Black History Month: Corinthian Nutter and the integration of Johnson County schools

Landmark ruling came 5 years before Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education

Corinthian Nutter and her class.

Corinthian Nutter with her students at Walker Elementary School in Merriam ca. 1948.

By Gerald Hay

Five years before the landmark Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, a little known, but equally ground-breaking ruling occurred in Johnson County District Court.

The Webb v. School District No. 90 case involved 39 African American students fighting for educational rights.

A little background is in order. 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.

Thurgood Marshall in Merriam

Sketched heart showing with bands of red, yellow and green and the words Black History Month.

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 The building was run-down, lacked indoor plumbing, and made do with outdated textbooks and castoffs from other schools.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 Brown, 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.

Her name is not a household word for many, but it deserves to be. Willingly risking further employment in the public schools, Nutter taught these children for more than a year in her home, parents’ living rooms, and in the basement of Mt. Olive Baptist Church.

A poor Texas native and a daughter of a former slave, Nutter spent much of her childhood in the cotton fields. She left her Texas home at age 15 to pursue an education in the North, eventually earning a master’s degree in education. Nutter was the only certified teacher at Walker Elementary School in the late 1940s.

A key witness in court

Black and white photo portrait of Corinthian Nutter

Nutter was a key witness in the lawsuit. The Brown family’s attorney Elijah Scott Sr. took the lead in bringing about the case against School District No. 90.

After the Kansas Supreme Court in 1949 ruled that equal facilities must be provided for all children with attendance based on geographic territory, the school board admitted Black children to South Park School. The issue of segregation per se was not part of the ruling as facilities were so clearly unequal.

Elijah Scott’s two sons, John and Charles, assisted with the 1951 U.S. District Court case leading to Brown v. Topeka Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court three years later, ending school segregation because of race.

After the successful conclusion of the South Park School case, Nutter was offered a teaching job at South Park, but she turned it down when she learned that the district planned to put all the black students in her class. She later accepted a position at Westview Elementary School in Olathe. She eventually became the school’s principal before retiring in 1972.

In 2004, Nutter died peacefully in her Shawnee home. She was 97.

South Park School faded into history at the end of the 2006-2007 school year when it was closed and combined with the opening of the new Merriam Park Elementary School.

The importance of South Park, Corinthian Nutter, and Webb vs. School District No. 90 remains milestones in Johnson County, serving as the stepping stone to the landmark Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education in desegregating schools throughout the nation and ensuring the right to an equal education.

Or, as Corinthian Nutter once said: “Schools shouldn’t be for a color. They should be for children.”

The rest is history.

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