African American Teachers in Kansas
The landmark decision in the Supreme Court case Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, which also included cases from Delaware, the District of Columbia, Virginia, and South Carolina, declared that separate but equal facilities in schools were unconstitutional. It took years to reach this important point in the struggle for civil rights for African Americans in the United States and the fight for civil rights for all Americans continues today. It is ironic that this decision that opened public schools across the nation to black children threatened the jobs of African American teachers in Topeka.
Over the years, Kansas laws took a variety of stances on segregation. By 1879 Kansas state law allowed, but did not require, the segregation of elementary schools in cities with more than 15,000 residents. Even though it had been challenged in Kansas courts previously, this law was still in effect when the Brown case was filed in United States District Court of Kansas in 1951. Over the next three years, this case was tried, appealed, and ultimately made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Educational experts called as witnesses in the case testified that there was no difference between the quality and training of African American teachers in Topeka and their white counterparts. It was also determined that school facilities were relatively equal.
At the time the case was being tried, Topeka had four segregated elementary schools—Buchanan, McKinley, Monroe, and Washington. In 1953 these four schools had 729 students and 27 teachers. That spring, Darla Buchanan received a letter dated March 13, 1953, from Wendell Godwin, superintendent of schools for Topeka. The letter opened with the following paragraph:
Due to the present uncertainty about enrollment next year in schools for Negro children, it is not possible at this time to offer you employment for the next year. If the Supreme Court should rule that segregation in the elementary grades is unconstitutional, our Board will proceed on the assumption that the majority of people in Topeka will not want to employ Negro teachers next year for white children. It is necessary for me to notify you now that your services will not be needed for next year. This is in compliance with the continuing contract law.
The letter indicated that it was being sent to teachers who had been hired in the last two years. The letter continued with "It is presumed that, even though segregation should be declared unconstitutional, we would have need for some schools for Negro children and we would retain our Negro teachers to teach them."
The issue of integration of schools at the expense of the jobs of black teachers created a lot of tension in the African American community. Barbara Ross (Mrs. Merrill), who taught at Washington School, explained it as follows in an oral history interview done in November 1991:
I'll tell you why I feel it was a very trying time. Maybe some people won't agree with me but this is what I experienced. I think integration is a good thing as far as job opportunities and exposing children to all of the races out there. We all have to live together. We might as well be used to working together. There are good and bad teachers in all races, just like there are good and bad doctors and everything else. But we were under such a terrible strain because when they wanted integration they never considered the effect that it would have on the black teacher who was very qualified. Practically all of them [black teachers] had their masters. . . . As far as the black community, they were very quiet about it but they put such a terrible strain on the black teachers. They didn't care whether the black teachers had jobs or not.
Statistics have not been compiled on what happened to the 27 African American teachers in the Topeka school district in 1953. Anecdotal evidence suggests that several teachers left for teaching jobs in California and Washington. Dorothy Scott was one of the teachers who stayed in Topeka. In a January 1992 oral history interview, Scott indicated that she believed that she was the third African American teacher to be assigned to a white elementary school—Parkdale—in Topeka. After she started teaching there, the principal told her he had gone around the neighborhood and asked all of the white families if they minded a black teacher coming to their school. He reported to Dorothy Scott that only one person was against her teaching at Parkdale.
A number of these teachers continued to teach or serve as principals or administrators and had distinguished careers. They, like everyone else in the black community, had to struggle with the goal of integration, while also recognizing the impact it might have on African American educators.
Entry: African American Teachers in Kansas
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: May 2004
Date Modified: April 2015
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.