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The Civil Rights Movement in the Midwest

As the U.S. expanded westward, so did the quest for Civil Rights, as early as the Abolitionist Movement in the years leading up to the Civil War. While perhaps not as defined by the Civil Rights Movement as the South, the Midwest lays claim to some of the key legal victories for the movement as a whole, the effects of which were felt through the whole country.

Beginning in St. Louis, this Midwestern itinerary winds its way through Missouri to Kansas City, and then into Kansas with stops in Topeka and Abilene.

St. Louis

No one can visit St. Louis without seeing Gateway Arch National Park, featuring the 630-foot-tall steel and concrete arch, the city’s crown jewel. Additional museums, parks and iconic architecture make this capital city a treat for travelers. Just a block away from the Gateway Arch, they will find the Old Courthouse, which heard the famous Dred Scott case in 1847, in which an enslaved man, Dred Scott, sued for his and his wife’s freedom. Another monument of an important legal battle in St. Louis is the Shelley House. The home, in an area of the city restricted to white homeowners, was bought by a Black family, the Shelleys, who were sued. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Shelley family in 1948, creating a beacon of hope for the Civil Rights Movement.

Kansas City, Missouri

Spread between Missouri and Kansas, Kansas City is known for jazz, barbecue and its urban water features. Visitors seeking to learn more about local culture can head to the 18th and Vine District to check out the American Jazz Museum, which highlights the musical genre’s history, as well as some prominent jazz musicians. Close by, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum teaches visitors about the Negro Leagues and baseball in Kansas City. It explores the topics of segregation and later integration through the lens of America’s favorite pastime with photographs, memorabilia and 10,000 square feet of exhibits. The city is also home to several other art and history museums, including the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the National World War I Museum, which are popular attractions.

Topeka, Kansas

Kansas’ capital city, Topeka, is made colorful by plenty of art, culture, and of course, tulips. Each April, the city’s gardens host a floral festival called Tulip Time, which involves thousands of the beautiful blooms. The city’s history is fortified with its connection to Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court case that ended legal school segregation throughout the country. Located at Monroe Elementary, as well as a segregated elementary school in Topeka, the Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Park enshrines this important legal case and the brave activists who fought for victory. Visitors can take self-guided tours of the park, watch a 30-minute film on segregation and view exhibits, including a replica 1954 segregated classroom.

Abilene, Kansas

The small town of Abilene, Kansas, is only home to about 6,500 residents, but it still packs a punch. It’s former President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s hometown and home to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum. Eisenhower was president from 1953 to 1961, when the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum. His actions to propel the movement forward included signing the 1957 Civil Rights Act, which aimed to protect Black voters’ rights and established the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Eisenhower also desegregated some areas of the federal government, including the armed forces. Travelers to Abilene can visit the library and museum to learn about the man who wielded his executive power for the advancement of Civil Rights.