The Story of Kansas

January 18, 2010

Topeka NAACP leader had plan for school desegregation

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating history. The series' name comes from the state motto, Ad Astra per aspera: "To the stars through difficulties."

In historical accounts of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case, McKinley Burnett often gets overshadowed.

As president of the Topeka chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Burnett first focused attention on desegregating Topeka’s public schools.

When he became the local chapter’s president in 1948, Burnett began attending meetings and writing letters trying to convince the Topeka Board of Education that it was time to integrate schools.

He was unsuccessful. At the time, Kansas law permitted segregated elementary schools in cities of at least 15,000 or more.

So, Burnett developed a strategy for a court case.

The plan was to enlist the support of fellow NAACP members and friends as plaintiffs in a class action suit.

The criteria for each of the 13 families who filed as plaintiffs was that they had to pass a white school that was closer to their home as they traveled to their segregated school. At the time, Topeka had four elementary schools designated for black children and 18 for white children.

In the fall of 1950, each plaintiff in the Topeka case was instructed by the NAACP to watch the newspaper to determine the appropriate enrollment dates, then take their child, along with a witness, to the white school nearest their home. Once enrollment was denied, the next step was to report the incident to the NAACP.

In February 1951, the local NAACP filed a lawsuit.

Throughout the case, Burnett remained a quiet force, leading the local chapter.

Facing discrimination was something he had done most of his life.

Burnett was light-skinned enough to pass in white society but he would later tell his children that he often found more limits imposed on him because of his skin color.

He was a soldier during World War I and fought in segregated troops. He faced Jim Crow laws in public places, schools and work.

His interest in civil rights was ignited after he saw the treatment of fellow African-American soldiers.

After World War I ended, Burnett returned to Kansas and worked as a carpenter in the Santa Fe Railway shops in Topeka. He also worked at the Veterans Hospital.

When Burnett’s daughter, Maurita Davis, was interviewed by the Kansas State Historical Society, she said her father never took a vacation. Instead, he would take what designated leave time he had to attend Topeka school board meetings, which were held on Mondays at 8 a.m.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that segregated schools were unconstitutional. It took 10 more years for things to change.

Burnett remained president of the Topeka chapter of the NAACP until 1963. He died in 1968.

The Monroe School in Topeka has since been designated the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. And the Topeka public schools administration building has been named after Burnett.

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