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Area woman attempts to save memory of black community

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DUNLAP — Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, who was born a slave in 1809 in Nashville, Tenn., considered himself a latter-day Moses.

According to the Kansapedia encyclopedia of Kansas history published by the Kansas Historical Society, in 1846, Singleton escaped north and settled in Detroit, where he worked as a cabinet maker and operated a boarding house for other escaped slaves.

After the Civil War, Singleton returned to Tennessee. With Reconstruction, however, violence from such groups as the Ku Klux Klan, restriction of voting and other rights and a sharecropping system that tied blacks to the land caused many former slaves to flee the South.

One of the destinations blacks sought was Kansas. Singleton saw Kansas as a new Canaan where blacks could live peacefully in freedom.

Between 1877 and 1879, Singleton established a number of black colonies in Cherokee County, Wyandotte, Topeka’s Tennessee Town and in and near the new town of Dunlap.

Situated along the Missouri Kansas & Texas Railroad about 9 miles southeast of Council Grove, Dunlap was begun by Joseph Dunlap, Indian agent to the Kaw tribe. The town was founded on land which had been part of the Kaw reservation from 1846 until the tribe was removed to Oklahoma about 25 years later.

Singleton and about 200 former slaves from Tennessee settled in Dunlap in May 1878. In the Great Exodus a year later, 20,000 “exodusters” — the name for blacks moving west from the southern U.S. — settled in Kansas, including Dunlap.

Although the Topeka Daily Capital reported in October 1882 that 275 to 300 black families lived in Dunlap and the surrounding area, by the 1890s, economic depression caused about half of the black population to leave.

Most of the remaining black population and a good number of white residents vacated Dunlap during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The town’s final celebration of Juneteenth — commemorating the date, June 19, 1865, when slaves in Texas heard they were emancipated — occurred in 1931. London Harness, the last black resident of Dunlap, died in 1993.

A one-woman crusade

When Janet Kimbrell sees what has become of Dunlap, she reacts with a mixture of sadness and frustration.

A retired United Methodist minister and Junction City Daily Union columnist who now lives in Herington, she’s leading what is so far a one-woman crusade to place as much of Dunlap as possible on the National Register of Historic Places.

“There are only a few buildings left from the exodusters,” the self-proclaimed history buff said recently, while touring the town. “It needs to be saved, but unfortunately the townspeople don’t seem to care.”

As of the 2010 census, Dunlap’s population stood at 30, compared to 333 in the 1910 census. At one time, the town had such businesses as a blacksmith shop, flour mill, butter and cheese factory, grocery store, restaurant and bank.

Now, besides farming, the town has only a few scattered residences, a co-op and a volunteer fire department. An old, dilapidated gas station sits at the entrance to the town. The Dunlap post office closed in 1988. Streets are mostly dirt and gravel.

Kimbrell said the United Methodist Church, built in 1913, and the high school gymnasium, built in 1918, are two of the most important historical structures still standing.

A number of houses constructed in the late 1800s and early 1900s remain, including the home of Joseph Dunlap, but the Missionary Baptist Church (Colored), home to the Kansas Freedmen’s Academy, collapsed several years ago.

For the past several years, Kimbrell has been poring over paperwork online and at the Morris County Courthouse and the Kansas Historical Society to gain documentation to support an application for National Register recognition for the community.

“Council Grove is recognized as a National Historic District,” she said, with frustration. “Why can’t Dunlap be?”

At the same time, she said she would be happy for any part of the city to be listed on the National Register, where the related documentation can not only serve as an educational tool, but make properties eligible for federal grants and tax credits.

“My main concern is there isn’t even a sign telling people how to get here,” Kimbrell said. “You have to want to get here to get here.”

Rick Anderson, Kansas Historical Society National Register historian, said that to apply for National Register status, one must prepare a Preliminary Site Information Questionnaire form and submit it to the State Historic Preservation Office for review.

Anyone can submit the form, he said.

If the Kansas Historical Society decides the property is eligible for consideration to the state or national register, “the preparation of a formal nomination will be the next step,” he said.

The property owner’s permission is required to present nominations to the Kansas Historic Sites Board of Review.

Kimbrell also said hoped to gain support from organizers of the revived Junction City Juneteenth celebration, as well as the state historical society and others.

Telling the stories

Sharon Haun, Morris County Historical Society archivist, said the Methodist Church in Dunlap disbanded in 2014 and donated the building to the historical society. The historical society hopes to transform the building into a museum.

“It’s in good shape and it’s in the heart of the city,” she said.

The plan is to use storyboards to give visitors a look at the development of Dunlap from the time the area was part of the Kaw Indian reservation to the time of the railroad, Singleton and the black community.

No timetable has been set for the project, but she said she would like to see progress by this summer.

“We can’t restore Dunlap,” she said, “but we can restore the story.”

Take a dirt road for about a mile along the rolling hills east of town and you can start to get a feel for the story of Dunlap.

The first place you come to is the Dunlap Cemetery. On top of a hill, surrounded by a sturdy fence, the cemetery is well manicured and maintained. Only whites are buried there.

Take another dirt road north for about half a mile and you come to another cemetery. Here, the entrance gate has come off, the fence is falling down in places and some of the graves are marked by nothing but blank stones.

This is what originally was called the colored cemetery and now is listed as Dunlap African American Cemetery. Kimbrell said she prefers to call it the exoduster cemetery.

“Exoduster is the historical name for it,” she said.

Kimbrell said whites greeted the 1878 colonists with curiosity, but the exodusters encountered various forms of prejudice and discrimination.

On March 5, 1880, the Morris County Times reported “a meeting of colored citizens to take into consideration a graveyard, as there is a public objection to colored people being buried where good Republicans are buried.”

Separate schools were established and residential areas were segregated, with blacks north of the railroad tracks and whites south. Some merchants also denied service to blacks.

Over time, however, segregation in Dunlap subsided. By the 1930s, whites and blacks attended the same schools and churches and ate at the same tables.

At the black cemetery, Kimbrell looks at the rolling prairie in the distance. Nearby are the grave markers of more than 100 former slaves and descendants of slaves buried underneath the Kansas sod.

There is Wes Moses, who died in 1887 at the age of 110. Charles Blue, a cook with the 4th Wisconsin Cavalry during the Civil War, who died in 1903. Patience Gayden, born into slavery in Mississippi in 1833, but who died near Dunlap in 1905.

Stories of people such as these are what keep Kimbrell persevering.

“This is important,” she said. “We can’t let all this just disappear.”

Harold is a reporter at the Salina Journal.

— Reporter Harold Campbell may be reached at 822-1418 or by email at hcampbell@salina.com.

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