chance for everybody,” Totten said.
Totten said the Shawnee County Historical Society would like to raise money to have experts come to the Ritchie House to make an assessment and give recommendations on renovations that would preserve its historical elements.
“At this time, we want to renovate and restore the inside of the Ritchie house but do not have the $100,000 needed. We have no government fund involved in our operation,” Totten said, “The outside is in pretty good shape.”
Public tours are available Tuesday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. if you would like to visit the Ritchie House to learn more and see it for yourself.