(Reprinted from the Montgomery County Chronicle • Jan. 19, 2012)
BY ANDY TAYLOR
When the U.S. Supreme Court declared racial segregation as unconstitutional in the case Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, the institutional barriers of racial separation began to be dismantled.
That case has its roots in Kansas, giving the state the distinction of setting the course toward racial integration.
However, prior to the Brown decision in 1954, as many as one dozen other legal attempts were made to end racial segregation in public schools. No other pre-Brown case drew as much national attention as a legal case from Coffeyville.
For hidden in the shadows of the Brown decision — exactly 30 years before the Brown case was rendered — was Thurman-Watts vs. Board of Education of Coffeyville.
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The story of the Thurman-Watts case should be understood by knowing the location of Coffeyville schools in 1924 as well as the laws of segregation that ruled the day.
Racial segregation had been the prevailing culture of the country dating back to its earliest colonial years. However, racial segregation did not gain legal validity until 1896, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy vs. Ferguson that public institutions could segregate races through “separate but equal” facilities.
In Kansas, racial segregation in schools was allowed based on population of a community. State law mandated racial segregation in elementary schools located in first-class cities (towns of 15,000 population or more). Racial integration was required in the junior high, middle high school and high school levels.
In second-class cities (towns of less than 15,000 population), racial segregation in public schools based on the Plessy decision was not allowed.
In 1923, the lines of color separation were clearly spelled out in the Coffeyville school system. Cleveland School, located at Third and Linden streets, was an imposing two-story structure with eight main classrooms — serving African-American elementary students in the central and eastern portions of Coffeyville. Douglas School, located in the western portion of Coffeyville, also served African-American students in the first through eighth grades in its three rooms.
A host of “ward schools,” or neighborhood schools, served the white students of the Coffeyville community. Among those schools were Lincoln, McKinley, Lowell, Longfellow, Whittier, Garfield, Ingalls, Logan and Spaudling schools. Washington High School served both races and was located on the grounds of what is now Coffeyville Community College.
Chief concern among Coffeyville school officials beginning in 1920 was the overcrowded conditions of all schools and the need for a permanent junior high-style school that could offer early high school training programs, such as domestic science (for girls) and manual training (for boys). That’s why those officials successfully campaigned for construction of a junior high school — called Roosevelt School. Having a prepertory school for high school not only would lessen the burden on existing schools but also afford more training opportunities to early teenagers of all races, school officials said in their campaign materials.
Coffeyville school board members at that time tried to secure the African-American vote for a bond issue’s passage by promising racial integration in the new junior high school. The school board members visited one predominantly-black church, Calvary Baptist Church, on a Sunday morning prior to a bond issue election to seek support for the bonds that would be needed to construct Roosevelt School, which would serve students in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades.
The bond issued was approved, and construction on the new “junior high” school began in April 1922.
The new Roosevelt School held its first student enrollment on Sept. 18, 1923, which is the day Victoria Thurman-Watts, who had just completed the eighth grade at Cleveland School the previous May, discovered that the new junior high school would not accept African-American students.
Thurman-Watts and other black children wanting to enroll in the new junior high school were informed — through a directive issued by Superintendent A.I. Decker — that the African-American freshman would return to Cleveland School for their ninth grade year, even though Cleveland School was not designed to hold a ninth grade curriculum.
Cecilia Thurman-Watts protested her daughter’s denial of enrollment and took the issue to Decker, the superintendent. Thurman-Watts would later testify in court that Decker claimed he had the legal authority, set out by state law, to segregate the children. Thurman-Watts testified that she was led to believe Roosevelt Middle School was to be an integrated school and that she also learned that all landowners of Coffeyville — black and white — were paying for the new school through a higher levy.
Thurman-Watts immediately cried foul and filed suit in the Kansas Supreme Court seeking the admission of her daughter to Roosevelt.
A total of 20 Cleveland School eighth grade students were promoted to the ninth grade for the 1923-24 school year. Only one freshman student, Lucille Walker, enrolled at Cleveland School because she had transferred to the community from Mississippi some two weeks after the 1923-24 school year began. Walker would later testify that, as a freshman, she was forced to sit in the eighth grade room and was not allowed to participate in music or domestic science courses because they were designed for the eighth grade and younger students.
Cleveland School itself was structurally deficient to take on additional students in 1923. Designed for a limited number of students in each classroom (one classroom per grade level), the crowded conditions forced some classes to be held in the basement, where students had to slip past a furnace and hop over clogged sewer drains to get to a makeshift classroom.
“By all testimony that was heard in this case, Cleveland School was a dump,” said Thom Rosenblum, historian at the Brown Vs. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kan. “Space was at a premium in that building. In fact, a janitor would testify that the sewer lines would get clogged and remained clogged for days, leaving students and the staff vulnerable to the sewer gas as well as raw sewage.”
Rather than take her daughter to Cleveland School where classes for freshman classes were non-existent and where a student’s health and well being were in question, Cecelia Thurman-Watts did the one thing that she thought was best for her daughter: she taught her daughter at home.
So, too, would 13 other parents of Cleveland School freshman.
The 13 African-American parents who taught their freshmen students at home would be arrested by local authorities.
The charge: refusing to send students to school.
Consider it the first show of civil disobedience in the war for civil rights.
Rosenbum, the historian at the Brown site, said the Thurman-Watts case would get the attention of two groups, each of which was in a different galaxy when it came to racial equity. The first group was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had Topeka attorneys Elisha Scott and R.M. Van Dyne at its service. Scott was an accomplished attorney who had successfully defended fellow African-American families in other segregation cases in the early 20th century.
The second group that was involved in the case was the Ku Klux Klan, which Rosenblum said, allegedly had three members of the Coffeyville Board on Education on its roster.
The Thurman-Watts legal team had multiple basis for their legal challenge against Coffeyville:
• that state law allowed racial integration at the junior high and high school level in first-class cities,
• that the Coffeyville school board, through several school officials being members of the “invisible empire,” practiced bigotry that translated into forced segregation, and
• that the Coffeyville school board practiced discrimination by allowing its black-only school to be inferior in structure and resources when compared to the white-only school.
When the Kansas Supreme Court took up the case, the prevailing argument had nothing to do with racial equality, said Rosenblum. Instead, the primary argument was whether the ninth grade level at Roosevelt School was classified as an “elementary” class or a “junior high” class. It took attorney Elisha Scott six tries to get Superintendent A.I. Decker to admit that the freshman class was, in fact, the first year of high school — a fact that did not go unnoticed by the state’s high court.
In reaching its decision in late January 1924, the state court said the Coffeyville school board lacked the power to segregate the ninth-grade students on the basis of race by nature of the community being a first-class city. The court stated that it was commonly understood that the ninth grade was considered part of the high school.
However, the court also ruled that school districts are allowed to create school zones for the assignment of students so as not to create overcrowded schools — provided that the zones are reasonable and not based on race or color.
In the eyes of the African-American community, the battle had been won.
The Coffeyville school board still was defiant in the face of the court’s decision.
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Four days after the court issued its opinion, African-American students Victoria Thurman and Alonzo Grubbs presented themselves at Roosevelt School for admission into the ninth grade. They were accompanied by their mothers: Cecelia Thurman-Watts and Mrs. M.L. Grubbs.
However, the students and their mothers were met at the Roosevelt School door by principal J.H. Benefield, who informed them that “he had no orders to admit colored students to said school and that they were to report to the Cleveland School for orders.”
The parents immediately sent a telegram to attorneys Scott and VanDyne, who, in turn, appealed to the state’s high court to issue a “writ” that would command Coffeyville schools to accept the black freshmen students for admission.
However, a unique thing happened while the attorneys and court justices haggled the merits of the case: the same day Thurman and Grubbs went to Roosevelt to seek admission as freshmen, a host of other African-American students from the seventh and eighth grades appeared at Roosevelt demanding enrollment. All students were told to return to Cleveland School for enrollment.
The state’s high court issued a demand to the Coffeyville school board to settle the issue through specific zones in an effort to reduce overcrowded schools . . . as long as the zoning process did not include racial segregation.
The same “writ” also demanded that the African-American students be allowed to use all facilities in the new Roosevelt School, such as the domestic science classrooms, manual training area, gymnasium and cafeteria.
When Victoria Thurman and 19 other children returned to Roosevelt School for admission on Feb. 14, 1924, they were allowed entrance but immediately required to take a series of five entry tests to determine their competency. Sixteen of the 20 black students failed the tests and were, therefore, denied enrollment into the school based on their lack of education. Decker, the superintendent, defended the use of the tests, claiming they were standard tests given to all students across the Coffeyville school system.
Scott and VanDyne appealed to the state’s high court once again, asking the court to hold Coffeyville schools in contempt for issuing standardized entry tests that, the attorneys claimed, were “unfair, unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive.”
On July 5, 1924, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled against Scott and VanDyne’s motion.
However, the court did award Scott $1,000 in attorney’s fees.
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Thurman-Watts vs. Board of Education of Coffeyville would not be a landmark case in the fight for civil justice. And, it would take many more lawsuits over the ensuing decades before the U.S. Supreme Court would take up the issue of racial segregation.
That would come in 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that segregation of public institutions was unconstitutional. Representing the Brown family and the other families who filed the class-action lawsuit was Charles Scott, the son of Elisha Scott, who represented the Coffeyville family in the 1924 case.
Was there a direct connection between the Thurman-Watts case and the Brown case? Rosenblum contends the two cases were totally separate, however the Thurman-Watts case could be considered the impetus for the arguments that would be heard in the Brown case.
“The Thurman-Watts case was a training ground for Brown,” said Rosenblum. “The Thurman-Watts story also was unique because it showed the first signs of civil disobedience when the 13 parents chose to strike against the school district and not send their kids to Cleveland School.”
Why didn’t the the Kansas Supreme Court rule on the constitutionality of racial segregation, choosing instead to determine the merits of legalistic arguments (i.e., whether a freshman class was considered to be in the high school level as compared to the elementary level)? Rosenblum said most state judges of that era believed segregation was wrong but had little choice because the Plessy case still was the law of the nation.
“Until the U.S. Supreme Court made its decision in the Brown case in 1954, Plessy was still the law of the land,” said Rosenblum. “A district or state judge may have thought personally that segregation was wrong and, therefore, unconstitutional. But until the U.S. Supreme Court made its landmark decision in 1954, the lower courts could do nothing but uphold Plessy.”