For more than 100 years, the questions have continued regarding details of the April 12, 1904 racially aligned incident that ended integration in Kansas City, Kansas Public High Schools and opened the way to the racially segregated Sumner High School in Kansas City, Kansas. It is an interesting history, indeed.
By law, up until Sumner opened in 1905, graduating its first class in 1906, all high schools in the state of Kansas were racially integrated. Following the “off school grounds/off school time” shooting of Roy Martin, a white student at the Kansas City, Kansas High School by Louis Gregory, a black youth who was not a student at the high school, the high school’s integration became an emotionally charged community issue. Mob disorder at the jail where Gregory was held, and failed attempts by some students to continue in the integrated schooling situation kept the atmosphere highly charged. Gregory went to trial with a court-appointed attorney who attempted pleas of “not guilty”, and later of “self defense”. He was sentenced to 30 years, which he served. At his release, he returned to the Kansas City area where he lived for 30 more years. The Gregory-Martin incident served as the catalyst for voiced objections to integrated secondary schooling from the white community in KCK.
Representatives from both communities, white and black, met together and with School Superintendent M.E. Pearson to discuss the issues that had now surfaced. The prevailing wishes of the white community were to segregate the races in separate facilities. The prevailing argument from the black community was a fear that segregated schools would lead to financial and material hardships of supporting two high schools, as well as sending a confusing message about local race relations. In addition, in order to racially segregate the high school, action of the Kansas legislature might be required. The white perspective prevailed and Kansas Governor Koch was petitioned to authorize the separation. He would not do so. The matter went before the legislature and a law emerged specifically to allow segregation in the high schools of Kansas City, Kansas only.
In the meantime, preparation for the start of the school year began with only one available high school facility. The plan was for the white high school students to attend during the mornings being taught by the white faculty, while black students attended in the afternoons, being taught by newly-hired black teachers. This situation would continue while a new high school facility was being built for the black students. Superintendent Pearson stated that the new facility must be of a quality to avoid accusations of inferiority under certain scrutiny as the only black high school in the State of Kansas.
Sumner opened its doors to its first students in the Fall of 1905. In the Spring of 1906, the six members of the first graduating class walked across the newly-finished auditorium stage to receive diplomas from Sumner’s first principal, Mr. J. E. Patterson.
On September 30, 2008, following Sumner High School’s selection for induction into the Mid-America Education Hall of Fame, Alan Hoskins’ press release to area local media stated, “It should have been one of the lowest points in the history of the State of Kansas. In a state where all public high schools were by state law, racially integrated, one high school stood alone, separated by both race and facilities. But instead of crumbling under the weight of heavy prejudices, Sumner High School rose to heights of historic proportions. Through a commitment to excellence… over the next 73 years…”. And the rest is history.
For seventy-three years, Sumner continued to prepare its students for academic and vocational success, and as contributors toward the betterment of our communities. The high quality faculties maintained through the years and the high percentages of scholars and valued citizens produced by Sumner High School and the Sumner community continue to be exhibited among the Sumner Alumni and within this Alumni Association. The facts of the record speak for themselves.
The tumultuous times of this nation’s Civil Rights protests and Black Power ideologies were slow to reach Kansas City, Kansas. But they came. Brown VS Topeka BOE led to the Supreme Court’s striking down the educational doctrine of “separate but equal”. Ironically, that segregated schooling had become the norm rather than the exception was challenged in favor of equality of education.
During the mid- 1950’s through the early 1960’s, certain Kansas City, Kansas school attendance boundaries were moved annually with the appearance of correlation with racial housing movement from eat to west in the city. When black families moved into more western city neighborhoods, the school attendance boundaries seemed to move west, thereby maintaining racial segregation ratios at the status quo. Black citizens in the Northeast area soon found themselves faced with boundary changes which separated their children’s school attendance within their households. A 7th grader from one home was forced to attend a different school from the 8th grade sibling in that same household. In 1959, the Downs VS K. C. Kansas BOE case was filed. Though long delayed, the court decision was in favor of the plaintiffs who had expressed concerns of separate and unequal education. The school district was allowed to decide its own remedy for the situation of which they had been found guilty. Their solution was to close Northeast, the black junior high school, and to close Sumner High School and to immediately re-open it as an Academic Magnet School. In1978, Sumner High School ceased to exist. It ironic that a racially charged issue caused the all-black Sumner High School to open in 1905 and that racially charged issues caused it to close in 1978.
In 1984, enough impetus had developed to take steps to reclaim the Sumner legacy. THE SUMNER HIGH SCHOOL ALUMNI ASSOCIATION was chartered, and later incorporated. In 2013, this Alumni Association maintains a member database of more than 900 alumni. The Association continues to plan strategically for contributing to the development of our youth and community, passing to them the legacy of excellence we received from the Sumner community.
We invite all Sumner alumni, your children, grandchildren, and others of similar appreciation to join our efforts. See the MEMBERSHIP section on this website.
By Dr. Deloris Strickland Pinkard, Class of 1962, 01-2013
Kansas City Kansan, 09-30-2008
Kansas City Kansan, 02-27-1074
K. C. KS Board of Education Minutes, 06-06-1904
Scottie P. Davis, “The Story of Sumner High School, 1935”, University of Kansas Libraries
Dennis Lawrence, “The Impact of Local, State, and Federal Government: Decisions on the
Segregation and Subsequent Integration of Sumner High School in Kansas City, Kansas, 1997”