Ritchie Cemetery is on the Register!
Wendi Bevitt of Buried Past Consulting prepared the successful nomination which led to listing Ritchie Cemetery on both the State and National Registers of Historic Places. In this guest blog post, Wendi shares her observations about the cemetery, the preparation of the nomination, and the significance of historic site designation.
Ritchie Cemetery has even from its earliest days bordered on being a forgotten cultural resource. Recently though, that has begun to change, culminating in the placement of Ritchie Cemetery on the State Register of Historic Places on November 5, 2022, after approval by the state review board which is made up of professionals from various fields that meets quarterly to assess properties and recommend them for National Register status. After review by the National Park Service, the cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places on January 4, 2023.
I was approached in the summer of 2021 about the possibility of writing a nomination for Ritchie. The idea thrilled me. I had long been researching African American families in neighboring Osage County and bunny trails frequently led me to the capital city. Our state’s history is extensively intertwined with freedom and hoped equality for African Americans, particularly during the Exoduster period (an era when African Americans left the deteriorating conditions in the post-Civil War South). It is in that period and the years following where Ritchie finds its period of significance and is a time truly exciting to delve into as a researcher. The opportunity to reach a wider audience as an advocate for this special cemetery was thrilling!
Why is being on the National Register valuable? One of the biggest reasons is getting the recognition associated with the status. During my career in cultural resource management, I’ve seen time and again the importance of familiarity—bottom line, you can’t protect what you don’t know about. Throughout its history Ritchie has faced this problem and the consequences of the ignorance regarding it. Another reason for achieving Register status is that it opens up the possibility for grant funding. Much of the ongoing work at Ritchie has been and is based on volunteer efforts, but now if the need arises, access to grant funds is possible.
Too often resources are given the short end of the stick when determining eligibility, but we are blessed here in Kansas with a State Historic Preservation Office that is sensitive to the wide variety of cultural resources in our state. Nominating Ritchie faced some problems though. How is the importance of this resource conveyed to reflect stories that are hard to recreate? Secondly, how do we take that importance and lay it out to show how it meets the standards of placement on the National Register?
This graphic is a composite made from the first page of the nomination and shows some of the approval documentation for Ritchie Cemetery's placement on the National and State Registers of Historic Places. Approval also was reported by the National Park Service in its "Weekly List of Actions Taken on Properties" released on January 6, 2023.
Cemeteries are notoriously difficult to place on the Register, and so making sure the nomination was as thorough as possible was of the utmost importance. Properties related to minorities are underrepresented in Topeka and within the state, so the possibility of a successful nomination was there, but not something I wanted to take for granted either. Since a majority of the burials at Ritchie represented members of the Black Exodus and their descendants, the focus on the importance of the Exodusters to Topeka and establishing their direct tie to the cemetery within the historical narrative was essential. But this would prove difficult, because its status as a “free cemetery” during its period of significance meant that most individuals buried there were of limited means and have a scant historical record. The previous work of Jeff Hansen and Jan Johnson gathering the history of the cemetery was integral to the success of the nomination. My own efforts started at the beginning, dealing with the origins of the cemetery leading up to the Exoduster period and the main focus of the nomination.
Ritchie’s origins begin in the territorial period. When towns began to spring up in Kansas Territory, certain ones in particular set lofty goals to be “the” trade center or potential capital when the territory became a state. As with other budding territorial settlements, plans were made to expand quickly and usually along trail corridors. Anticipated conveniences for Topeka included the inclusion of cemeteries. A cemetery was laid out at approximately modern-day Tenth and Kansas Avenue, and then approximately two miles down the Burlingame Road what would become Ritchie was laid out, and two miles farther on Foster Cemetery (near modern-day 37th and Burlingame) was laid out. A few territorial burials of area individuals occurred at Ritchie, but as settlement for Topeka sprouted up closer to the river, Ritchie was too far out to be fully utilized. Eventually though, the cemetery was forgotten and fell into disuse.
While location proved detrimental originally, it’s because of the location that it found its greatest use—in the period following the arrival of the Exodusters (although distance still proved a complication). In many cases, the Exodusters gave up everything just to bravely make the journey to Kansas.
This marker for Martha Ransom is one of the few original headstones remaining at Ritchie Cemetery. It reads "Martha Ransom 1827-1917 Asleep in Jesus." Martha was an Exoduster who came to Topeka from Bedford County, Tennessee.
When the Exodusters arrived in Topeka, while they were able to find a place of rest in the capital city, they were also regularly pushed to the side. Getting established could prove hard. Jobs were limited and they faced discrimination in obtaining employment. Other necessities needed to be addressed too like burying the dead. There were other cemeteries that accepted people of color, but it wasn’t until Ritchie that there was one the Black community could call its own. This is likely in large part why the location of Ritchie was important—it gave the Exodusters and other African Americans a place to grieve without conditions. It also posed a specific problem—the location was so far out of the bounds of town that continued maintenance was difficult. A revival of efforts on maintenance occurred in the early 1900s by individuals with ties to those buried there, but Mount Auburn which was inclusive to all races opened closer to the city center which contributed to the decline in use at Ritchie. As time passed, the last burial occurred in 1941 and Ritchie again became forgotten for the most part and declared abandoned in 1962.
And with the cemetery fading from memory, its integrity was affected. During a period of city expansion in the 1950s preparations to use the area surrounding Ritchie as a subdivision reportedly led to the removal of some of the commemorative markers that had been originally placed. How is that damaged integrity dealt with for the Register nomination? To address this issue, Ritchie was not only nominated for its association with historic events, but also nominated as an archaeological site.
Don Taylor, Jeff Hansen, and Bob Hoard are shown in the fall of 2019 examining the foundation remaining from a tool shed at Ritchie Cemetery. All three were volunteers working to remove invasive honeysuckle from the cemetery. At the time, Bob was also the State Archeologist.
As an archaeological site, the cemetery’s importance is also recognized on account of its potential to hold a portion of its history under the ground (even though accessing that information will remain untouched). Particularly with African American cemeteries, artifact assemblages include both the subsurface artifacts, but also items left on the surface of the grave by family members that had specific ties to the individual buried there. Investigations to what lies beneath the surface of Ritchie have already been underway. At the same time the nomination research was being conducted, a survey utilizing ground penetrating radar was also occurring. The results of that survey will provide valuable information into the layout of burials at Ritchie. This is especially important because there was no formal plan to this cemetery both at its creation or during the period of its greatest use.
One of the problems the Register nomination also faced was dealing with the elephant in the room, the man from whom it received its name—John Ritchie. Dealing with him required some intentionality so he didn’t take over the nomination (although from what I gathered throughout my research, dominating the discussion is something he tended to do while he was alive). While the African American community was responsible for the majority of burials at and maintenance of Ritchie cemetery, gathering information on the breadth of that proved difficult. In my experience researching African Americans over the years, I’ve found that when the record is lacking, I subscribe to something Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers fame) said in reference to something quite different, but can apply to this type of research: “look to the helpers.” The historical record sorrowfully neglects people of color, but those that are “helping” catch the spotlight at times and John Ritchie falls into that category. John Ritchie’s history is fully intertwined with Topeka’s black community and the cemetery’s history, however the help he offered was mostly declined for the opportunity to do it themselves. But it is through John Ritchie that we can extract key elements of the cemetery’s history. Ultimately though, John Ritchie is not the focus—the community who used the cemetery is. They made it what it was, they created the road to access it, they maintained it.
In closing, where are we now? Ritchie Cemetery is finally no longer forgotten. Through the work of the documentation of Jeff Hansen and Jan Johnson, the individuals that are buried there are having their stories told. Ferreting out those stories is a long and intensive process, but so important—it makes the past come to life, more than just a monument on the ground. At the present time, the City of Topeka is responsible for maintaining the cemetery assisted by volunteer efforts to remove invasive species. Also, through volunteer efforts, monuments honoring Spanish American War veterans were placed in 2000. And now, the National Register status gives Ritchie the recognition it deserves to a broader range of people, hopefully drawing more attention to the need to preserve additional African American resources in Topeka, but also other resources significant to minorities. Preservation doesn’t end there though, one cannot value what is not known, and so, the work continues. What can you do? Learn the stories. Share the stories.
The complete nomination document approved by the National Park Service will be available on the Kansas Historic Resources Inventory website, but it had not yet been posted as of April 3, 2023.