Why you should care
Because these “Hidden Figures” remain overlooked.
The Atomic Age had dawned and the space race was on, so the nascent science fair phenomenon was a big deal at America’s high schools. The 1950s were also the era of Jim Crow, which meant that Sumner High School in Kansas City, Kansas, racking up win after win in area science fairs was a head-turning accomplishment. That’s because Sumner was a Black school.
It all started with a murder. Kansas, a non-slave state, long had integrated schools. But in 1904 a white freshman at Kansas City High School, Roy Martin, was shot dead by a Black youth, Louis Gregory, who was convicted of murder despite claiming self-defense. The killing nearly sparked a race riot. The next day, white students blocked Black students from entering the high school in protest.
Yet Sumner’s very success … served as validation in the minds of many Kansans that Blacks and whites should live separately.
David J. Peavler, Kansas History magazine
As momentum grew in the white community for separation, the state passed a law allowing Kansas City to segregate its schools. In September 1905, all students continued to go to the same high school, just at different times — whites in the morning, African-Americans in the afternoon. A year later, a $40,000 high school named for abolitionist U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner opened its doors to the city’s Black students. The African-American schools’ funding and facilities remained roughly on par with white schools — unusual in the Jim Crow era.
The segregation that built Sumner also fueled its excellence. The best-educated white minds of the time could become lawyers and doctors and business leaders. The cream of the African-American intellectual crop was blocked from many such opportunities, so they often became educators. In the 1930s, at a time when many white high school teachers did not have bachelor’s degrees, 44 percent of Sumner’s teachers had master’s degrees, according to research by Frank Manheim of George Mason University and Eckhard Hellmuth of the University of Missouri, Kansas City.
A history of Sumner written by its students in 1935 quotes an unnamed African-American educator: “Sumner is a child not of our own volition but rather an offspring of the race antipathy of a bygone period. It was a veritable blessing in disguise — a flower of which we may proudly say, ‘The bud had a bitter taste, but sweet indeed is the flower.’”
In 1952, the school systems on both sides of the Kansas-Missouri state line joined the International Science Fair movement. The Greater Kansas City Science and Engineering Fair went on to become one of America’s biggest. The prizes it handed out in the 1950s, according to Manheim and Hellmuth, went largely to Sumner students. Then the baton was picked up by Lincoln High, a Black school in Kansas City, Missouri, which dominated the competition into the 1960s. In 1963, Lincoln’s Vernice Marie Murray won a national first place in physics with a project called “Experimental Methods of Verifying Force.”
The schools’ smashing success came against the backdrop of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision in the U.S. Supreme Court. The full implementation would take decades, but Kansas City’s Black schools were already showing their students were thriving, despite the pernicious effects of “separate but equal.”
Manheim attended an elite white high school in the affluent part of Kansas City, Missouri. He saw Black students on the streetcar heading to the other side of town and wondered about their schools, assuming they were not as impressive as white schools. But when he attended a presentation at Lincoln High on its literary societies — essays and speechmaking were other areas of local competition — he was blown away. “These Black students ran rings around what we were doing,” Manheim tells OZY.
But there was a downside to those triumphs. “Sumner provided greater academic and extracurricular opportunities for its students than were typically available in the ‘mixed schools’ of the state,” wrote David J. Peavler in Kansas History magazine. “Yet Sumner’s very success also worked to solidify segregation throughout the city and served as validation in the minds of many Kansans that Blacks and whites should live separately from one another.”
Integration was hard fought. It took until the late 1970s — and intervention by the courts — for the school systems on both sides of the state line to be fully integrated. Sumner and Lincoln were redesignated elite college preparatory academies, so they still churn out top-tier students — but now they come from all races.