Topeka, Kansas: Segregation in the Heartland
In the early 1950s Topeka had a population of about 80,000. The city was an economic center for the surrounding farmlands. Hospitals and clinics were the largest employers, and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad had its headquarters there.
Many African American families had migrated to the city after the Civil War in search of land and opportunity outside the South. Eight percent of the city’s residents were black. Buses and railroads were integrated, but most restaurants, hotels, and other public places were usually segregated—by practice, not by law.
Oliver Brown’s name appears first on the most famous desegregation case in the nation’s history, Brown v. Board of Education. He was a welder for the Santa Fe Railroad and a part-time assistant pastor at St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church.
(Courtesy of the Brown Foundation)
Mrs. Ray’s first grade class, Washington Elementary School
A student reads aloud in a first-grade class at segregated Washington Elementary School in Topeka. With only four public elementary schools for black children, some students had to take long bus rides to reach their schools, and some of the schools lacked the facilities and programs of white elementary schools.
(Courtesy of University of Kansas Libraries, Kenneth Spencer Research Library)
McKinley Burnett, president of the Topeka NAACP
McKinley Burnett was an outspoken critic of racial injustice. As president of the Topeka NAACP, he had repeatedly petitioned the Topeka Board of Education and had grown frustrated with their refusal to end segregation. In August 1950 he wrote to the NAACP, seeking help in preparing a lawsuit against the school board.
(Courtesy of Brown Foundation)