Inside JCPRD: South Park and the Walker School walkout

From the Johnson County Museum

In 1947, South Park (Merriam) built a new, modern school building with $90,000 in taxpayer bonds. The school board decided the school would serve the district’s 222 white students. African American students would continue to attend the Walker School. Built in the 1880s as a one-room schoolhouse and expanded to two rooms, the Walker School had two teachers for eight grades and 50 students. By the 1940s, it was a crumbling building. The roof leaked, the heating was temperamental, there were no indoor toilets, and the basement lunchroom flooded when it rained.

Walker School. Photo credit: Bill Curtis

South Park’s African American families pushed the school board to update the Walker School, but they met resistance. When they attempted to enroll their children at the new school in 1948, they met outright refusal. The school board gerrymandered two school districts—one all-white, the other all-black. This segregated zoning forced some students to walk past one school to attend the other. Alfonso and Mary Webb, with their ten children attending the Walker School, had enough of the blatantly racist actions of the school board.

In the fall of 1948, the black families living in South Park organized their efforts. With the Webb family leading the charge, they filed a lawsuit with the Kansas Supreme Court, called Webb v School District No. 90, in hopes of integrating the new school. When the school year began, 39 black students at Walker School walked out. Their refusal to attend the unequal facility was called the “Walker’s Walkout.” The two teachers also boycotted and were hired privately to teach the students in living rooms and church basements for the entire year. Their pay was made up of bake sale and fish fry proceeds, and donations collected by local supporters and the national chapter of the NAACP.

The Kansas Supreme Court made their decision in the spring of 1949. Kansas statutes prohibited segregated schools in towns with less than 15,000 residents, such as South Park. The school board could run two schools of equal condition if the districts were not based on race. The court found that the South Park school board was infringing the rights of black students by maintaining a segregated facility. Because the board could not afford to replace the Walker School, the court declared that the new school would have to be integrated. In September 1949, black students attended the new South Park school for the first time. The Webb family’s lawsuit opened new educational opportunities for African American students in South Park. Five years later, Brown v Board would do this across the nation.

For the whole story, see the Johnson County Museum’s new digital exhibit, Hidden Stories: The Webb Family, located in the Commons at the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center. Exhibit is free, and open 9 am-9 pm Monday – Friday, and 9 am- 5pm on Saturdays, from January 15 to February 28.