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  • Jan Johnson & Jeff Hansen

Ritchie Cemetery and the Tennessee Town Census

An 1898 survey of residents in the Tennessee Town neighborhood in Topeka provides insights into the lives and households of some of the individuals buried at Ritchie Cemetery.

early photo of Tennessee Town neighborhood

This 1900 photograph from the Kansas Historical Society collection is one of the few known images dating to the early history of the Tennessee Town neighborhood in Topeka.

 

For many of the individuals buried at Ritchie Cemetery, details about their lives are scarce and hard to come by. There is, however, a valuable source of information about some of them as a result of a church-sponsored survey in Topeka's Tennessee Town neighborhood in 1898. Known today as the Tennessee Town Census, the survey report yields much information about the personal lives and living conditions of neighborhood residents. In this post, we examine the data recorded for 62 individuals enumerated in the census who were later buried at Ritchie Cemetery, as well as 48 households who had or would one day have a family member buried at the cemetery.



The Tennessee Town neighborhood


In our Who’s Buried at Ritchie Cemetery post, we reported that 91 percent of the 302 burials documented at the cemetery were African American. During the period when most of the burials took place, Topeka’s Black neighborhoods south of the Kansas River were all represented at Ritchie Cemetery.


However, residents in one neighborhood—Tennessee Town—used Ritchie Cemetery more than any other. The map below shows home addresses at the time of death for 247 of the individuals buried at Ritchie Cemetery. Of these, 112 (37 percent of all documented burials) lived in the Tennessee Town neighborhood, the area encircled on the map.

 
map - last address of 247 people buried at Ritchie Cemetery

Map marker density in Tennessee Town, the encircled area, is actually understated visually because many markers are superimposed over others, thus obscuring the underlying ones. The darker-colored markers indicate superimpositions or overlaps. Not reflected on the map are individuals: 1) for whom we could find no final address precise enough to map; 2) whose residence was not in Topeka at the time of death; or 3) whose reported address at the time of death could not be located on today’s map. (Map created with ESRI's ArcGIS Pro.)

 

The neighborhood, located approximately one mile southwest of the State Capitol building, acquired its name because many of its first residents were Exodusters who migrated from Tennessee to Topeka during the period 1879-1881. They had joined thousands of other African Americans who left southern states because of increasingly oppressive economic, social, and political conditions in former slave states following the end of Reconstruction. Soon after its initial settlement, Tennessee Town became one of the city’s principal Black neighborhoods.

1880 birds eye view showing Tennessee Town area

This sketch is an excerpt from the “Birds Eye View of Topeka Kansas” dated February 1880. The area where the earliest houses in Tennessee Town were built is circled in the upper portion of the drawing, and shows the neighborhood’s location relative to the State Capitol in the lower left. Depiction of the Capitol building is misleading, however, because construction was far from complete in 1880. (Map excerpt was photographed at the Kansas Historical Society.)


As discussed in Family groups at Ritchie Cemetery, many of the families who buried their dead at Ritchie had originated in Tennessee, so it is no surprise that a good number of them chose to live near one another in the same neighborhood.


Sanborn map showing King's Addition in Topeka

The first lots occupied by the Tennessee migrants were in the western portion of the King’s Addition, shown in this map taken from the index sheet of the 1896 Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for Topeka (accessed via the KU Libraries Digital Collection; the colors and numbers refer to individual map sheets in the set, and have no other significance). Although the neighborhood extent is somewhat larger today, during its early years the Tennessee Town population largely resided in an area bounded by Huntoon on the south, Lane on the west, King (now Munson) on the north, and Buchanan on the east.


The Tennessee Town Census


Circa 1898, Tennessee Town residents were surveyed in conjunction with the Central Congregational Church’s ongoing efforts to deliver social services in the neighborhood.


The original survey document has survived and is now known as the Tennessee Town Census. Of the nearly 600 people counted in the census, approximately 90 percent lived in the 1100 and 1200 blocks of Buchanan, Lane, and Lincoln. The remainder resided on West (now Washburn), King (now Munson), and 12th Street.


The Tennessee Town Census provides insight into the circumstances of people living in the neighborhood at the time, including details about their personal background, physical environment, employment and economic resources, education, family household, and community life. (See endnote for an itemized listing of the information collected.)


The census is of interest here because 20 percent of the people known to be buried at Ritchie were enumerated in it. Therefore, the census information can be used to create a composite snapshot of the characteristics and living conditions for a meaningful sample of the Ritchie burial group. It also contains details about specific people and family groups, which supplements information about them gleaned from other sources.

Census surveyors collected two sets of information—one based on individuals and the other based on households. From these two data series, we created Ritchie Cemetery subsets which include census responses for 62 individuals and 48 households.


Characteristics of individuals


The image below is a sample from one of the pages used to record 19 pieces of information about each individual enumerated in the census; it was clipped from a digital copy (on Kansas Memory) of the original Tennessee Town Census document.


From the data in the census, we created a table which: 1) identifies the 62 people buried at Ritchie Cemetery; and 2) reports on 11 characteristics about each of them. The format for the table is shown below.

 

This graphic illustrates table format and shows entries for just 5 of the 62 individuals.

The table is shown in full as a separate web page.

sample of Tennessee Town Census individuals table
 

Of the 62 individuals surveyed who were later interred at Ritchie Cemetery:

  • 37 were born slaves.

  • 31 were female and 31 were male. The females ranged in age from 3 to 99, with an average of 42.6 years. For males, the age range was 6-86 and the average was 41.3.

  • 40 of the 51 adults aged 18 and older were either married at the time of the census or had been at some point.

  • more than half (34) died before 1910. Only three survived beyond 1920.

  • most able-bodied adults of both genders had an occupation, although some were occasional or part-time jobs. For the 22 females who worked, nearly all of their jobs involved some kind of domestic service. The occupation cited most often was washing or laundry work.

sketch of Malinda Vinson



Malinda Vinson (aka Malinda Vincent in the census) was one of those surveyed in the Tennessee Town Census who was later buried at Ritchie Cemetery. While 80 percent of the Ritchie subset group either came to Kansas from Tennessee or were their descendants born in Kansas, Malinda and her husband Peter came to Topeka from Alabama. This sketch of her appeared in the June 17, 1899 issue of the Topeka State Journal.



  • the 23 males with an occupation were between the ages of 13 and 84. Most of their jobs required manual labor (e.g. day laborers, masons, street worker, teamster) and just a few were clearly indoor occupations, such as stenographer, servant, barber shop worker, and drug store clerk. Only two—a dairyman and a stock breeder—implied self-employment, while most worked for wages.

  • the majority of those surveyed indicated they had either received some formal education (including those enrolled in school at the time) or that they could both read and write. Of the 28 people with limited or no literacy skills, all but one were former slaves.

  • the health status of the respondents was mixed. Thirty-three reported being in good health, while 20 considered their health to be poor, and nine rated their status as fair.

  • 20 were members of a Methodist Episcopal church, including five Colored Methodist Episcopal (C.M.E.), three African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.), and 12 who simply reported their affiliation as M.E. Eight were Baptists and four were Primitive Baptists.

Characteristics of households


The other Tennessee Town Census dataset describes conditions for entire households, regardless of the number of individuals residing within them. In this portion of the census, each household has a single entry identified by the name of the person at its head.

Forty-eight households had or would one day have family members buried at Ritchie. However, nineteen of the household heads are not themselves buried at the cemetery.

Again, we extracted selected information for the Ritchie households, and created a table with the format presented below.

 

This graphic illustrates table format and shows entries for just 7 of the 48 households.

The table is shown in full as a separate web page.

sample of Tennessee Town Census household table
 

We added the “Notes” column to provide context information, but all other columns were sourced from the census document.

For the 48 households with family members at Ritchie Cemetery—


  • 33 were headed by men and 15 by women.

  • 31 owned their homes and 17 rented.

  • size of the household ranged from 1 to 11 people, with an average of 4.3.

  • number of rooms in the home ranged from 1 to 8, with an average of 3.4.

  • average number of employed household members was 2.0.

  • annual household income ranged from “almost nothing” to $1,200, with an average of $395 (in 1898 dollars).

  • the average annual income per worker was $190 for all Ritchie households. As a rough benchmark comparison, the statewide average annual income in 1899 was $323 for day laborers, the occupation category most closely matched to the Ritchie group. The differential between the two groups is likely overstated, however, because the statewide number is based on full-time adult male workers. (See image 141 in the Kansas Bureau of Labor and Industry’s Fifteenth Annual Report. )

  • household assets varied in value from zero to $3,000, with an average of $522 (in 1898 dollars). The nature of the assets wasn’t described in the census, but a house was probably the major one for those who owned their homes. Some also held a small number of livestock.

  • although not included in the table prepared for Ritchie Cemetery households, only 7 of the 48 households reported receiving aid from the county or charitable groups.

Tennessee Town house sketches from K.C. Star




These sketches are from "Lifting Up the Lowly," an article about Tennessee Town published by the Kansas City Star on October 30, 1898, about the time of the Tennessee Town Census. The article reported on efforts by neighborhood residents, in conjunction with the Central Congregational Church, to improve living conditions in Tennessee Town. The drawings contrast the housing structures occupied by the neighborhood’s poorer residents with those having more wealth.






Only three households in the Ritchie Cemetery subset had total assets valued at $1,500 or more (in 1898 dollars). They are worth noting because the heads of these households—Andy Jordan, Wesley B. Brown, and John W. Patterson—had business interests at some point in their lives that contributed to their wealth.

Andy Jordan was a well-known neighborhood leader who owned and operated Jordan’s Hall, most of the time as a dance hall and community gathering place. (For a time, though, he also leased the hall to the Central Congregational Church to serve as the first home for the Tennessee Town Kindergarten.) Jordan was a long-time drug store employee. Both through Jordan Hall and his drug store affiliations, he developed a reputation as a "jointist" and earned money through the sale of liquor. Those ventures contributed to the accumulation of an estimated $3,000 in household assets reported in the census.


The Wesley B. Brown household ranked second in assets, reported at $2,000. Brown owned and operated a grocery business in Tennessee Town.


The John W. Patterson household rounded out the top three, with assets totaling $1,890. Patterson was a dairyman during this period, and was known for a time as the West End Dairy King.


Of these three heads of households, Patterson is the only one known to be buried at Ritchie Cemetery. Jordan is buried at Mount Hope, as are others in his family (including two children reinterred there from Ritchie). Brown’s burial location is unknown.


The Jordan, Patterson, and Brown households, however, were more the exception than the rule. Information recorded in the Tennessee Town Census suggests that economic stressors permeated daily life in the Ritchie households, and making ends meet must have been difficult for most.


Yet the census also reflects some of the aspirations that had brought Exodusters to Kansas twenty years earlier—a determination to shape a better future for themselves through hard work (which was physically demanding more often than not), education for their children, home ownership, self-reliance, support of family, and participation in community life.

 

Notes


1. Page 1 of the original census document includes a notation that the census was conducted in 1900. However, the enumeration of neighborhood residents occurred before then, with the most likely year being 1898.


2. The 2023 equivalent of an 1898 dollar is approximately $37.

3. Results of the Tennessee Town Census were reported in “A Good Showing: Results of Statistical Investigation in Tennesseetown, Topeka Daily Capital, March 17, 1900, p4. This issue of the newspaper was one of six “Sheldon Editions” published that week. The owner of the Daily Capital gave Charles Sheldon, pastor of the Central Congregational Church, complete editorial control over the newspaper for several days, during which Sheldon followed an approach he believed Jesus would use in deciding the paper’s news and advertising contents.


It was because of Sheldon’s leadership that the Central Congregational Church undertook numerous initiatives with the goal of improving the lives of Tennessee Town residents, among them the Tennessee Town Kindergarten, the Village Improvement Society, the Tennessee Town Census, manual training and sewing classes, a neighborhood library, and religious activities.


4. Neighborhood boundaries were not precisely defined during the period of interest, but in his series of Plaindealer articles about early Black history in Topeka, M. W. Overton described three Black neighborhoods besides Tennessee Town. According to Overton, the Ritchie’s Addition “settlement” referred to the area south of Thirteenth Street. The area east of the Shunganunga Creek and south of Tenth Street was known by three names—Jordan Town, Over the Creek, and Mud Town. The neighborhood on the north bank of the Kansas River was named Redmondville. Of the four neighborhoods, the latter is the only one not known to have made burials at Ritchie Cemetery. Although not mentioned by Overton, the Bottoms area immediately south of the Kansas River and the Pierce’s Addition south of 21st Street also are represented on the map of “last addresses” for Ritchie Cemetery burials presented in the blog post.

Citations for the Overton articles include: “In the Long Ago," Topeka Plaindealer, April 25, 1924, p4; “M. Overton Gives Brief History of First Colored Emigrants to Topeka,” Topeka Plaindealer, September 18, 1925, p1; “From Where and Whence Cometh We,” Topeka Plaindealer, September 25, 1925, p2; “From Where and Whence Cometh We,” Topeka Plaindealer, October 2, 1925, p2; “From Where and Whence Cometh We,” Topeka Plaindealer, October 9, 1925, p4; “From Where and Whence Cometh We,” Topeka Plaindealer, October 30, 1925, p2.

5. The following is a complete list of the column headings for the “Individuals” portion of the Tennessee Town Census: Name; Street No.; Age; Sex; Occupation; Wages per day, week, or month; Member of what church; Attends what church; Attends what Sunday School; Belongs to what lodge or lodges; Insured; Slave; If not—what ancestor was; Educated about what extent; In school this year; Health good, fair, or poor; Birth legitimate; Single or married; If married, how many times; Ever divorced.


6. The following is a complete list of the column headings for the “Households” portion of the Tennessee Town Census: Name of head of family; Street and number; Number in original family; Number at home; Own or rent; Estimated assets; Estimated yearly income; Number employed; Any unfitted for work; Any aid from county commission, police matron, or other service; Keep cows; Keep horses; Keep hogs; Garden size and quality; House painted; Number of rooms; Kind of fence; Number and kind of trees; Shrubbery; Flowers; Have family prayers; Church preference of family; Papers taken; Books in house.

 


A few sources for information about the history of Tennessee Town


Camp, Sherrita, Images of America: African American Topeka, 2013.


Cox, Thomas C., Blacks in Topeka Kansas 1865-1915, Louisiana State University Press, 1982.


Destefano, Jaime L., JLD Preservation Consulting, Tennessee Town Neighborhood: Phase I Historic Resources Survey, July 2019.


“Doctor Sheldon Says Victory Garden Movement Began Here In Tennesseetown Years Ago,” Topeka Daily Capital, March 19, 1944.


Halbert, Leroy A., Across the Way: A History of the Work of Central Church, Topeka, Kansas, in Tennesseetown, January 1, 1900.



“Lifting Up the Lowly,” Kansas City Star, October 30, 1898.


Mall, Mary, “The Tennesseetown Manuscript Census: A Legacy for Topeka, Kansas, Exoduster

Descendants,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 96 (March 2008): 53-63.


Swan, Robert A. The Ethnic Heritage of Topeka, Kansas: Immigrant Beginnings, Institute of Comparative Ethnic Studies, 1974.




Tennessee Town Neighborhood Plan, Tennessee Town Neighborhood Improvement Association and Topeka Planning Department.


 



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