Black History Month: Luella Johnson and the struggle for equality

Third-grader went to court for the right to attend all-white school near her home

An old black and white photo of African American children from the

A class from Lincoln School in Olathe from the 1920s.

It has been 68 years since the famous U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Topeka Board of Education ended national school segregation.

Yet long before that landmark decision, African American students, parents and supporters were fighting for educational rights for decades both locally and across Kansas. The court challenges usually became known by one name although several parents were often involved.

Luella Johnson of Olathe was one of them. She was a plaintiff against the Olathe Board of Education in a quest to attend a new primary school for white students near her home instead of the city’s first designated new all-Black primary school further away. She won her case in Johnson County District Court in May 1890, more than six decades before the landmark Brown v. Topeka ruling.

Luella Johnson was 9 years old and a third-grade student.

“Enrollment in the Olathe School District in 1879 showed 90 Black students.They attended a variety of rented store fronts or other buildings for their school,” said Bob Courtney, vice president of the Olathe Historical Society.

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

Two new primary (elementary) schools were completed in Olathe in the fall of 1889. At that time, Olathe School District had three elementary schools: Central in the 1st Ward, Lincoln in the 2nd Ward and Washington in the 3rd Ward.The Stone School, the city’s first public school, was in the 1st Ward. It was a secondary school and the city’s two-year high school.

Luella Johnson wanted to attend Washington School. (It was the city’s first Washington School located near downtown Olathe). The school opened with plans to serve white pupils in grades one to three. It was an estimated 660 yards from her home. The Lincoln School opened serving Olathe’s Black elementary students in all grades. It was located about 1,250 yards away from where the Johnson family lived.

According to school board minutes on Sept 2, 1889, “a petition signed by 48 colored persons was presented to the board asking that the board change the order made that colored children be required to attend school at colored grade rooms and admit such colored children as live in 2nd and 3rd Wards to the grades in the school buildings in the 2nd and 3rd Wards.”

A week later, the school board rejected the petition by unanimous vote.

Historic sepia tone portrait photo of Judge John Taylor Burris.

Lawsuit filed

The Luella Johnson v. Olathe Board of Education lawsuit was filed in Johnson County District Court in October 1889, seeking equal access to education. The school board hired an attorney in January 1890 to represent the board in the lawsuit. He was paid $100 (about $3,000 in 2022 dollars).

The lawsuit asked for a preemptory writ of mandamus against the school board allowing her to attend Washington School.

Judge John Taylor Burris, already a notable figure in local and state history before being appointed a judge in 1869, presided over the legal dispute.

“He represented Johnson County at the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention, becoming one of the framers of the Kansas Constitution. He was an anti-slave delegate,” Courtney said.

A little background is in order. The Wyandotte Constitution was approved by territorial referendum on Oct. 4, 1859. Congress voted to admit Kansas as a free state under that constitution on Jan. 29, 1861.

In 1879, the Kansas Legislature passed a statute specifically allowing first-class cities with populations of 15,000 or more to operate separate primary schools. Except for high schools in Wyandotte County, secondary schools were not segregated in Kansas. The law remained in effect into the 1950s.

Olathe qualified as a second-class city in 1890 with a population of 3,294, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In his ruling, Judge Burris noted the 1879 state law directed second-class cities to establish and maintain “a system of free, common schools … and shall be free to all children residing in said city between the ages of 5 and 21 years.”

The Olathe Board of Education claimed Luella Johnson was “not prohibited from attending the 3rd Ward school merely or solely because she is a colored child,” but because “it was for her best interests and the best interests of the other colored children.”

Lawsuit decided

Judge Burris discounted that claim, saying in his ruling the “opinion of the defendants does not strengthen their defense an iota” and adding the board’s viewpoint was not the central issue, but “what is the law? It is not what would be best for the plaintiff, but what are her rights?”

According to the judge, state law allowed the right of the plaintiff to go to Washington School in the 3rd Ward since it was the closest school to her home.

“She is wrongfully deprived of that right by the defendants. And, she has a right to a preemptory writ of mandamus against the defendants commanding and requiring them to admit her as a pupil into said school,” he ruled. Judge Burris also ordered the Olathe Board of Education to pay costs of the lawsuit.

The Olathe Board of Education voted not to appeal the ruling to the Kansas Supreme Court.

“As of 1890, all Olathe District elementary schools were integrated.The secondary school (Stone School) was always integrated,” Courtney said.

In August 1890, the school board, designated certain elementary grades to be taught among the city’s three primary schools and at the Stone School. Enrollment was based on where students lived. There was no distinction between white and Black students attending which schools, only by their grades at enrollment.

“All 4th grade pupils are assigned to the Stone School,” Courtney said.

Luella Johnson was then a fourth grader. She apparently never attended Washington School. The Stone School, however, was closer to her home than Lincoln School.

Yellowing page from an old book showing black and white photos of Lincoln and Washington schools in Olathe.

Archive photo of Washington (top) and Lincoln elementary schools in Olathe.

A similar lawsuit

In his ruling, Judge Burris cited a similar case that occurred in 1881 when Elijah Tinnon, an African American parent, sued the school board in Ottawa, Kansas. Tinnon asked the school board to allow his 7-year-old son, Leslie, to attend a brick Central School for white students nearest his home rather than a one-room framed school for Black children, grades 1 to 6. The school board refused, leading to the legal challenge in his son’s name.

Franklin County District Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, citing the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The school board appealed the decision to the Kansas Supreme Court. The high court upheld the district court ruling.

Kansas Supreme Court Judge Daniel M. Valentine wrote: “Is it not better for the aggregate of human society as well as for individuals that all children should mingle together and learn to know each other?”

The court rulings for equal access to an education by young Black students in Olathe and Ottawa were short-lived local wins but not prolonged victories setting legal precedence.

Six years after Luella Johnson’s district court ruling, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld the constitutionally of racial segregation under a “separate but equal” doctrine in 1896. The ruling implied the 14th Amendment protections applied only to political and civil rights, not social rights for African Americans.

Separate public accommodations, including schools, businesses, movie theaters, transportation systems even drinking fountains, became commonplace with Jim Crow laws. The ruling would stand for almost six decades.

Separate but equal

With the 20th century, changes were also occurring in Olathe. The original Lincoln School, serving Black pupils for 28 years, was replaced in 1917 by a newer building on the same block on Spruce Street. It became the separate but equal school for educating Black elementary students for decades ahead.

“It wasn’t until around 1910 or 1920 that segregation returned gradually to Olathe schools,” Courtney said.

The next change did not occur until the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in 1949 that equal facilities must be provided for all children with attendance based on geographic territory in the Johnson County District Court case of Webb v. School District No. 90 in Merriam. After the ruling, Corinthian Nutter, a teacher of the Black students in the case, came to Olathe to teach grades 1-3 at Lincoln Elementary School from 1951-1958. She also was principal from 1954-1958 while she taught.

The Brown v. Topeka Board of Education ruling followed five years after Webb v. School District No. 90 in desegregating schools throughout the nation, saying it was unconstitutional, and the start of the American Civil Rights Movement.

The Olathe School District was fully integrated in 1958.

Lincoln School closed that year.

The rest is history

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