Category Archives: Schools

Rising from the Ashes

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Photo pulled from fire damage at the Hickory Grove School

Fire has always been a concern for schools, especially when we’re talking about old school buildings. Fire drills were first introduced because of the numerous severe fires in schools. Of course today, we have the newest technology for early detection, but the early days of Johnson County were not so lucky.  Two such fires were in 1920 and 1949.

In January of 1920, a fire completely destroyed the Overland Park High School building. Sources are conflicting as to the actual date, but the Kansas City Star states the date as Monday, Jan. 26. At that time the building was located at Santa Fe Road and Robinson Street. According to the Kansas City Star, the origin of the fire is a mystery, but possibly caused by a gas explosion. Witnesses claimed to have seen a bright light around 2 a.m. toward the vicinity of the building.

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Overland Park High School fire in 1920

This building, built from stone, was not the first school at the location. A wood structure called Pleasant Prairie was built there in 1873. Because enrollment increased over the years by 45% and costs increased 56%, it was felt a new structure was needed. So in 1909 a new stone structure opened. There were four rooms on the first floor and four in the basement, with an annex attached at a later date. Enrollment continued to grow.  Four teachers were hired and the costs totaled upwards of $9,000. But on that fateful morning in January 1920, the building and its contents were a complete loss. The district rallied again, and a new school of a larger scale was built.

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Pleasant Prairie School in 1899, the location where Overland Park High was later built.

Overland Park High would not be the last school to experience a devastating fire. The first Hickory Grove school, a one-room wooden structure, was built in 1865 and was once the largest school in the county. The name for the school was chosen because of the beautiful grove of Hickory trees on the site in Mission, Kan. This one-room structure stayed until 1916 when a larger one was needed. Stone structures were popular around this time, possibly from fear of fire, and this two-story stone school with two classrooms and one big community room on the ground floor was built.  The basement was converted to classrooms at a later date, with additions built in 1926, 1937 and 1946. The latest addition consisted of 11 more classrooms, a library, a gymnasium and increased cafeteria facilities.

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Fire at the Hickory Grove School in 1949.

On July 21, 1949, a fire erupted in the new stone building.  Children who were rehearsing a play had just left the building when J. M. Smothers, the assistant custodian,  was locking the doors when through the windows he saw a light coming from the auditorium area. He discovered the entire stage curtain on fire. Previously, he had sternly advised the college students who had been directing the play not to smoke backstage.

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Fire damage at Hickory Grove School

Firefighters from different local communities rushed to help control the blaze. Fire trucks from Overland Park, Shawnee and Mission townships, Mission and Kansas City, Kan., hurried to the scene. Six pumper trucks with eight streams were directed on the 100-foot high flames. Seen for miles, the fire drew 500 people. Thick black smoke billowed above until the roof was consumed an hour later. The damage was estimated at $100,000, but the new $250,000 addition was saved.

On a happy note, the play was also saved and moved to another school. Just like the old saying, “The show must go on.”

-Terri Bostic, Johnson County Library

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Black History Month: Corinthian Nutter

Five years before Brown v. the Board of Education, Webb v. School District 90 ended segregation practices in South Park, Kan. In honor of Black History Month, we would like to spotlight Corinthian Nutter, a major contributor in this case. Nutter risked her career to take action on behalf of African-American students and parents in her community.

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Corinthian Nutter

In the 1940s, Nutter taught at the Walker Elementary School in South Park, now known as Merriam, Kan. Over the years of segregation practices in School District 90, Walker Elementary became dilapidated and unsuitable for a proper learning environment. While Walker Elementary School remained open, School District 90 built a new school, South Park Elementary. Unfortunately, the school district denied enrollment for African-American students at South Park. The denials continued even after several formal requests from parents and others in the community. So in 1948, Nutter, students, parents and other community members orchestrated a boycott of Walker Elementary.

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Walker School, 1949. Photograph courtesy of Bill Curtis.

As a result, Nutter lost her job with the school district and was replaced by two new teachers. However, only two students remained at Walker Elementary after the boycott. With the help of teacher Hazel McCray Weddington, Nutter continued to teach the former Walker Elementary School children out of private residences, and their salaries were paid by parents and other supporters.

Over the next year, boycott supporters rallied and raised money to hire a lawyer to sue the school district. The case went to court and  Webb v. School District 90 successfully ended segregation practices in South Park.

Corinthian Nutter and her class at Walker School, around the time of the school boycott

Corinthian Nutter and her class at Walker School, around the time of the school boycott

For more information about the Walker Elementary boycott and other individuals that helped end the segregation practices in Johnson County, go to http://www.jocogov.org/musOnline/southPark/southpark.htm.

 

-Beth Edson, Johnson County Library

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Then & Now: South Park Elementary and the Walker School

In 1887, the community of South Park, Kansas, was founded. A year later, District 90 was organized to educate the town’s children, and a one room school—known as the Walker School—was built.

Walker School

Walker School, 1949. Photograph courtesy of Bill Curtis.

In 1912, a second school was built, and the era of segregated schooling began in the community: white children attended the new school, and black children continued to attend the Walker School.

By the late 1940s, the Walker School, now a two room school, was delapidated and shabby. An outhouse served as the restroom facilities, and heating in the building was unreliable. When a bond issue was passed to build a new, modern school building for white children only, black parents were outraged. Despite their protests, however, the school board refused to admit black children to the new South Park School when it opened in 1947. In response, the parents, teachers and a group of concerned citizens filed a lawsuit, Webb v. School District No. 90, against the school district.

Esther Brown

Merriam resident Esther Brown was instrumental in organizing the lawsuit against School District 90. She later played a prominent role in bringing the 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education lawsuit as well.

As the lawsuit made its way through the courts, South Park’s black families boycotted the Walker School, choosing instead to hire two teachers—Corinthian Nutter and Hazel McCray Weddington—to teach the children in private homes. In 1949, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld a state law prohibiting segregation in small towns, ruling in favor of admitting black children to South Park Elementary. The case is considered an important forerunner to the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit which would make school segregation illegal nationwide.

Walker School students and teachers

Corinthian Nutter, back left, and Hazel McCray Weddington, back right, and their students, 1948

 Today, the Walker School still stands at 9420 W. 50th Terrace in Merriam, and serves as the home of the Philadelphia Baptist Church.

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Philadelphia Baptist Church, 1997

 The South Park Elementary School, located at 8715 W. 49th Street, closed in 2007 due to dwindling enrollment. The building’s future is currently unclear.

South Park School

South Park Elementary School, 1996

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History Mystery: Walker School photo

Walker School class

Corinthian Nutter and her class at Walker School, around the time of the school boycott

This photo shows the class of Walker School, a school attended by the African American students of the South Park area in present-day Merriam.

The teacher shown here is Corinthian Nutter. Nutter is best known for participating in a walk-out at Walker School in 1948. The Merriam school district had built a new school but refused to permit African American students from Walker school to attend. In protest, all but two Walker School students refused to attend classes until the policy was reversed. The subsequent boycott of classes had Nutter teaching in people’s homes until the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Walker students, effectively desegregating the Merriam school system.

The students here have not been identified though it is likely that many are still living.

View another Corinthian Nutter History Mystery.

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History mystery: Corinthian Nutter photo

Corinthian Nutter and Unknown Woman

Corinthian Nutter (right) sitting with an unidentified woman

Corinthian Nutter was well into her 90s when this photograph was taken around 2000. The photo has her sitting with another older woman who is not identified. The woman is holding a legal pad which brings to mind the possibility that she is conducting an interview or oral history. If you have any idea who this could be, leave a comment here or on the photograph record. Click the photo to view a larger image on the site.

Corinthian Nutter died in 2004 at the age of 97. You can read an obituary from the Johnson County Museum newsletter on the JoCoHistory site.

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History mystery: Prairie School class, 1927

Here we have a very evocative photo of the students at Prairie School, District 44 in present day Shawnee.

Prairie School, 1927

Prairie School, 1927

The teacher (at top right) is Elizabeth Burway, a teacher and principal in the Johnson County area who worked in a number of schools over the years. She is the only identified person in this photo.

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History Mystery: Twins at Bonjour Elementary School

This is a cute picture of two sets of twins at Bonjour Elementary School in Lenexa, Kansas. We do not have names or ages for the children or a year for the photograph. I personally would guess early 1980s but the item record only indicates “Circa 1980’s-1990’s”

twins

Click to view larger image and photo record.

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