Western University: A legacy of Black scholars in Kansas

Black History Month

WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – Quindaro, Kansas became a safe haven for liberated people who were traveling north from the south after the Civil War ended. Along the way, some newly freed slaves decided to make this town their home.

Quindaro is now part of the Kansas City area. This community would eventually become home to a historic Kansas university where many of the freed people pursued their formal education. 

Founded in 1865, The Quindaro Freedman’s School was the first Historically Black University—or HBCU—west Of The Mississippi. The only university of its kind in Kansas, it would later be named Western University. Even though it closed in 1943, its legacy lives on today. 

Phil Dixon is no stranger to this history. His mother, Margaret Peeler Dixon, graduated from the HBCU in 1932. Her experience at Western inspired him to become a historian and a co-founder of the Negro League Baseball Museum. 

“Whether it’s in sports or economics, medicine, there’s a whole history there,” Dixon said. “She wanted this history told,” he continued, “and I just thank God that I’ve been able to contribute as much as I have to this old genre of the Negro League Baseball.” 

Dixon says his family always stressed the importance of education, especially his mother. Generations later, those lessons inspired her grandchildren who graduated from Fisk, Howard, and Langston Universities — all HBCUs. Dixon’s cousin, Josephine Bruce, was even a professor at Western University. 

“We’re quite proud of our Western University legacy that started it all,” Dixon said. “And we’re just keeping it going.” 

Dixon says his mother was most proud, though, and was also proud of her fellow Western University graduates. Western produced scholars like Nora Douglas Holt, the first Black woman to earn a Master’s degree in the United States, and Etta Moten Barnett who played Bess in “Porgy and Bess.” 

The university was also home to what some academics call the “best Black musical training center” for almost 30 years from the 1900s through the 1930s.  

Western was hit hard by the Great Depression, and a fire in 1942 destroyed several buildings on its campus. The university lost financial support, too, closing Western’s doors for good. Today, there are only a few pieces that survived over the years, including the John Brown statue. 

“When you walk on campus, you’re going to see that statue,” Dixon said. “It just cemented that legacy of John Brown and the whole abolitionist movement.” 

That statue became a symbol of freedom for Peeler-Dixon who moved from the slave state of Missouri to Kansas, a free state, in 1924 — an embodiment of education leading the path to liberation. 

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