Black high schools Sumner and Lincoln Dominated science awards in Kansas City in the 1950s. So why doesn’t anybody know about this?
Retired geochemist Frank Manheim, now an adjunct professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and Emeritus professor of chemistry, Eckhard Hellmuth at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, were interested in science education.
They tracked down a rumor about special achievements in chemistry at Kansas City Missouri’s formerly segregated Negro high school. Exploring a subject that has involved controversies and sensitivities, their research revealed an important story that was obscured for 50 years.
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 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 States.
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 also improbable, considering the prevailing conditions of discrimination, the sub-standard school funding, and the educational and socioeconomic background of the Negro population that Sumner served.
The accomplishment was this: Sumner dominated all Metropolitan Kansas City high schools (then more than 75 percent 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 High School the Negro high school until 1954 on the Missouri side, dominated science awards in the Kansas City, Missouri school district well into the 1960s.
Science Fair awards were not given away lightly. Kansas City Missouri and Kansas City Kansas were proud of their schools (3). They joined the new “International Science Fair” movement in 1952 and were backed by the mayors, academic and business leaders, and 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 the 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. 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 Missouri Public 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 High School 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 accomplished 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.
School history for Sumner High School proved easier to access. A brief online history was available on a Web site 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.
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?
How Sumner and Lincoln schools achieved excellence not only is a vital part of the history of their communities and Greater Kansas City but also holds insights for today’s discussions of science and general education strategy for secondary schools.
Andrew Darton, a retired Lincoln teacher, had some ideas about Lincoln’s successes. He said Lincoln had first-rate administrators and qualified teachers, and he said PTA meetings and open houses were always packed (11). According to Darton, parents generally felt that education was the only way for their children to have a better life, and so they 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, as well as Black institutions like Lincoln in Jefferson City Missouri, struggled to get jobs that were commensurate with their training in white institutions (12).
Often, the only jobs available were in the segregated Black primary and secondary school systems. Thus, in 1930, 44 percent of Sumner’s teachers had master’s degrees (13), and by the 1950s, there were several Ph.Ds. at Sumner and Lincoln. In white high schools of the time, teachers rarely had more than bachelor’s degrees.
African-American communities before desegregation had Black electricians, plumbers, garages, groceries, barbers, and Black-owned stores and restaurants, as well as Black schools. Children growing up in these communities were often shielded from direct experience with discrimination.
Sumner and Lincoln educators not only maintained high standards in their teaching but also mentored students, warning them about the discrimination they would face after high school but challenging them to set high goals anyway. And the teachers were dedicated to their classes—students who showed wayward tendencies might get a home visit from a teacher or administrator.
During the 1950s career opportunities for Blacks in science and engineering were poorer than in other areas, owing to discrimination in professional employment. In the face of these facts, why Sumner and Lincoln educators and students, as well as their feeder elementary schools, pushed science so vigorously, is a question that needs more research.
From the 1960s Until Today
According to Peter Moran’s comprehensive study of the Kansas City Missouri school system over the last 50 years (14), during the tumultuous period from the 1960s through the 1980s, the City’s school system was initially held up as a model for the speed with which it implemented the Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling.
The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare’s efforts to enforce desegregation, and the City’s responses did not stop 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) 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 (Jenkins v. Missouri) of 1995, which also ended the massive inflow of federal funds. The phasing out of court control finally ended in 2003, with a school population that had been over 72 percent white in 1960 now being 84 percent minority (15).
Interviewees shared conflicted feelings about desegregation. All recognized that breaking the pattern and stigma of legal segregation was indispensable in achieving full equality in society. But they also noted specific actions that impacted school quality: transfer of loss of senior Black educators and role models, loss of top Black students to white schools, and loss of neighborhood cohesiveness.
Apart from desegregation, changes in national educational models disproportionately affected predominantly Black schools.
Ironically, Lincoln, a school that was relegated to second-class status by society prior to Brown, now occupies elite status as the College Preparation Academy among 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 now sets its own entry requirements and is authorized to offer enhanced curricula. Some 96 percent of students are estimated to continue on to college.
The Kansas system underwent less educational turmoil than the Missouri system, but it 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 are among the highest in Kansas— including mainly white schools in affluent Johnson County. Sumner’s ethnic mix is about 46 percent Black and 43 percent white, and in 2001, 97 percent of students went on to college (16).
The story of the schools should add to their legacy in Greater Kansas City history. It offers insights for education today, though we neither can nor would wish to recreate some of the conditions that influenced the developments. The story also 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.
Supplementary Background and Illustrations
(Paper of Manheim and Hellmuth)
Chronology of race issues in Missouri and Kansas, and Kansas City
1821: Missouri admitted to Union as a slave state under the “Missouri Compromise”. Owing to antislavery sentiment in Congress, slavery is excluded from all but southeastern boot heel. However, most new settlers are pro-slavery.
1854: Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) repeals the ban on slavery in Missouri and new Kansas and Nebraska territories, giving states the right to self-determination (Stephen Douglas’s “Popular Sovereignty”). The Republican Party was founded to oppose the extension of slavery.
1861: Kansas enters Union as a free state; Civil War begins. Kansas suffers the highest proportion of men killed in Union Army.
1865: Civil War ends, slavery abolished. Missouri Constitution amended to ban slavery; instead, establishes “separate but equal schools”.
1866: Lincoln University founded at Jefferson City MO; trains qualified Negro educators.
1879: Kansas Legislature allows segregation in schools except in high schools.
1886: Kansas City Kansas high school founded. Operates biracially with no reported problems until 1904.
1896: Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson: permits states to maintain “separate but equal” facilities.
1905: Special Kansas bill creates Sumner High as the only segregated high school in Kansas after an altercation in which a white boy died.
1937-38 Lincoln (MO) and Sumner (KS) high schools are constructed with PWA assistance
1954: Brown v. Board of Ed. Supreme Court decision bans compulsory segregation.
1952-65: Sumner (KS) and Lincoln high school students dominate the National Science Fair awards in Greater Kansas City (MO and KS).
1977: Federal Judge Clark takes over Kansas City MO schools; orders what would become the most expensive and far-reaching magnet school system in Nation. Sumner is temporarily shut down. Reopens in 1978 as a “College Preparatory Academy” under desegregation plans.
1995: Supreme Court in Jenkins vs. Mo returns K.C. MO system to City and State.
2005: Many schools in the MO system face decertification; however, Lincoln HS (now Lincoln College Preparatory Academy) leads K.C. Mo city schools, averages >96% college acceptance rate for graduates. Sumner is a leader among all Kansas schools, celebrates the centenary of founding.
Preface: How the Sumner and Lincoln Discoveries Came About
FTM grew up in Kansas City Missouri during the school segregation system that existed prior to the Brown decision. He became a geochemist with the U.S. Geological Survey. EH was a professor of chemistry at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. The Hellmuth and Manheim families had long been friends, and FTM visited Kansas City regularly.
EH had heard rumors about advanced work done in chemistry at Lincoln High School under the direction of Andrew Darton, a science teacher. Lincoln was the formerly segregated Negro high school in Kansas City.
Around 1987 we located Andrew Darton Jr. in retirement and interviewed him at his home in Kansas City MO. Darton showed us clippings, award plaques, and other documents demonstrating that Lincoln students had led all other Kansas City MO high schools in science awards in the period 1957-1965.
We tried, unsuccessfully, to find outlets for a short article on Lincoln and Darton, based on our interview, but realized the story needed better documentation to overcome skepticism. Inquiries with the School Department yielded no data about earlier Lincoln records. We realized the job would not be easy or straightforward, and we were not able to undertake serious research efforts while carrying full-time work responsibilities.
Darton died in 2002 (obituary in the Kansas City Star, May 19, 2002). By 2005 FTM had retired from USGS and joined George Mason University as an adjunct professor, while EH had become an Emeritus professor of chemistry at UMKC. We committed ourselves to researching the Lincoln story for a Black History Month panel presentation at George Mason U. in February 2005. A graduate student, David Humphreys, was recruited to assist us during a week of field research.
As reported in the article, progress was initially slow because of the destruction of Lincoln High School records, and lack of documentation of the Black schools’ success in standard reference sources. However, microfilms of the Black newspaper, The Kansas City Call, and other information turned up in the Kansas City Missouri Library’s Historical Collections, and discussions with Mr. Thomas Levine, Principal of Metrotech Manual Vocational Center yielded a list of distinguished Lincoln graduates still living in the Kansas City area.
A critical breakthrough occurred in a visit to the Science Fair (Science Pioneer) Office serving Greater Kansas City. Historical records provided to us by the office had gaps but allowed compilation of the first comparison of performance by Black and white students in any educational area for Greater Kansas City – a comparison that clearly demonstrated the leadership of Sumner and Lincoln schools in science.
By this time, it was clear that Sumner High School had a stronger early record in science awards than Lincoln – a point underscored by Dr. Patricia Caruthers, whom we interviewed. Dr. Caruthers’ family includes many accomplished persons in the Kansas City area.
She herself was a 1956 graduate of Sumner who won a grand prize in the Kansas City Science Pioneer competition and traveled to the national finals competition, where she gained 4th place nationally for her project. She later became a university administrator and educational leader and remains active on community organization boards.
Getting background on Sumner was quicker than for Lincoln, in part because of the assistance of Mary Conrad, Sumner Academy Librarian, and availability of web resources.
The brief historical background offered along with these notes points out the history of Missouri and Kansas in race relations. We got a subjective impression that uneasiness about Missouri’s slave state and segregation legacy helped account for the minimal availability of formal historical documentation or websites on Lincoln HS, in comparison with documentation on the Kansas (a free state) school.
However, two important theses completed since the 70’s at UMKC (including a Masters thesis by now Mayor Pro Tem, Alvin L. Brooks in 1973 (Social organization, social tension, social change: the role of intermediary groups) provide insightful perspectives on developments in Kansas City Missouri.
As professional natural scientists and approached the research problem posed by recreating the schools’ histories – especially in the case of Lincoln – by tracking any available lead. Although the data gathered document key achievements in science and other aspects, we realize that in spite of the important history of Sumner HS by William Boone, the available information does supply the kind of full documentation that the history of the two schools deserves.
We hope that students and others possibly including professional social historians or social scientists will be encouraged to take up the research challenge. The passage of time and potential loss of individuals who could provide first-hand memories and documentation add urgency to the tasks. In the case of Lincoln, we hope that fine portraits of past school leaders now in storage, as well as the earlier-prepared vignettes of past graduates, get places of honor on the walls to inspire future students of Lincoln to value their legacy and aim high in their careers.
We close with a vignette of the impression in-depth exposure to the earlier history of the Black schools made on our student assistant, David Humphreys:
“Those Black students in the 1950’s looked like world leaders in the making. The dedication and accomplishment …they looked more like college students. I sure didn’t have that much background when I was a high school student. I guess they focused on different things back then – getting the most out of their education, meeting competition, and giving pride to their family name. It’s a totally different world now.”
Notes and References
1. Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) was a Black lawyer who became the NAACP’s chief counsel at age 32. He had won nearly all his cases up to the time he took on the Brown v. Board of Education case in Topeka Kansas. While a student at the Howard University Law School Marshall had come under the influence of its brilliant Dean, Charles Hamilton Houston, and adopted Houston’s strategy of “chipping away at the structure of segregation” left by the “separate but equal” decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (Supreme Court decision in 1896). Marshall’s victory in the 1954 Brown decision lifted him to national prominence. President Kennedy appointed him Judge in the 2nd Court of Appeals. President Johnson appointed him the first Black solicitor-general and then, with hesitation, the first Black justice on the Supreme Court (Juan Williams, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, Random House, 1998).
2. Waldo E. Martin, Brown v. Board of Education: a brief history with documents (Bedford Series on History and Culture, Bedford/Martin, Boston, 1998); The personal recollections of John Brooks Slaughter, the first Black Director of the U.S. National Science Foundation are moving. Slaughter was a student from 1939 to 1945 at the Buchanan School, one of the four elementary schools for Black students in Topeka. In a talk to Grumman Northrop employees (`) Dr. Slaughter shared his feelings about the dedicated Black educators in Topeka:
“I look back with immense feelings of gratitude for the wonderful education we received from those under-appreciated and under-compensated Black teachers at Buchanan, Monroe, McKinley, and Washington Schools who toiled under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I am indebted to all those gallant teachers and administrators whose cause was to provide us with a quality educational experience in spite of the demeaning environment in which they were forced to operate. They and our parents never let us feel unequal to the tasks before us.”
3. Local background and the Science Pioneer program. In the 1940s and 1950s, Kansas City Missouri and Kansas prided themselves on their school systems. In 1937, after a concerted campaign, Kansas City Missouri voters had thrown out the Pendergast machine that had controlled the city and Jackson County during much of Prohibition. Although the Pendergast machine did not use the brutal tactics of Al Capone in Chicago, its control of the gambling, prostitution, and bootleg liquor rackets, for which Kansas City was famous, was accompanied by corrupt, lax or unjust policing, especially affecting the Black population. This, in turn, had fostered crime and racial hostility (Sherry Lamb Schirmer, A City Divided: the Racial Landscape of Kansas City (1900-1960)).
Under reform leadership, the city embarked on long-neglected school construction, zoning, park and public transportation projects. Although racial segregation continued, new school facilities for Black students and a spirit of civic consciousness reduced crime and racial tensions by the mid-1940s.
4. In 1951 the two school boards agreed to join together and be among the first cities to adopt the new competitive science fair system that extended from elementary through high school, with substantial prizes and honors for winners. The mayors, along with academic and business leaders, as well as citizens, strongly backed adoption of the National Science Fair movement in 1952. The city took pride in the fact that the Science Pioneer program became the first in the nation to acquire a year-round promotion organization. Kansas City was later selected to host the National finals competition in 1965, received hundreds of inquiries about its program from abroad, as well as from around the United States, and was highlighted in publications.
Because the Science Pioneer Program was national in scope, Black schools were allowed to participate. Thus, science became the first playing field in Kansas City on which Black students could directly measure their skills against white students.
6. John Duncan, former chief archivist for the Kansas City School District and now a volunteer, accompanied us on a site visit to the storage facilities at Metrotech Manual Vocational Center.
7. In fairness, it should be mentioned that the Kansas City Star was a major sponsor of the Science Pioneer Program, and provided money awards to top winners. These included travel expenses that allowed grand prizewinners to participate in the National competitions, regardless of race.
8. The Kansas City Call was a Black-owned and operated newspaper with wide influence in the African American community. During the period covered here, its crusading editor was Lucile H. Bluford. Bluford’s father had taken a position as a science teacher at Lincoln High School in the early 1920s, and Lucile was valedictorian of the Lincoln Class of 1928, as well as an editor of the school newspaper. She gained fame for her battles against the University of Missouri and State of Missouri after her application to the School of Journalism in Columbia was rejected. She had been accepted based on her mail application with credentials from the University of Kansas. But when she arrived and sought to register in Columbia officials noted that she was Black and refused her. After it lost Bluford’s suit in court, the State of Missouri temporarily shut down the School of Journalism rather than admit her. In May 1989, 50 years after she filed her suit against the State, Bluford received an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree during a commencement ceremony in Columbia, MO.
9. Betty Paulsell, director of the Science Pioneer Program, provided access to archival materials. The program’s history is described by Carol Partee, A History of Science Pioneers, Inc. 1991, (Revision by Jane Mobley and Associates, 1998).
10. Dr. Caruthers achieved 4th rank nationally in the Science Fair competition of 1956. Mr. Brooks was a Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem of Kansas City at the time of our research project in Kansas City.
11. William W. Boone A History of Black Education in Kansas City, Kansas, Readin’, ‘Ritin, ‘Rithmetic (1986); Copy available in Kansas City Kansas Public Library.
12. Ernest Manheim, Youth in Trouble (Kansas City MO: The Community Service Division, Department of Welfare, City of Kansas City, 1944); In the 1940s formal statistics showed that about 11% of Black children were born out of wedlock, compared with 2% of whites. This means that nuclear families dominated the early childhood experience of most Black children. Up to 60% of Black women worked part time as domestics.
Manheim also became one of the few social scientists willing to testify in the first Brown v. Board of Education hearing in Federal District Court Topeka in 1951. After many requests, presiding Judge Huxman reluctantly agreed to allow Manheim to be called as a witness. However, after a few questions, he ruled that sociological perspectives were irrelevant because Manheim did not live in Topeka. Judge Huxman rejected the suit by the plaintiffs (supported by the NAACP). Thurgood Marshall then combined the Oliver (Linda) Brown case with a case involving actions against Black students by Prince Edward County, Virginia, and appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. That decision explicitly included social science evidence as one of nine grounds for ruling in favor of Brown in 1954. The testimony of Ernest Manheim and the role of social science in the Brown case is discussed by Jean Van Delinder in Ernest Manheim, Social Science, and the Brown Case, in Frank Baron, David Norman Smith, and Charles Reitz (editors) Ernest Manheim, Authority, Culture, and Communication, Synchron Publishers, in press.
13. William Boone (see note 11) cites a Kansas State University graduate who was at first accepted as an administrator at Wyandotte High School, based on his mailed application and qualifications. When he arrived and was seen to be Black, he was reassigned as a teacher in a Black elementary school.
14. Scottie P. Davis, The Story of Sumner High School, 1935 (reproduced by the Kansas City Kansas School Board website, https://www.kckps.org/disthistory/openbuildings/sumner_01.htm
15. Peter W. Moran, The Rule of Law and the Desegregation of Public Schools (LBF Publications, 316 p., 2005).
16. Deann Smith and Donna McGuire, “Kansas City’s 26-year-old desegregation case ends” (Kansas City Star, 2003, reproduced by the National School Boards Association, https://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/6526875.htm
17. Statistics reported on Sumner Academy home page, https://www.kckps.org/disthistory/openbuildings/sumner.html
Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, 2111 Woodland, Kansas City, MO 64108
Jackson County Missouri; Phone: (816) 418-3000
Sumner Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1610 N 8th St., Kansas City KS 66101; Wyandotte County KS; Phone (913) 551-3300.
Photo of Kansas City’s Southeast High School courtesy of MISSOURI VALLEY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS / KANSAS CITY PUBLIC LIBRARY