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Cool Things - Mudtown Doll

African American dollOn the eve of the civil rights movement, many residential areas of Kansas were segregated by race. "Dolly" shows how a simple gesture can make a lifetime impression.

This African American cloth doll named "Dolly" was given to a white child when her family resided in the predominantly black district of Topeka known as Mudtown. Around 1940, an elderly black neighbor and Vicki Johnson became fond of one another when Vicki's parents operated a Mudtown business. The woman hand-stitched the doll as a gift for the toddler, who treasured it throughout adolescence and into adulthood.

Political leaders of Kansas Territory might not have imagined this scene ever taking place when they struggled to draft a constitution in the mid-19th century. All four of Kansas' constitutional conventions dealt with the "Negro question" in some form or fashion. The first constitution, if passed, would have prohibited African American settlement entirely. The final constitution as approved by the territorial legislature allowed black settlement only by the narrowest of margins, 26 to 25.

Perhaps prevailing attitudes by both blacks and whites were reflected in their settlement patterns after Kansas gained statehood in 1861. Some blacks settled in rural areas in organized colonies around the state, including the famous Nicodemus Colony. More immigrants opted to stay in cities, though, especially in the northeastern and middle parts of Kansas. The pattern of black and white settlement during Topeka's early history shows that residential segregation was not necessarily the hard-and-fast rule it was in some cities, such as Wichita and Kansas City.

Topeka had black neighborhoods or enclaves scattered throughout all parts of town. "The Bottoms," the oldest black neighborhood had it survived, was located on the southern bank of the Kansas River. "Up in the sands" or "Redmonsville" was, and still is, located in North Topeka. Bounded by Buchanan and Washburn streets, "Tennessee Town" was primarily settled by blacks from 1879 to 1881. Southeast of present-day downtown there was the area known as "Mudtown."

Mudtown

Vicky Johnson received "Dolly" when her family moved to Mudtown a few years after her birth. The family operated the Johnson and Hopkins grocery store there for at least one year. Mudtown was similar to other black districts in that within its boundaries residents found the services they needed while being protected from discriminatory business practices. Most African American neighborhoods had homes, churches, schools, and small businesses like the Johnson and Hopkins grocery. Employment for some Mudtown residents was as close as the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, located within walking distance.

For many of these neighborhoods, Urban Renewal projects in the 1960s and '70s removed the buildings and permanently altered the environs. Few physical markers remain from the time and the place in which Vicki and her friend took frequent walks. Not much evidence exists in cultural institutions that speaks to the everyday life of the neighborhood residents. The Kansas Museum of History was pleased to take Dolly into the collections when she was donated by Vicki Johnson Trotter in 2010.

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Entry: Cool Things - Mudtown Doll

Author: Rebecca Martin

Date Created: October 2010

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.