A Brief History of Topeka

Dome of Capitol Building in Topeka, Kansas

The capital city of Kansas, Topeka has a rich history as one of the most important areas in the region’s foundation. Formally founded in 1855, the city’s name, as you may have guessed, is of Indian origin, and is believed to have been suggested by Joseph Names, a man whose heritage was rooted in the Kansa tribe (from whom the state, as you may also have deduced, takes its name).

Topeka has, from its founding onwards, been steeped in the struggle for personal freedoms. For many people the name is associated with the civil rights movement, thanks to the famous Brown Vs The Board of Education case (more on which later) but even before that Topeka was a central location in the historic battles for equality that run through the history of the USA.

It was one of the first ‘free state’ towns in the country and once the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 opened up the area for settlement, there was an influx of anti-slavery men who wanted to live in a territory where the practice of slave ownership would be illegal. Of course, as slavery was not only ongoing, but vigorously supported elsewhere, those in favour of it also moved into Kansas hoping to sway the tide of opinion in their favour. (The concept of popular sovereignty meant that it would be down to those living in any particular territory, to vote on the issue, with there being no federal law to dictate on the matter.)

This conflict between those who were for and those who were against slavery was not left to the ballot box. Indeed, it was the basis for a bloody civil war that earned the state the nickname ‘bleeding Kansas’. The depth of the division between pro-slavery and abolitionist factions in early Kansas cannot be understated. Indeed, at one point, there were two governments vying for legitimacy there. Topeka’s role in all this was as a stronghold for those looking to put an end to slavery and join with the union (the states to the north.)

This is why most of the first inhabitants of Topeka were ‘Yankees’ from New England. The ‘Topeka Constitution’, which was drawn up by these men, was declared an act of revolution by its opponents and helped to spark the open violence that ran from 1855-1859. Eventually, the state was admitted to the union in 1861 (it was the 34th). This, of course, was not an end to the conflict. Just three months later the entire nation was thrown into civil war.

Once the war had been won, Topeka went from strength to strength. Washburn University was founded, the railroad expanded and new industries thrived. However, in the middle of the next century the city would soon be at the centre of another battle – one that would be fought out in the Supreme Court.

The famous Brown Vs Board of Education trial of 1954 was the case that ended segregation in America’s public schools. The suit was filed by Oliver Brown in protest at the fact that his daughter was forced to walk to school over railroad tracks rather than simply attending the nearby school that was reserved for whites only. This landmark case ended the concept of ‘separate but equal’ that had been in place until this time. Earl Warren, the then chief justice, ruled that these rules were in contradiction to the 14th amendment saying: “In the field of education the doctrine ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” In many quarters the ruling was dubbed as a ‘Second Emancipation Proclamation’.

You can learn more about the case and its legacy by visiting what used to be Monroe Elementary School but is now the Brown Vs Board of Education Memorial Site. (See our guide to Topeka’s historical attractions for more about this site and other places you can visit to learn about the region’s past.)

In 1966 Topeka was hit by disaster when an F5 tornado tore through the city causing huge amounts of damage. At the time the cost of repairs was $100 million dollars. In these terms, at the time, it was the most devastating tornado in American history and, if inflation is taken into account, it’s still one of the worst on record.

Fortunately, since then Topeka hasn’t suffered at the hands of nature and has continued to grow and thrive. Today it’s a vibrant modern city, but the past has not been forgotten. Indeed, Historic North Topeka recently benefitted from a thorough renovation. When you visit Topeka, should you make the effort to look into its rich history, you’ll be handsomely rewarded.

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