KANSAS CITY, KAN. — After nearly two years of unsuccessful negotiations, local officials say they will go to court to seize 600 square feet of land that holds a statue of abolitionist John Brown.
The city already owns the statue but has been unable to work out a deal with a nonprofit religious group that owns the land underneath it. The city says it has to have the land to receive federal funds to help fix the statue, which is in serious disrepair.
Chief Counsel Hal Walker said the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., had offered It Is Written Ministries $5,000 for the property, which he said is far above the value of the small tract.
But state Sen. David Haley, who represents the ministry, disagreed.
He said It Is Written Ministries is "perfectly willing to transfer this land. The Unified Government, in a very heavy-handed way, is attempting to steal this parcel, without compensation, by misusing eminent domain."
The nearly century-old tribute to Brown sits near the city's historic Quindaro Ruins, which marks the site of a key destination point for slaves seeking freedom along the Underground Railroad.
But Brown's nose is broken and part of a diploma he holds is missing. And the land surrounding the statue is covered with debris, such as toilets and mattresses, that are near a building owned by It Is Written Ministries.
The city, Kansas City Kansas Community College and the Western University Association of the African Methodist Episcopal Church have been working to improve the Quindaro Ruins and, more recently, the statue.
"I think that if one looks at the deep history of the statue of John Brown, there's no question that it should be in the public domain. It is something that everybody should be proud of," said Steve Collins, a KCKCC professor.
Collins said a collection was taken in 1907 to fund a monument to Brown, whose attacks on slavery in the 1850s foreshadowed the Civil War.
The life-size white marble statue was carved in Italy. When it was dedicated in 1911, it was placed at Western University, the first black university west of the Mississippi River. After the college closed, the statue stayed at the site until the 1970s, when the city bought it and moved it to its current location.
The statue was supposed to have been placed in the property's right of way, but the city later learned that it had been put on land owned by the Bryant Butler Kitchen Nursing Facility. The city is attempting to correct that mistake by acquiring the property.
One complicating factor is that It Is Written Ministries owes about $6,600 in back taxes and special assessments on the property, which it purchased at a tax sale in 2003.
Haley said the organization has applied for tax-exempt status on the property. The organization at least wants enough compensation to pay off the taxes, he said. Despite that, Haley said, the organization initially offered to lease the land to the Unified Government for $1 a year over 100 years.
But LaVert Murray, the Unified Government's director of development, said the government rejected that offer because the restoration depended in part on federal funds that could not be used unless the Unified Government owned the property.