|City/Town: • Topeka|
|Location Class: • School|
|Year Built: • 1936 | Year Abandoned: • 1996|
|Historic Designation: • National Register of Historic Places (1987) • African American Heritage Site|
|Status: • Abandoned|
|Photojournalist: • Emily Cowan|
1880-1935 Sumner Schools History
The first Sumner school was built around 1875 as a one-story brick schoolhouse. What started off as a school to educate Black children was turned into an all White school in 1885. Black children were taught in a smaller two-room frame school close by. It suffered severe wind damage in the spring of 1898 and was rebuilt as a one-story frame school. The first Sumner School burned down in the year 1888. The second Sumner was rebuilt in 1901 as a two-story brick building with eight classrooms. This held some of the first junior high classes of Topeka in 1914. In 1915, Scott Brothers Ice Cream Company next door caught fire which then spread to the Sumner school. It was built again, the third building was in use until it was demolished in 1935 to make way for the fourth and final Sumner Elementary School. All four Sumners have been at the same lot throughout the years.
Early Years of Sumner Elementary School
Sumner Elementary School was built in 1935-36 as a two-story, brick, segregated all White elementary school that served Kindergarten through 6th grade. Thomas W. Williamson designed it as an elegant, art deco, renaissance-styled school and with the help of the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, New Deal program. The layout originally had 13 rooms but after undergoing multiple renovations over the years now has 17 rooms. Of those includes, 10 classrooms, industrial arts rooms, a clinic, teachers’ lounge, administrative offices, and a multi-purpose auditorium. The auditorium had a basement beneath it where during the wintertime P.E. classes would be held, the cafeteria was located in the basement as well. At the time of segregation, Monroe Elementary School was one of four all Black schools in Topeka. In 1951, Linda Brown who was a third-grader at Monroe, and her parents attempted to enroll her at the closer Sumner Elementary School but her application was denied due to racial segregation. This lead to the historic case of Brown V. Board of Education.
Brown V. Board of Education
After Linda Brown was barred from attending Sumner, her father Oliver Brown and 12 other families filed a class-action lawsuit against the Board of Education of Topeka in 1952. At first, the plaintiffs lost and an appeal was filed and sent to the higher courts. They argued that segregation of public schools violated the “equal protection clause” of the 14th amendment, therefore no state could deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. On May 17, 1954, Supreme Court justices unanimously voted that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional in the United States of America. This landmark decision would require schools across the country to desegregate, signifying the end of the “separate but equal” ruling put in place in 1896 by Plessy v. Ferguson.
Brown V. Board of Education II
Though the verdict was monumental, it did not specify how states should go about integrating their schools. Almost exactly one year later, the Supreme Court issued there be a second opinion thus became Brown V. Board of Education II. All future desegregation cases were remanded and sent to the district courts and school boards to continue with desegregation with deliberate speed. For Topeka, this resulted in multiple closing of schools and the opening of three more schools.
This caused a new problem, that it was in the hands of local officials, this allowed for some evasion of moving forward with desegregation. Some states defied the Brown V. Board ruling. One of the most famous stories to come out of this defiance was when State National Guard troops were called in by Arkansas’s Governor to prevent the Little Rock Nine from entering Little Rock High School. This called for President Eisenhower to deploy federal troops to escort the nine students into the High School.
Sumner Later Years/Closing
Tom Payne who attended from 1967-1972 said, “Some of my best memories were at Sumner. In the summer the school would provide a rec service for the neighborhood kids to come play games and they would provide us lunches. We had constant baseball games going on in the field, some would last all day.We had Halloween parades where we got to go around the neighborhood and show off our costumes. Some years they were home made, some years they were store bought. We had Christmas programs where each class prepared for several weeks to put on a skit or sing Christmas songs on stage in the auditorium in front of the other classes and parents.Since I lived so close to the school only 2 doors down, at the end of the school year I would go over and help sort the school books out that were going to get replaced and the ones that were going to be used again the next school year.
I had painful times there too. One summer day we were playing on the playground and a dog came onto the playground and started chasing us. He seemed playful so we didn’t think much about it but he ended up biting me and since nobody knew whose dog it was or where he came from I had to get rabies shots. Another time we were playing baseball at recess I was the catcher and the batter hit the ball and after he hit it he threw the bat and ran toward first but when he threw it hit me in the mouth and I wasn’t wearing a catchers mask and had to get stitches. The guy that threw bat was the best man at my wedding and I was the same at his. We still hang out together along with several of our friends from back then. My 4th-grade teacher from 1969 came to my dads funeral service in 2007, that’s how much of a family atmosphere there was. “
On May 17, 1988, 34 years after the Supreme Court ruling, Sumner was honored as a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Parks Service. A plaque was set on the building beside the front doors, it was later stolen in 2015. “I think it’s a wonderful thing for the school to be declared a historic site. We waited many long years for the decision to be handed down,” said Leola Brown-Montgomery, mother of Linda Brown, at the ceremony.
Sumner was closed in 1996, it was one of eight Topeka schools closed as part of the original desegregation plan after the 1954 ruling. The Manhattan Mercury reported on May 20, 2008, that The National Trust for Historic Preservation had announced the school was named 1 of 11 most endangered places in America. In October of 2008, it was decided by an 8-1 vote that the school be auctioned off with a required minimum bid of $50,000. It was sold to Southside Christian Palace Church of Los Angeles in 2009. Archbishop W.R. Portee had the vision to restore Sumner to its once former glory and was in contact with BvB Legacy here in Topeka.
“Topekans have painfully watched Sumner deteriorate since Southside Christian Palace Church took ownership in 2009. The church did have good intentions, but no concrete plan for how to achieve them. They did let us – the Ward Meade neighborhood and Brown v. Board Sumner Legacy Trust (formed to help save Sumner) – help between 2012 and 2015, including cleanup inside the building and on the grounds during the 60th Anniversary event in 2014 put together by locals. However, the church broke off that off that relationship in 2015. Since then, there has been further deterioration and no forward movement. Millions of dollars in renovation and interpretation grants and volunteer assistance have been missed. Further, various networks have emerged, all of which eagerly have reached out to BvBSLT (most with failed efforts engage the church as well) to include Sumner – the US Civil Rights Trail, an emerging UNESCO World Heritage Site serial nomination for civil rights sites, a congressional request for a 5-state partnership through the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Crossroads of Freedom network through Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, the Kansas African American History Trail and Topeka’s own growing Civil War to Civil Rights and heritage network.” Said District 1’s Councilwoman Karen Hiller.
The Ward-Meade Neighborhood Association then sued the Southside Christian Palace Church in January of 2018 because the church has not followed through with their promise to restore the historic school. They are worried that the longer it sits allowing for more destruction the schools NRHP status could be endangered. The verdict was served in favor of Southside Church in January of 2019 on grounds that the deed does not specify a time frame in which the church has to restore Sumner. The Warde-Meade Neighborhood Association appealed and the case is now being heard in court.
Article by AKS Photojournalist Emily Cowan.
- Special thanks to Karen Hiller, City Councilwoman District 1, for donating all unwatermarked pictures in the photo gallery of Sumner School as well as her participation in this article and her never-ending determination to get Sumner back in the hands of City of Topeka.
“18 May 1988, 3 – The Manhattan Mercury at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/424763407/?terms=sumner%2Belementary%2Btopeka.
“8 Oct 2008, 3 – The Manhattan Mercury at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/425494836/?terms=sumner%2Belementary%2Btopeka.
“Brown v. Board of Education.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/brvb/learn/historyculture/kansas.htm.
Sumner School, Topeka, Kansas, washburn.edu/cas/art/cyoho/archive/AroundTopeka/Sumner/index.html.
“20 May 2008, 8 – The Manhattan Mercury at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/425589146/?terms=SUMNER%2Belementary.