A significant legal milestone in history of the State of Kansas was the famous Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education. This court ruling in 1954 dramatically changed society for the better by eliminating segregation in the school system.
A little known, but equally ground-breaking case occurred five years earlier in Johnson County. Webb v. School District No. 90 is the untold story of 39 African-American students fighting for educational rights.
Following World War II, Johnson County experienced rapid growth, including having more diverse families moving into the county. The population growth promoted School District No. 90 to construct a new South Park Elementary School near Merriam. The school opened in 1948. The building had indoor plumbing, an auditorium, and a cafeteria. It also had one teacher and one classroom for each of its eight grades, plus a music teacher and a kindergarten.
The district’s existing school was Walker Elementary School. It had eight grades in two classrooms. The building was run-down, lacked indoor plumbing, and made do with outdated textbooks and castoffs from other schools.
The school board made provisions for the South Park School to only accept white children and all African-American children would attend Walker School.
When the black parents of Walker School demanded that their children be admitted to the new campus, the district trustees denied access, contending that enrollment was based on the attendance areas drawn up for each school. Esther Webb, a white woman who lived next door to South Park, urged black parents to sue. She also made contact with leaders of the NAACP, a chapter of which was soon formed in Merriam.
The civil rights group mobilized the parents and led them to court. Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP attorney who later became a Supreme Court justice, was among those who went to Merriam to help wage the legal battle in the case known as Webb vs. School District No. 90.
Parents of 39 students took their children out of the poorly maintained, 90-year-old Walker school, and organized a boycott. They also hired Corinthian Nutter, a teacher at Walker School, to continue their education.