Historian revives spirit of the Underground Railroad

Erin Wiltz

Washburn student of all majors and the general public were invited to attend a festive Kansas Day discussion and performance hosted by the history department and the Shawnee County Historical Society called “The Underground Railroad in Bleeding Kansas” on Thursday. The event was based on the activities of the Underground Railing in Bleeding Kansas. Anne Hawkins, a local historian and teacher, portrayed Mary Jane Ritchie, a Kansas abolitionist and suffragist.

Hawkins’ performance started off as a portrayal Mary Jane Ritchie during the 1860s, and she treated the audience as fellow abolitionists. She stated facts about the Underground Railroad and discussed the trouble abolitionists endured to free slaves. Hawkins informed the audience how to prepare a house for hiding slaves, and what abolitionists did if their homes were searched while they harbored fugitive slaves. Hawkins ended her performance with a personal story of Mary Jane Ritchie, and as Ritchie, she offered encouraging words to abolitionists as they embarked on their journeys to free slaves.

“It was an educational and entertaining way to [present] the facts,” said Jane Billinger, a freshman history major.

After the performance, Hawkins led a discussion with Bruce MacTavish of the history department on the topic of the Underground Railroad. They answered questions about how many slaves were kept in Kansas. They also explained that abolitionists used quilts, candles in windows or articles of clothing hung out on clotheslines to signal that they belonged to the Underground Railroad. Hawkins said she had to do a lot of work researching Mary Jane Ritchie because very was little written about her until after she had died.

“To be able to experience through visual acts was very educational for all ages,” said Matthew Scates, a senior anthropology and biology major.

Hawkins entertained a full house of people of all ages. She encouraged everyone to check out Mary Jane Ritchie’s house at 1116 S.E. Madison in Topeka. The historical house is open every Saturday in April from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and is free to the public.