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Background Image Group of women in dresses from the 1930s

Remembering the Topeka Bottoms

Every year, people come to Topeka from all over to share stories and photographs of a place that no longer exists, except in memories or on old maps.

The “Bottoms,” an area of downtown Topeka, was home to a predominantly Black and Brown community up until the 1950s. To its residents, the Bottoms was home, a place where everyone knew everyone, and there was always a place at the dinner table for a neighbor or an unexpected guest. But in 1956, the city government began carrying out a federally funded urban renewal program, demolishing the Bottoms area to make way for new real estate development and to build an extension of I-70. The homes and businesses, and even a historic 19th-century Black church, were all razed, and more than 3,000 people were displaced. Now, the Bottoms exists only in the memories of the people who lived there, and in the stories shared each year at the Bottoms Neighborhood Kids reunion.

But that is changing.

“People of color have gone through multiple erasures and oppressions,” explains F. María Velasco, artist and professor at the University of Kansas. That’s why, when she learned of the history of the Bottoms, she knew she had to dig deeper.

“As an artist, I love working with people. It is with dialogue and conversation that my work as an artist grows.”

What began as a small oral history project has grown into a documentary, created in partnership with ArtsConnect in Topeka and supported in part by Humanities Kansas. Velasco is also producing new artwork informed by the stories of the Bottoms. 

Velasco and her small team, including historian Valerie Mendoza, have completed more than 30 interviews with former Bottoms residents and their descendants, as well as with scholars who can speak to the broader historical context and address the issues, including redlining and displacement, that undergird the story of the Bottoms.

Filming set up for documentary interviews

Filming documentary interviews. Image courtesy of F. María Velasco

The documentary, “Reclaiming Home: Remembering the Topeka Bottoms,” aims to preserve the stories and legacy of the people who lived there. A story from the oral history interviews that stands out to Mendoza is one told to her by Phil Guttierrez. He recalls that his mother went to see a movie at a Topeka theater in the 1920s, when Black and Brown people were required to sit in the balcony area. The balcony was full, so she took a seat on the main floor—and was immediately told that she had to move to the balcony or leave. She agreed to leave, but only if the manager refunded her money, which he did. But when he handed over the refund, she said, “That’s not my money.” She explained that she wanted the exact money she had paid.

“What’s the difference?” the manager wanted to know.

“Exactly,” she said.

The documentary will help displaced community members to reclaim and preserve their stories, and this important chapter in the history of Topeka, for generations to come.

Full screenings of the documentary are planned for October 2024. Watch a trailer here: 

Topeka Bottoms Trailer Videoundefined

Join the Movement of Ideas

  • Bring Donna Rae Pearson’s “Mapping Inequality” Speakers Bureau presentation to your community and learn about the history and the lingering impact of redlining on today’s communities.
  • Hear the story of urban renewal in Wichita, including the efforts to save an historic Black church and the impact of the construction of I-135, in “Uprooted: Urban Renewal on the Plains,” Kansas 1972 podcast episode. 




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