Organizers are researching and promoting awareness of the Underground Railroad in Douglas County, through which hundreds of slaves were routed by white abolitionists.
Perhaps as many as 1,000 slaves traveled through Douglas County on the Underground Railroad from 1854 to 1861.
Now, area historians have formed a new group that is documenting about 30 sites in the county, many along the Wakarusa River, that were used as hideouts and havens for those fleeing southern bondage for freedom in the northern United States or Canada. Lawrence was an abolitionist stronghold, so the fugitive slaves found many allies here.
"That's what just excited me so," said Martha Parker, director of the Clinton Lake Museum and an area historian who is about to publish a book on the Underground Railroad in Douglas County. "Early on, I knew about some of these people, but I just didn't put it together."
Parker and Judy Sweets, registrar and research librarian at the Watkins Community Museum of History, 1047 Mass., have formed the Underground Railroad Association of Douglas County.
Through old newspaper clippings, diaries and other records, and interviews with descendants, they have discovered dozens of places where slaves were hidden in the county.
Uncovering the past
Parker, who already has written one book about area history, began working on her Underground Railroad book about a year and a half ago. It should be out before Christmas, she said.
The book, "Angels of Freedom," will outline information on several people who hid and transported slaves across the county.
"Most of the people I've written about were Quakers," she said. "And most of them were excommunicated."
That's because many had staunchly held abolitionist views, often to the point that they did not follow the Quaker doctrine of nonviolence, she said.
The Underground Railroad was a network of safehouses and other hiding places for slaves seeking freedom in northern states and Canada before and during the Civil War.
In the years leading to the Civil War, Kansas was the site of fighting between pro- and anti-slavery settlers.
One of the most notable of the Underground Railroad activists in this area was John E. Stewart, a Methodist minister, Parker said.
"He was sort of like the 'conductor' " of the Underground Railroad here, Sweets said. "He was sort of the man in charge in Douglas County."
Parker said that, like some other historical figures she's researched in this area, Stewart was a strange character.
"He eventually became so wild with robbing and stealing from people for his (Underground Railroad) cause that even the abolitionists became weary of him," she said. "He was last seen going north to Canada with a strumpet, " which is a prostitute. We don't know what happened to him, or his wife and children."
Researching a secret activity
Many of the Underground Railroad sites that Parker and Sweets have discovered are along the Wakarusa River. That's because, Parker explained, most of the early settlers made land claims on the richer soil and timber found near the water.
At many of the sites, nothing remains. At others, there may be only a well or a cellar, she said.
Most of the sites are located on private property.
There are two surviving structures in Lawrence that have been documented as Underground Railroad hiding places: The Miller House at 1111 E. 19th and the Grover Barn, now a Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical station at 23rd Street and Lawrence Avenue.
Sweets and Parker estimated that from 300 to 1,000 slaves moved through the area, making it a major Midwest escape route.
"We really have something special to share with the country here," Parker said. "And nobody knows about it."
"The thing that fascinates me is we actually know the names of about 20 slaves that passed through here," Sweets said. "And not only do we have their names, but we have descriptions of them, how old they were and who their owners were in Missouri."
But Sweets said researching the Underground Railroad is difficult because its activities were so secret at the time.
"It really makes it hard to verify things because nobody talked about it," she said.
Many of the slaves traveled from east to west, across Douglas and Shawnee counties to Topeka. Then, they were escorted north along the Lane Trail into Nebraska and Iowa.
Parker's book will contain maps of the sites, along with accounts of many of the Underground Railroad operatives.
"I just know someone is going to come forward after the book comes out and tell me something about a site or a person I don't have now," Parker said. "But you have to end it somewhere."
Parker and Sweets will be working with the Territorial Kansas Heritage Alliance in promoting the Underground Railroad in this part of the country.
The alliance, composed of tourism officials and historians in 11 counties, was formed about a year ago to promote tourism and history in the area.
-- Michael Dekker's phone message number is 832-7187. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The next meeting of the Underground Railroad Association of Douglas County will be at 2 p.m. Oct. 3 at Clinton Town Hall in the town of Clinton.