African American Builders of Topeka: Major John M. Brown

Major John Brown is one of the extraordinary people who shaped Topeka’s early development.

Major John Brown’s dress saber, ca. 1898

When Major John M. Brown introduced his troops to the governor at the Kansas State Capitol in 1898, this impressive dress sword hung from his leather belt. Brown was one of only 30 African-American officers appointed to command the 23rd Kansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the only all-black militia unit from Kansas to serve during the Spanish-American War. It was the second time in Kansas history that black officers commanded black enlisted men (the Civil War was the first).

Well known around the state, Brown had the makings of an officer long before he took charge of the 23rd. Born in Kentucky, he obtained his education in Oberlin, Ohio, where he briefly taught school before migrating to Mississippi. There Brown held the positions of sheriff and tax collector during post-Civil War Reconstruction. He also had the honor of being appointed a colonel in the Mississippi state militia.

Brown set his sights on Kansas in 1876, becoming a school principal in north Topeka and operating a 100-acre fruit farm just outside town. Later praised by newspaper editor Nick Chiles for “doing things and not all talk,” Brown’s skills gained him public roles with significant responsibilities. He was appointed the general superintendent of the Kansas Relief Association, assisting thousands of Exodusters who migrated to Kansas from 1879-1881. Brown also became involved in politics, twice elected Clerk of Shawnee County.

These political activities were placed on hold when the United States entered the Spanish-American War in April 1898. Needing an additional 50,000 men, the army requested volunteers and the mobilization of National Guard units. Pressured by African-Americans across the state, Kansas Governor John Leedy made a strategic decision to recruit black soldiers for a federal regiment to be organized as the 23rd Kansas Volunteer Infantry. Troops from all over the state were placed under the command of 30 black officers. Although blacks were divided about fighting abroad in a “white man’s war” while still facing discrimination at home, military service gave them the opportunity to once again prove they were equal to white soldiers in skill and ability.

About 700 soldiers encamped on the Topeka fairgrounds in July 1898, organizing as the 23rd. Brown was commissioned as a major. The troops shipped out to Cuba the following month, arriving in San Luis along with two other African-American regiments from Louisiana and Illinois. While stationed in Cuba, the 23rd’s duties included guarding 5,000 Spanish prisoners of war and helping rebuild the province. The Kansas Adjutant General praised the unit as being “thoroughly drilled” and having “maintained at all times excellent discipline.” Its officers were described as “men of intelligence, and the enlisted men obedient and prompt in the performance of all duties required of them.”

Brown mustered out and returned to Topeka in 1899, continuing his life on the farm and providing for his wife and three children. Not all the 23rd’s soldiers returned stateside at the end of the war. Some remained in Cuba, having found that country  offered more economic opportunities and less racial discrimination than the United States.

After Brown died in 1923, his youngest daughter Daisy inherited the farm. She later rented a small house on the property to Edward Zeidler, an Air Force officer who also did odd jobs for her. The Zeidler family shared Sunday dinners and holidays with Daisy Brown, building a close bond. Zeidler admired her father’s dress sword and its steel scabbard with a starburst tip. Eventually, the heirless Brown gave the sword to Zeidler, who donated it to the Kansas Museum of History in 2004.

African-American Builders of Topeka Exhibit

Call for Objects and Stories

We are creating a community driven exhibit showcasing the ordinary and extraordinary stories of African-Americans in Topeka and Shawnee County. Your stories and objects will help highlight past and present individuals and groups who have built and continue to build our community. Submit stories and objects for the African-American Builders of Topeka exhibit by Oct 27 . Find newspaper articles and writings about African-Americans in the Topeka Room and our online databases.


Article and images reprinted from Kansas Historical Society website, March 2011



Donna Rae

Donna Rae is Topeka and Shawnee County's historian here at the library. You will find her in the Topeka Room most days helping people solve the history mysteries of life. Other days she is out and about serving on various community oriented projects around town. What most people don't know is that she is an artist too. Photography is visual history and she practices almost every day by documenting the people and places around Topeka on her morning walks. She also loves a good trip anytime, anywhere to see family and friends scattered about the U.S.