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Sumner And Lincoln High Schools:
Black Schools That Dominated Science Awards In Greater Kansas City
During The Decade Of Brown V. Board Of Education

By Frank T. Manheim and Eckhard Hellmuth

 

Topeka and Kansas City

In 1954 an eight-year old black girl from Topeka, Kansas made national headlines. The NAACP, led by Thurgood Marshall, a rapidly rising black lawyer who had achieved a succession of court victories (1), won Oliver Brown’s suit against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Brown’s daughter, Linda, who was in third grade, had to walk across Topeka to her segregated Negro school (2). Her white friends could go to school a few blocks away. The landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision outlawed legal imposition of segregation in the United State


(Figure 1)

Fig. 1 shows the current geographic distribution of Greater Kansas City, which consists of a larger and more affluent residential city, Kansas City Missouri to the east, and the smaller heavily industrialized Kansas City Kansas, across the Kansas River to the west. In the 1950s Kansas City Kan was best known for its slaughterhouses, smells from which permeated wide distances. The affluent Kan suburbs of Shawnee and Overland Park grew in the 1960s and later.

 

Science awards confirm a forgotten history

Around the time of the Topeka decision, students of Sumner High School, a segregated Negro high school in Kansas City Kansas, accomplished something not only unexpected, but improbable, considering the prevailing conditions of discrimination, lower funding than for white schools, as well as the lower educational and socioeconomic background of the Negro population that Sumner served. Sumner dominated all Metropolitan Kansas City high schools (then more than 75 % white) in awards for science presentations in the newly initiated National Science Fairs program. It was not a fluke. Sumner would dominate top science prizes for much of the 1950s (see Table 1). Later, Lincoln HS, (until 1954) the Negro high school on the Missouri side dominated science awards in the Kansas City, Missouri (KCMO) school district well into the 1960s.

Retired geochemist Frank Manheim, now adjunct professor at George Mason University, Fairfax Virginia, and Emeritus professor of chemistry, Eckhard Hellmuth at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, decided to track down an old rumor of special achievements in chemistry at Kansas City’s formerly segregated Negro high school. Their research reveals a story obscured for 50 years: two black high schools whose dedicated Afro American educators and students achieved excellence in many areas, and dominated over Kansas City’s white high schools on the first playing field – science – where relative performance could be measured.

Science Fair awards were not given away lightly. Kansas City Missouri and Kansas City Kansas were proud of their school systems(3). Their combination to join the new “International Science Fair” movement in 1952 was strongly backed by the mayors, academic and business leaders, as well as the public (4). Greater Kansas City would receive national and international recognition for the quality of its “Science Pioneer” program.

The two black schools’ achievements weren’t confined to science. They fostered excellence in general academics, as well as in music, sports, and supplementary activities like literary societies, business, and ROTC. The schools and their administrators and teachers held positions of respect in their respective black communities. Black families were attracted to settle in neighborhoods around the two schools.

The outstanding performance of the black schools was virtually unknown outside the African American community, and was not recorded in standard reference sources. Our initial efforts to get data were frustrated. Our contacts with the Kansas City School District headquarters got the bad news that no data for Lincoln were available. A retired former archivist (5) for the school system informed us that during the early 1980s all of Lincoln’s school records – up to then intact – had been destroyed during school renovations. A visit to the school storage area at Metrotech Manual Vocational Center contained nothing from Lincoln High. Archive staff of the Kansas City Star, from whom we sought newspaper coverage, told us frankly that during the time in question the paper rarely covered activities in the black community (6).

Fortunately, historical archives at the Kansas City Public (MO) Library had Lincoln High School yearbooks, as well as microfilms of The Kansas City Call (7), a black owned and operated newspaper that had articles and pictures about the science fairs. We learned that Sumner HS in Kansas City, Kansas had even more striking achievements than did Lincoln in the 1950s. The Science Pioneer Office (8) provided critical though incomplete historical records for Greater Kansas City, from which we were able to create Table 1. Interviews with distinguished graduates of Sumner and Lincoln, such as Dr. Patricia Caruthers (Sumner 1957), and Alvin Brooks (Lincoln 1963) provided indispensable first-person detail and nuances unobtainable from written documents (9), as well as a critical masters thesis. Mr. Brooks, at the time Mayor Pro Tem of Kansas City MO, is seen in Figure 4 looking through copies of Lincoln yearbook photos.


(Figure 4)

School history for Sumner High School proved easier to access. A brief online history was available on a website sponsored by the Kansas City Kansas School System. This was based on the book written by William W. Boone, a chemistry teacher at Sumner HS during the period we discuss (10). Boone was also a sponsor of award-winning Sumner students. Reunion and celebrations accompanying the 100th Anniversary of Sumner’s original founding in July of 1905 have led to additional web sites. Finally, unlike the destruction of records at Lincoln school, Librarian Mary Conrad, a black history enthusiast, showed us books, clippings and other reference material in the Sumner HS Library.

The achievements reflected in Table 1 continued into the 1960s. In 1963, Vernice Marie Murray of Lincoln High School became Kansas City’s first national winner (in the Physics Division). Her project, Experimental Methods of Verifying Force, demonstrated that the acceleration of gravity was constant for all bodies independent of mass, and confirmed Newton’s gravitational constant. Science became the first playing field on which Kansas City’s black students could measure their skills against white students. The achievements speak for themselves.

How did they do it?

The question naturally arises, how could black schools achieve such high performance and accomplishments against the odds? Andrew Darton, the retired Lincoln teacher whom we had earlier interviewed, had told us that Lincoln HS had first-rate administrators and well-qualified teachers. He mentioned another factor that contrasts with conditions in black-dominated schools that are struggling today: PTA meetings and open houses were jammed by parents (11). According to Darton, parents generally felt that education was the best, and probably only way for their children to have a better life, and so fully supported their schools’ efforts.

Written documents and oral histories reveal that qualified black graduates of integrated universities like Kansas State and the University of Kansas, or black colleges like Lincoln in Jefferson City MO, could not get jobs in white institutions commensurate with their training (12). Often, the only jobs available were in the segregated black primary and secondary school systems. Thus, in 1930 44% of Sumner’s teachers had Masters degrees (13), and by the 50s there were even PhDs at Sumner and Lincoln. In white high schools of the time, degrees beyond the bachelors were rare except for administrators.

African American communities before desegregation had black-owned stores, electricians and plumbers, garages, grocery stores, barbers, and restaurants, as well as black schools. So children growing up in these communities were often shielded (as had been Thurgood Marshall) from direct experience with discrimination. Realizing the shock that would come when students left the protection of the community, black educators not only maintained intellectual standards in their teaching, but mentored students, warning them about the discrimination they would face, but challenging them to set high goals anyway. Students who showed wayward tendencies might get a home visit from a teacher or administrator.

From 60s To Today

According to Peter Moran’s comprehensive study of Kansas City schools over the last 50 years (14), the tumultuous history of K-12 education in the U.S. from the 1960s to the 1980s may have nowhere been more “twisting and complicated”. Kansas City’s school system was initially held up as a model for the speed with which it implemented the Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling. Ultimately, however, The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW)’s efforts to enforce desegregation, and the City’s responses failed to stem massive white flight. The district was taken over in 1977 by Federal District Court judge, Russell Clark, who subsequently ordered the most expensive (over $2 billion) and spectacular magnet school system undertaken in the United States. This experiment ultimately failed to improve racial balance or raise test scores, and the Court’s control was ended by the Supreme Court decision of 1995 (Jenkins v. Missouri), which also ended the massive inflow of federal funds. Phaseout of court control finally ended in 2003, with a school population that had been over 72% white in 1960 now being 84% minority (15).

Ironically, Lincoln, a school that was relegated to second class status by society prior to Brown, now occupies elite status as a College Preparation Academy in Kansas City Missouri schools. In contrast, one white high school has been demolished, and the city’s formerly leading high school has been decommissioned. Lincoln sets its own entry requirements and is authorized to offer enhanced curricula. Some 96% of students are estimated to continue on to college.

The Kansas system underwent less educational turmoil than did the Missouri system but also came under court-ordered desegregation in 1978, when Sumner High School was closed and reopened as Sumner College Preparatory Academy. Court control ended in 1999. Sumner’s verbal test scores, seen in Table 2, are among the highest in Kansas – including mainly white schools in affluent Johnson County. Sumner’s ethnic mix is about 46% black and 43% white, and in 2001 97% of students went on to college (16).

Conclusions

1. Sumner and Lincoln, formerly segregated black high schools, led all other high schools in Greater Kansas City in science awards during the 1950s to the middle 1960s. Other documentation suggests that these black or predominantly black schools may have outperformed leading white high schools in their districts in other respects as well.

2. Sumner and Lincoln’s achievements were virtually unknown outside the African American community. Knowledge of the accomplishments of dedicated black educators and their students, in spite of adverse circumstances, remains substantially buried even to the black community today.

3. The story of the schools is both inspirational and has insights for education today, though we neither can nor would wish to recreate some of the conditions that influenced the developments. The story these schools points to an urgent need to research educational history and circumstances in African American communities prior to the mid 1960s, while the personal experience and documentary resources of surviving educators and other knowledgeable observers are still available.

Table 1 -- Table 2