When Wichita was incorporated in 1870 the public schools were integrated and the State of Kansas did not require public school segregation. However a few decades later, in 1906 attitudes had evolved to the point that Wichita school board was forced to establish a dual system for Black and White students. Douglas, Grand, 18th Street, and L’Ouverture Elementary Schools were established for Black children, and in 1914 the school board began to transport Black students living in predominantly White neighborhoods to these schools. This practice ended with Wichita abandoning formal segregation in the 1951-52 school year, ahead of the Topeka BOE case.
However, ending legal segregation did not automatically lead to a desegregated school system. W.C.Little School became a Black school as Whites moved out of its attendance area. Because Wichita retained a system of relatively small elementary schools, the racial composition of particular schools could change swiftly and dramatically as a result of relatively modest demographic movements.
Wichita’s fragile and tentative desegregation advance was soon undermined by unscrupulous realtors who typically advised clients that “they could only sell to families with no small children because the school was going ‘Negro.’” Such exploitation was accompanied by the school board’s refusal to redraw attendance boundaries to encourage desegregation. In 1958 White parents were able to persuade school officials to redraw attendance zones so their children could transfer from Mathewson Junior High School, with a growing proportion of minority students, to Brooks Junior High School.
In the 1960s highway development led to further boundary adjustments, and Blacks were shifted into predominantly Black schools and Whites into predominantly White ones.
In 1966 the Wichita school Board first attempted to reverse racial isolation in its schools when it decided to allow students from Mathewson Junior High School to attend any other junior high school in the city if they provided their own transportation. The measure proved too little and too late, however, to satisfy those seeking broader desegregation.
On February 11, 1966, Chester I. Lewis, an attorney representing the local chapter of the NAACP, filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Education alleging discriminatory practices in violation of Titles IV and VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Office for Civil Rights, after visits to Wichita in 1967 and 1968, recommended several measures including the closing of Mathewson Junior High School, suspension of construction of a proposed elementary school, accelerated faculty desegregation, and a program to end the segregation of seven elementary schools.
In 1969 the Wichita Board of Education’s low economic area problems (LEAP) committee delivered its report. The blue-ribbon committee (including corporate, business, school, and university representatives) had been appointed by the board several years earlier “to study the problems of education in ‘the low-economic areas and related problems of integration in the school system.’” The LEAP committee reported that, prior to 1960, the schools with predominantly Black, low-income student enrollments had higher than average pupil-teacher ratios and lower than average pupil expenditures; after 1960 those schools received compensatory services. However, the committee concluded from its investigation of the educational impact of thee compensatory programs that they were not an effective substitute for full desegregation.
The committee’s analysis of the achievements of low- and high-status children of all ethnic groups showed that the benefits of desegregation were most apparent in the higher achievement and improved self-perception of working –class White students. Further, Black students consistently achieved higher scores as the number of Whites in their classes increased.
The LEAP committee urged the socioeconomic integration of students that racial desegregation ought to be part of socioeconomic desegregation, and that no school should have a minority enrollment exceeding 20%. Several committee members withheld their endorsements on the grounds that the recommendations were impractical and contrary to community sentiment.
The committee found the actual racial distribution of the school system startling. Ten of the 16 junior high schools and 3 of the 6 senior high schools had few Black students. In 1965, 89% of the Black elementary school population attended only 7 of the approximately 90 elementary schools. Although by 1968 this proportion had dropped to 76%, projections indicated that given this rate of decline – assuming no resegregation – it would require 20 years to produce acceptable desegregation.