The institute was known in Topeka as the “Western Tuskegee,” was the result of the work of Lizzie Riddick, a prominent member of the Colored Women’s Suffrage Association, and Edward Stephens. Riddick and Stephens successfully enlisted the support of Booker T. Washington and later the state of Kansas to establish the second oldest black college in Kansas (the first was Freedmen’s University, 1863).
Riddick and Stephens were elementary school teachers who in 1895 founded the kindergarten, sewing school, and reading room in Mud Town, an area of Topeka originally settled by black Exodusters from Mississippi and Louisiana in 1879. Booker T. Washington visited Topeka and endorsed their efforts in 1897, and in 1898, with funds from the black community, they purchased a building in the heart of Topeka’s African American black business district on Kansas Avenue. The State of Kansas gave them $1,500 the following year. In 1900, Washington sent Tuskegee graduate William Carter to be the Institute’s first president and the faculty began teaching industrial arts and scientific agriculture.
In 1903, the Institute relocated on 105 acres of farmland one and a half miles east of Topeka on one of the few elevated areas that had views of the surrounding agricultural expanse in east Kansas. It began training black farmers throughout the state in scientific agriculture and starting in 1910, it sponsored the Sunflower State Agricultural Association as part of its agricultural extension service. The Institute thus became an important link between black Topeka and African American farmers throughout the state.
The State of Kansas also continued its financial and administrative support through a legislature appointed committee. Tuskegee supporter, Andrew Carnegie sent $15,000 to fund construction on the campus between 1908 and 1911. In 1917, the former director of agricultural department at Tuskegee, George Bridgeforth, became president. He established a hospital and nursing school for the Institute with the support of Kansas politicians including Governor Arthur Capper. In 1919, the State of Kansas which by this point had become the principal contributor to the Institute’s budget, assumed full control and renamed it the Kansas Vocational Institute.