Quindaro is set to receive an economic windfall that could put the abolitionist-era village on the map.

Photography by Jason Dailey.

The on-again, off-again development of the Quindaro site just got a seven-figure boost to help turn it into the one-of-a-kind historical destination supporters have been hoping to create for 40 years.

Last fall, Governor Laura Kelly announced that the Quindaro Ruins project, once the site of an Underground Railroad stop and a place for free-staters to settle, would get $1 million to help rebuild the ruins along the Missouri River into a unique historical attraction. The new funding for the Quindaro development came from a negotiated settlement over a dispute about payroll tax obligations between Cerner and the Unified Government of Wyandotte County in 2010.

Although Kelly called it a “worthy project,” she previously vetoed another spending bill for the site earlier in May 2023, admonishing advocates to “work through the proper channels” to seek funding. Kelly added that the funding issue came up late in the 2023 legislature session and that there “was no opportunity to vet this proposal to ensure that it truly serves the community for whom the site is named.”

The $1 million for the project was collected by the Unified Government in November of last year, according to Wyandotte County Administrator David Johnston. The county is in charge of directing where and how the funds are spent.

Johnston says a committee is being formed to move the project forward, but it will take time to sort it out. “We have many stakeholder groups that [have] just never really coordinated toward one mission,” Johnston says, adding that a clear goal is needed in order to obtain additional funding from the state or federal governments. “They want to help out and say this is a great project. But they tell us, ‘You don’t have a vision. What’s your product? What are we investing in?’ That’s a major thing that is missing. The political stars are aligned. We just need to get our act together.”

The pastor of the Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Quindaro area, Rev. Stacy Evans, is leading the Quindaro townsite preservation as chair of the Quindaro Ruins Project Foundation Board. Evans says she hopes to use part of the money—around $250,000 to $350,000—to create a site design plan and hire a project manager. This, Evans says, would give the board legitimacy and allow would-be financial supporters to see that there is a cohesive vision and a “legitimate and professional design plan” with a qualified project manager leading the way.

The Allen Chapel AME Church is the site’s majority landowner and is working in partnership with the Unified Government, which owns a few smaller parcels, Evans says. How the $1 million will be used “has not been made clear to us,” says Evans, who adds that an agreement of understanding between the Unified Government’s former mayor was dissolved when the Unified Government’s new mayor, Tyrone Garner, was elected in 2021. “The partnership with the Unified Government was working okay until this new leadership,” Evans says.

In Garner’s annual update, he wrote that he looks forward to working on reimagining the future of the Quindaro townsite, which he called a nationally significant historic site that could become a symbol of healing systemic racism in the county.

“We must continue to embrace our truth,” says Garner, who is the United Government’s first Black mayor. “I believe we can begin to heal much of the ills of the past in the historic Northeast through thoughtful investment in this cultural landmark, which will benefit us all.”

The Quindaro site, six miles upstream from the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers, was part of the Underground Railroad system, a metaphor to describe a secretive network of routes and towns where enslaved people seeking freedom made their way to northern states in the mid-1800s.

The town of Quindaro was founded in 1856 within 300 acres of land on the eastern end of what eventually became Kansas City, Kansas. It had been a busy river port town of 1,200 residents serviced daily by steamboats—up to 36 in one week, according to Wyandotte County historical files. Approximately 429 residents were Black. 

A hotel, a wharf, a sawmill, two churches, a brewery and a collection of hardware and retail stores made up the town at its heyday. Quindaro Freedman’s University, the first and only Black college in Kansas and the first such college west of the Mississippi, was founded in Quindaro in 1865 and renamed as Western University in 1881. It remained in operation until 1943. 

Photography by Jason Dailey.

Quindaro’s business as a booming port town underwent a rapid decline beginning around 1860, and the Kansas state legislature ended the town’s incorporation status in 1862. Remnants of the town lay buried and all but erased from history until 1983, when an archeological investigation of the site as a potential landfill unearthed foundations of 22 main buildings, three wells, one cistern and 100,000 artifacts, according to an historical account about the area.

Qindaro was named a National Commemorative Site in 2019 through the efforts of Kansas Rep. Sharice Davids. In October 2023, Davids went one step further and co-sponsored legislation along with Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver to designate Quindaro as a National Historic Landmark, which gives the secretary of the interior more flexibility to provide technical and financial assistance for site development.

There is much more at stake here than just redoing an old Kansas town. Johnston would like to see the site developed into more than just a sleepy outdoor museum. He calls the $1 million “seed money” for a project that will easily cost much more to completely develop. “There’s talk about a visitor center and an education center,” he says. “I’d like to see the Quindaro Brewery resurrected. And it’s going to be more than $10 million.” This is where additional funding can come in handy and why a clear vision needs to be created, he says.  

Fun fact

In September 1856, during the time the town of Quindaro was developing, the Steamboat Arabia, with its 200-ton frontier cargo, hit a log on the Missouri river in a location called the Quindaro Bend, directly across the river from the developing town. The Arabia sank in 15 feet of water. The recovered artifacts from the steamship are now part of the Steamboat Arabia Museum at the Kansas City River Market.

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