The people of Kansas have a greater calling in terms of race relations than anyone else in the United States, longtime Topeka community activist Curtis Pitts told an audience Tuesday in the Kansas Statehouse.

Pitts noted that Kansans played a key role in ending the institution of slavery in the U.S., which he said was illustrated by the large mural on display at the Statehouse portraying 1850s radical abolitionist John Brown.

Kansas later built on that heritage by becoming one of the few states that invited freed slaves to move there to live, Pitts said.

"This state is the heartbeat of a nation," he said.

Pitts was keynote speaker for a Black History Month program the African American Legislative & Quad Caucus held at noon in the north wing on the Statehouse's second floor.

More than 30 people attended the program, which kicked off a monthlong celebration highlighting the achievements of African-Americans.

Tuesday's audience was welcomed by Gov. Laura Kelly, who stressed the importance of using black history to bring about much-needed dialogue and reflection on issues.

Exploring black history reminds us that history is "not dead or distant from our lives," Kelly said.

Those who attended also were welcomed by Valdenia Winn, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kan. Winn is chairwoman of the Kansas African American Legislative & Quad Caucus. Pitts was introduced to the audience by Rep. John Alcala, a Democrat from Topeka.

Pitts recalled how, when he was growing up, children and adults taking part in holiday meals often sat at different tables.

He said of the African-American community, "We have to move from the kids' table to the adults' table."

The Rev. Tony Stanley, of Topeka's Harvest Church International West, was master of ceremonies for Tuesday's event, where the opening prayer was said by the Rev. Gregory Durant Sr., of Topeka's True Light Baptist Church.