Just in time for Black History Month, the Johnson County Museum is presenting a temporary digital exhibit about a 1949 Kansas Supreme Court case which is considered a forerunner to the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The free digital exhibit is called Hidden Stories - the Webb Family, and will be in place in the Creative Commons area of the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center
through Feb. 29.
“At the end of the day, this case was about a family making sure their kids could receive a good education,” said Johnson County Museum Curator of Interpretation Andrew R. Gustafson. “How many Johnson Countians are here for that same reason? Some communities have always had good schools -other communities have had to fight for them. It is important to know that, and to learn about the Webbs and their community. That fight is important.”
In 1887, the community of South Park was founded on the north side of present-day Merriam. A year later, School District No. 90 was organized to educate the town’s children, and a one room school - known as the Walker School - was built. 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 was dilapidated and shabby. Heating in the building was unreliable, an outhouse served as the school’s restroom facilities, the roof leaked, and the basement lunch room flooded when it rained. After a bond issue was passed to build a new, modern school for white children only, black parents were outraged. Despite their protests, 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, led by Alfonso and Mary Webb, whose children attended the Walker School, filed a lawsuit against the school district, Webb v. School District No. 90.
As the lawsuit progressed through the courts, South Park’s black families boycotted the Walker School. Their refusal to attend the unequal facility became known as the “Walker’s Walkout.” In the interim, they hired two teachers 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.
“Webb set the stage in a couple of ways. One, it reinforced that in small towns, segregation - the idea of ‘separate but equal’ - of schools was unconstitutional,” Gustafson said. “Many of the same lawyers, NAACP reps, and activists who were involved in Webb were involved in Brown v. BOE. They said, ‘Ok, why if ‘separate but equal’ is unconstitutional in small town schools should it be any different for large town schools? Can separate ever really be equal?’ Beyond the situation of segregated schools in South Park being unconstitutional, those school were certainly not equal either.”
Both the Webb case and Brown v. Board of Education, which came out of Topeka, serve to illustrate that Kansas was at the forefront of national segregation and civic rights issues.
“Kansas has always been central to the discussion of equality in the U.S., and especially central to the fight for African American civil rights, from the ‘free towns’ of the 1850s when the question of slavery was being hotly debated across the nation, to arguments about integration and access to equal educational opportunities a century later” Gustafson said. “But despite this history of the fight for equality and civil rights, Kansas was not free from ‘Jim Crow,’ or the history of segregation, intimidation, and lack of civil rights for African Americans that we generally associate with the American South. The Webb case brought out blatant racism and intimidation in a small community, and that the black families had to fight this fight at all - the fight for a better school for their children - shows just how far Kansas was from its founding ideals. That’s heavy stuff.”
The Hidden Stories - the Webb Family digital exhibit features powerful photos that highlight the South Park community and those who were involved in this fight.
“The photo of the students who walked out (shown above) is amazing - it tells you everything you need to know about how frustrated the community was in 1949,” Gustafson said.
Because this digital exhibit will be located in the Creative Commons area of the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center, 8788 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park, and not inside the Johnson County Museum itself, admission to this exhibit is free and available during building hours of 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information about the museum or this exhibit, go to https://jcprd.com/434/Special-Exhibition
While unrelated to the Webb Family exhibit, the museum is offering another program for Black History month called History on Tap - Diasporas of African Latinos
on Thursday, Feb. 13. As part of the February edition of the Culture After Dark program at JCAHC on the second Thursday of each month, Latina poet Xánath Caraza will relate the history of African Latinos and read related poetry. Drinks and snacks will be provided. This program is for ages 21 and older. The cost for one one-hour program is $8 per person and includes museum admission. Museum members receive a 20 percent discount, but must call to claim their discount. For more information or to register by phone, call (913) 831-3359.