Lecompton Atima Lui on Friday took to the worn wood floors of Constitution Hall to perform a National History Day drama honoring abolitionist John Ritchie.
It was a fitting place for Lui and fellow actors Chase Hamilton and Davis Wittig, all of Topeka Collegiate School, to bring life to Ritchie's sacrifice as a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad and as a leader in the drive to make Kansas a free state.
"I wouldn't be able to go to the same school as these boys," Lui, who is black, said about Hamilton and Wittig, who are white.
The trio reprised their program, "John Ritchie and the Underground Railroad in Kansas," for family and friends one day after winning first place in the National History Day competition in College Park, Md. They took first in the group performance category for students in junior high school.
Lui portrayed a slave, while Hamilton played Ritchie. Wittig represented pro-slavery forces.
Their drama required months of research into Ritchie's life. They poured over his letters and interviewed scholars with knowledge of the Underground Railroad, including staff at Watkins Community Museum of History in Lawrence.
They learned Ritchie was more moderate than the better-known John Brown. Yet, Ritchie did kill a pro-slavery federal deputy marshal during a confrontation about the Underground Railroad. It was ruled justifiable homicide.
Wittig said his appreciation of Ritchie grew as he learned the man was no ordinary abolitionist. Ritchie sought full integration in all states. Many people in territorial Kansas opposed slavery but wanted the state to be open only to white settlers.
"That's what set him apart," Wittig said.
Tim Rues, administrator at Constitution Hall, said the students did a good job capturing the spirit of Bleeding Kansas.
"The second American revolution began 80 years after the first one," he said. "The revolution was to overthrow slavery in the United States. It started with people like Ritchie."
Ritchie's legacy is receiving more attention, in part because his home in Topeka is undergoing renovation by the Shawnee County Historical Society.
The limestone house was built in 1857 and is a documented station on the Underground Railroad. Slaves were likely hidden in a nearby spring house. Ritchie died in 1887.
National History Day competitors go through regional and state contests to qualify for nationals. About 2,100 students in high school and junior high school competed at the University of Maryland.
All students presented research addressing this year's theme, "Rights and Responsibilities in History."
A group of Lawrence students also participated in the national competition this week. Hillary Spratt and Maya Weil placed seventh in the junior group documentary category with a program on "First For Control: The Creation of the Birth Control Pill."