Skip To Main Content

Landing Nav

Breadcrumb

A History of Segregation in Kansas Schools, Part I

Long before Brown v. Board of Education became part of the national legal landscape, African Americans and Mexican Americans fought to ensure equal education opportunities for their children and families. 

There are numerous stories that exemplify the ongoing struggle for civil rights, social equality and racial justice not only in the United States, but right here in the heart of the country.

1879 - Kansas Legislature Passes Law Authorizing Mixed High Schools

Legislation in 1879 states, in part, “The board of education shall have power … to organize and maintain separate schools for the education of white and colored children, except in high school, where no discrimination shall be made on account of color.” (Laws of Kansas, 1879, Chap. 81, Sec. 1) This law would change in 1905.

School Segregation in Kansas City

At the turn of the last century, most elementary schools were segregated in Kansas City, Kansas. Only one high was needed at the time because there weren’t many students who continued their education on to the secondary level. Kansas City, Kansas High School (KCKHS) operated as the first and only high school for nearly 20 years. State law required that high schools be integrated and five percent of KCKHS’s student enrollment was Black. 

However, things would all change following an incident on April 2, 1904. A White student who attended KCKHS was shot and killed at Kerr Park by a Black male. He was arrested and charged with first-degree murder for the shooting death of the White student. The homicide provoked anger and hostility within the White community. A lynch mob gathered outside the jail on the night of his arrest. A group of African American residents anticipated the violence and prevented the mob from breaking into the jail to take the man from custody. 

The homicide provoked anger and hostility within the White community. The next day after the shooting, African American students were blocked from entering the high school by White students and residents. Even though the shooting occurred after school, off school grounds and the perpetrator wasn’t a student at the school, it wasn’t enough to douse the flames or anger and rage. It further fueled the demand for racial segregation. Students, administrators, and lawmakers began the campaign to amend the state law that allowed for integration at the high schools in the state.

On February 22, 1905, the Kansas Legislature passed a law authorizing segregated high schools only in Kansas City, Kansas. Governor E.W. Hoch signed the bill but persuaded most voters in KCK to construct a new high school building for African Americans at no less than $40,000 and to be as equally equipped as the existing Kansas City, Kansas High School.

“The board of education shall have power to … organize and maintain separate schools for the education of white and colored children, including the high schools in Kansas City, Kan.; no discrimination on account of color shall be made in high schools, except as provided herein. (Laws of Kansas, 1905, Chap. 414, Sec. 1.

Segregation of Black and White students at KCKHS was implemented before the Sumner was built. White students would now attend school in the morning and Black students would attend classes in the afternoon with the same curriculum.

The legal framework surrounding school segregation in Kansas has a complex history. For a span of nearly 70 years, from 1881 to 1949, the Kansas Supreme Court became the venue for the constitutional question of public schools and segregation. The power of school boards to create segregated schools remained stable. Each city had a school board; the powers of those boards to create segregated schools depended on the city’s population.

Summary

  • In 1868 state law allowed but did not require separate schools. Some schools admitted children without discrimination, and one of the first State Superintendents of public instruction, Peter McVicar, vocally opposed segregated schools.
  • The Kansas legislature passes a statute in 1879 specifically allowing first-class cities with populations of 15,000 or more, to operate separate primary schools. The law permitted school boards to create separate elementary schools based on race but did not permit segregated high schools.
  • In 1905, the Kansas State Legislature passed a law exempting Kansas City, Kansas from the state law prohibiting racially segregated public high schools. Kansas City became the only school district in the state legally allowed to have segregated high schools for African American students and a middle school for Mexican American students. This law remained in effect into the 1950s. 

1896 - Plessy v. Ferguson

"Separate but Equal"

The Supreme Court's ruling in Plessy effectively established the rule that "separate" facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional as long as they were "equal". This ushered in an era of legally sanctioned racial segregation.

Click here to read more about Plessy v. Ferguson
from the National Archives website

1905: Sumner High School

Sumner High School facade

In 1905, Sumner High School became the city’s first racially segregated high school for African Americans. The Board of Education chose the name Sumner after abolitionist and US Senator Charles Sumner. 

Sumner quickly established itself as one of the best high schools in the state. Most of the faculty had advanced degrees, and students quickly gained a reputation as one of the best high schools in the state, setting itself apart in academics and in extracurricular activities.

Chemistry class with students at Sumner High School in the 1940s

Sumner was accredited by the North Central Association of Secondary Schools in 1914. The school hosted an annual “Ambition Day,” in which students were encouraged to come to school dressed in their desired profession. Sumner High School was a pillar of strength and pride for students, teachers and the African American community.

Sumner student portraits of four students

The original Sumner High School located at 9th and Washington Boulevard became full to capacity as more African Americans moved to Kansas City from the South and enrolled in the school. Additional classrooms were added in 1908, and a gymnasium was erected in 1924. The district was able to use funds from the Public Works Administration program to apply for construction of a new school building. A new Sumner High School located at 8th and Oakland opened in 1939 with 32 new classrooms, library, and auditorium, gymnasium, and swimming pool.  

Newest Sumner Building

“Sumner is a child not of our own volition but rather an offspring of the race antipathy of a bygone period. It was a veritable blessing in disguise—a flower of which we may proudly say, “The bud had a bitter taste, but sweet indeed is the flower." 

- Author Unknown

University of Kansas Library Exhibition on Sumner High School/ Sumner Academy

Next: The Birth of KCKPS