A cloud of uncertainty hangs over one spot considered a historic landmark in the Brown v. Board of Education case.
The former Sumner Elementary School, 330 S.W. Western Ave., is on the National Register of Historic Places. But the school has sat empty for years, and the Ward Meade Neighborhood Improvement Association is appealing a decision by Shawnee County District Judge Richard Anderson in favor of the California church that owns the property.
"Besides the fact that Sumner is sitting in a neighborhood vacant and deteriorating, which affects that neighborhood, there's simply something about our heart and that story that needs and deserves preservation and telling," said Karen Hiller, chairwoman of the Brown v Board Sumner Legacy Trust, established in 2012 and dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the school. "It drains us to see the life drain out of Sumner."
Black minister Oliver Brown tried to enroll his daughter, Linda, in the all-white Sumner Elementary School, helping bring about the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that banned racial segregation in schools. The school was closed in 1996, bought by the city in 2002 and sold at auction to a representative of Archbishop W.R. Portee, founder of Los Angeles-based Southside Christian Palace in 2009 for $89,000.
The Ward Meade NIA sued the church in 2018, claiming the church had violated deed restrictions and maintained a public and private nuisance. But Anderson ruled that the NIA lacked standing to pursue three of its claims.
"As a woman of color, I am honored and appreciative for what Sumner Elementary School represents and both saddened with the reminder of the struggle for equality and justice that took place in history," Ward Meade NIA President Dawn Downing said in an email. "Quite frankly we have come a long way, but we still have work to do. But nevertheless, I’m excited to be living in the neighborhood of such a significant part of history, and the ability to walk or drive past it daily is a bonus."
Sumner won't be included as a stopping point on historic tours and events tied to the Brown v. Board 65th anniversary celebration. But Downing remains optimistic for the future.
"My hopes for the future of Sumner Elementary is that the process for restoration begins very soon," she said, expressing hope that the property will become "a place that complements the Ward Meade community and contributes to the economic growth of the community and city of Topeka, while also becoming a part of the Civil Rights Trail story."
"I am also hopeful that the owners of Sumner and the Topeka community can come to an agreement and create a lifelong thriving plan to preserve this historic landmark."
Hiller said the Sumner Legacy Trust had very good communication with the church early on, and the trust group did a variety of volunteer efforts, including cleaning up the building and grounds and putting on a 60th anniversary event at the site. But a grant application for the building failed and relationships deteriorated. The death of Portee in 2015 also complicated the matter.
Still, Hiller is hopeful for an eventual resolution and positive outcome for the school.
"Something went wrong. But there are good people all the way around, in my opinion," Hiller said.
In late 2017, experts from Georgia State University's World Heritage Initiative, visited the Sumner Elementary School, along with the Monroe Elementary School and the downtown post office that formerly was a federal courtroom involved in the Brown v. Board case. They examined sites across the nation for consideration to be part of a U.S. Civil Rights Trail nomination for designation to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites. Sumner wasn't included but could be added later, Hiller said.
The school also is part of Freedom's Frontier National Heritage Area, which includes sites in eastern Kansas and western Missouri.
The church has had little communication with the community during pending litigation.
"We believe we'll be successful," said John Hutton, a lawyer representing the church said of the lawsuit. He referred questions to court filings, which detail the church's position in the lawsuit.
The school was purchased with the intent of rehabilitating it for use as a community center and human rights memorial, but the church has been unable to afford substantial renovations, which may not be made for many years, according to court filings.
The Ward Meade NIA asked the court to order the church to comply with three deed restrictions: 1) to repair, renovate and maintain the building as envisioned, 2) to open the building as a public educational memorial, and 3) to provide a place for NIA meetings. The NIA also asked the court to enjoin the church from continuing to maintain a public and private nuisance, comply with property and building codes and award damages.
The church contended that the "deed restrictions" should be referred to as "notations," questioned the scope of enforceable obligations and contended that mandated repair and maintenance obligations have expired. The church also challenged the NIA's standing to enforce the first and second deed restriction and the nuisance claims and claimed that it hasn't violated the second and third deed restrictions because its use of the property involves renovation and it is not yet safe or fit for use. The church also established that it is compliant with city codes, having resolved all code compliance cases.
The church applied for two grants between 2009 and 2015, but neither grant was awarded, and the church lacks the money to make substantial repairs to the school. It estimates renovation will cost $7 million, and doesn't expect that to happen for at least 15 years. Last summer, a new roof was installed on the school and various other general repairs and cleaning were done.
Jack Alexander, a native Topekan and former city water commissioner and Kansas Corporation Commissioner, said he tried to talk with church leaders when they were cleaning up the site last summer but was asked to leave. A 1949 graduate of Topeka High, Alexander attended the all-black Washington Elementary School.
"I do not live in that area. I have no strong feelings about the building itself," he said, noting that any of the schools that were part of the district during the Brown v Board decision could claim historical significance along with other sites, such as a nearby filling station that was the first to be franchised to a black man.
But he applauded the neighborhood for its interest in the building and said he wondered why the church doesn't sell it.
"Just to buy it and leave it sit as it is doesn't help anyone," Alexander said.