Out-of-town owners of the former Sumner School, a shuttered elementary school at the center of the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, denied access of the school’s interior to experts on the civil rights era this week.
Instead of seeing once all-white classrooms where black minister Oliver Brown wanted his daughter, Linda, to learn, Glenn Eskew and Anne Farrisee, of Georgia State University’s World Heritage Initiative, on Monday inspected the building’s exterior from the sidewalk, where large, forboding boarded windows overshadowed intricate stone carvings depicting children playing in the sun. The pair are part of a team preparing a list of sites involved in the Civil Rights Movement for possible nomination to receive the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites designation. On Tuesday, they toured the former federal courtroom in the downtown post office and the Monroe Elementary School at 1515 S.E. Monroe.
UNESCO names landmarks, buildings and parks as World Heritage Sites based on their roles in world history, culture and tradition, among other criteria. Such a designation would place Topeka on the same list as the Vatican City, Taj Mahal and Great Wall of China internationally and the Grand Canyon, Statue of Liberty and Independence Hall nationally.
Despite the Los Angeles owners’ silence about plans to restore the vacant building and a possible listing as a World Heritage Site, community members hoping to bring new life to the school felt a sense of optimism.
“Even being considered for a World Heritage Site (designation) reinforces Topeka’s place in history,” said Karen Hiller, city councilwoman and chairwoman of the Brown v. Board Sumner Legacy Trust. “Thousands of Topekans attended, taught or were members of the PTO (parent-teacher organization) at Sumner. A lot of people are passionate about this building.”
The Browns were denied entry to Sumner School in 1950, and Oliver Brown became lead plaintiff in the 1954 Brown v. Board U.S. Supreme Court case that saw the end of segregated education in America. For that reason, the Sumner School and the former all-black Monroe Elementary School, now the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, are among more than 100 sites involved in the Civil Rights Movement the Georgia State team is evaluating for possible inclusion in a serial nomination to UNESCO for inclusion as a World Heritage Site, Eskew said.
“We’re here today to actually to visit the Sumner and Monroe sites because of their significance in civil rights history,” he said.
Sumner School’s journey to becoming a dark shuttered shell in Ward Meade began more than two decades ago.
After being named a National Historic Landmark in 1987, students attended class at the school until 1996, when Topeka Unified School District 501 closed it as part of a desegregation plan.
The district turned the building over to the city of Topeka, which in 2009 auctioned it off to highest bidder — a representative of Los Angeles-based Archbishop W.R. Portee who paid $89,000. At the time, Portee outlined plans to restore the structure and turn it into a community gathering place.
Portee and his local representatives worked with the Sumner Legacy Trust and the Ward Meade NIA to plan a 60th anniversary celebration of the Brown v. Board decision, held on the Sumner school grounds in 2014. The groups also applied for a Kansas historic preservation grant to use for basic and much-needed work on the building, but the grant was denied.
Communication between the California owners and locals declined when Portee died in 2015 and the school remained in his Southside Christian Palace Church’s ownership.
Hiller said the owners or their representatives have not been in communication with locals in some time, and it is unclear what the owners plan to do with the school. A request from the National Parks Service for access to the building was denied citing safety concerns, she said.
On site Monday it was obvious to Hiller and neighbors recent improvements had been made. Shingles on the school’s southwest tower, the most dilapidated part of the building, Hiller said, had been replaced along with metal flashing. A missing weathervane atop the tower had either been replaced or returned and boards sealing windows appeared to be recently reinforced.
“I can’t speak to what they’re thinking and they haven’t told us anything,” Hiller said. “We’re eager to work with them and the community to bring Sumner back to life.”
Phil Gonzales, who formerly was part of the Brown v. Board Sumner Legacy Trust group that has been working to restore Sumner and worked as a local representative for the school’s Los Angeles owners, refused to comment.
“I’m not going to talk,” he said before hanging up the phone.
As of Tuesday evening, Southside Christian Palace Church officials hadn’t returned calls.
Topeka’s Sumner and Monroe Elementary Schools are just two of dozens of sites across the country the Georgia State team will consider for possible inclusion in its recommendation.
Currently three sites, all in Alabama, are being considered for possible nomination, but the hope is a larger list of sites will provide a broad scope of civil rights history, Eskew said. Other sites include Little Rock Central High School and the Ebenezer Baptist Church, the family church of Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta.
Eskew and Farrisee wouldn’t comment in detail about their tour of Topeka as the study was “very preliminary.”
“We’re doing our due diligence to a look at a number of sites,” Eskew said.
Once all the sites are inspected, the team will submit a completed list to the National Parks Service for review, hopefully by the end of 2018, according to Georgia State University documents outlining the study. NPS or a third party would have to nominate the sites to the United Nation’s for consideration as a World Heritage Site, said Sherda Williams, superintendent of Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site.
Becoming a national park would require congressional action and consent of the owner, Williams said, and is not a requirement for UNESCO nomination.
Deed restrictions imposed during at the 2009 sale require the building to have a visitor area commemorating Brown v. Board and public meeting space. Other plans for the building have included a community center and memorial. Cody Foster, co-founder of Advisors Excel and a downtown developer, had expressed interest in buying the property but said Tuesday in an email the Los Angeles owners hadn’t returned his call.
Regardless, a World Heritage Site designation would give the buildings and Topeka international credibility. It could also open the door for possible grant funding to restore and maintain the buildings.
“It’s the kind of designation that would really raise the relevance of our state,” said Linda Craghead, Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism assistant secretary of parks and tourism. “Kansas played an important role in civil rights not only in America but across the world.”
Matt Pivarnik, president &CEO of GO Topeka and the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce, said the designation — along with a revitalized Sumner School — would boost tourism in Topeka. Data from NPS showed the nearly 28,000 people who visited the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in 2016 spent about $1.6 million, largely on hotels and restaurants.
More importantly, an internationally recognized designation adds to the city’s quality of life.
“This is just one more layer of Topeka’s story,” he said.
Even without a World Heritage Site designation, Dawn Downing, secretary of the Ward Meade Neighborhood Improvement Association, said the neighborhood is excited to be considered.
“It allows us to at least see our efforts are not falling on deaf ears,” she said. “We want something positive to happen to this school.”
Contact reporter Luke Ranker at (785) 295-1270 or @lrankerNEWS on Twitter. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/lukeranker.