The Long Walk Home
On game days, David Smith and his teammates gathered at the Velvet Freeze across Linwood Avenue from Central High School to catch a bus to the Southeast Fieldhouse, near the entrance to Swope Park. As he walked down Indiana toward Linwood, passersby honked and waved, yelling, “Have a good game!” Smith always wore a suit and tie, and he carried his gym bag so that everyone could see the Blue Eagle silk-screened on the side. “I can’t tell you the pride I felt, walking down the street with that bag in my hand,” says Smith, now in his fifties.
Rowdy Central fans, some of them the same well-wishers Smith had seen on Linwood, packed the fieldhouse. When he stepped onto the court, Smith felt an almost supernatural power. The band blared Central’s fight song. Thousands of fans screamed and pounded their feet against the bleachers while Smith and his teammates ran a fast-paced slam-dunk drill that usually left the opposing team frozen in awe.
In 1966, Central won its first state championship. When Smith joined the team in 1967, a double-overtime loss kept the team from repeating. But those were comparatively small achievements. Smith’s coach, Jack Bush, still brags about how ten of the scholars on Smith’s team later finished college. Smith went on to basketball stardom at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he earned a master’s degree. That laid the foundation for a career directing nonprofits such as the Kansas City chapter of the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Kansas City. This April, he won a seat on the Kansas City school board.
Smith credits the community around Central for a lot of his success. “There was as much pride placed on academics as athletics,” he says of the school’s neighbors.
“During that time, the neighborhood [around Central] was more of a neighborhood,” remembers Bush, who still teaches gym at Smith’s alma mater. Through the late ’60s, the area around the old four-story brick building on 33rd and Indiana teemed with businesses like the TG&Y dime store, Crown Drugs and Kroger Grocery. Smith lived just a couple of blocks away from the school, in a three-story four-square with a wide porch directly across 32nd Street from Negro Leagues legend Buck O’Neil. The neighbors knew Smith. So did the people who worked at the stores along Linwood and Indiana. They knew his family, too. If he cut up, word got back to his house before nightfall.
“Young people, or people in general — human beings — need to know they are valued and appreciated and supported,” Smith says. “And when you could feel that kind of support from the people around the school, you were proud. You wanted to live up to it.”
Central was more than just a school. It was a tower of pride for the black community. But over the years, Smith has watched that feeling dwindle to almost nothing. The decline began in the early ’70s, when a steady flow of middle-class black families left the neighborhood. It hit bottom a year ago, when state officials deemed Central “academically deficient.”
That failure carries a painful irony for Smith. A dozen years ago, he testified on behalf of plaintiff students in Kansas City’s desegregation case — the most ambitious and costly such case in American history. Now, simply by being elected to the school board, Smith has become a defendant.
As of May 26, the case will have cost more than $2 billion and dragged on for 25 years. There is still no end in sight. The school district is more segregated than ever. The student body at Central is once again almost entirely black.
Legend has it that Central is the oldest public school in the city. In reality, Central shares that distinction with Lincoln, the city’s original all-black school. The newly formed Kansas City Board of Education established both schools in 1867. But Central was the first high school — back then, blacks weren’t offered a secondary education at Lincoln or any other Kansas City school.
Central held classes in a nine-room brick schoolhouse downtown. Lincoln operated in a building that, according to one historian, was located in an “unsightly gully and resembled anything but a place of learning.”
Twenty years later, the district started providing a high school education to blacks. And as the student populations at Central and Lincoln grew, both schools moved to separate, bigger buildings east of downtown — Lincoln, just west of Prospect on Woodland, and Central, at 33rd and Indiana. The schools built separate legacies as well. At Lincoln, Major N. Clark Smith’s music class became a talent mill for Kansas City’s jazz scene, turning out bandleader Harlan Leonard, Bennie Moten’s cornet player Lamar Wright, and a musician one critic deemed “the greatest jazz counterbass,” Walter Page. Charlie Parker attended classes at Lincoln, though “mostly he was an absentee and truant,” writes Ross Russell in Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest. A mile or so to the southeast, Central reigned as the city’s premier white high school. Its graduates included baseball hall-of-famer Casey Stengel, movie star William Powell, opera singer Gladys Swarthout, and Stranger in a Strange Land author Robert Heinlein.
Until the middle of the twentieth century, most blacks were confined to the area northeast of Troost Avenue and 27th Street. Because Central was just a few blocks south of the area, it was one of the earliest schools to feel the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous May 17, 1954, ruling that state-sanctioned segregation of public education was unconstitutional.
At the time, the district was embroiled in controversy. Earlier that year, the superintendent had quit, protesting school-board micromanagement. Board members had repeatedly given orders directly to district administrators, according to a 1955 investigation report (which, unlike a recent patronage and micromanagement report ordered by U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple, was not kept sealed). Board members were apparently so enamored of their own power that, during public meetings, they made the superintendent sit apart from them at what was commonly known as “the child’s table.”
The Kansas City school board reacted slowly and cautiously to the Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka decision. Board members initially agreed to let blacks enroll in summer school at Westport High. Three black students attended classes there without incident in 1954. During the regular school year, only Manual Technical High School opened its doors to blacks. The next year, full integration began. Because the city was already so segregated, only two schools were affected — Central and East, which were adjacent to the black part of town. (Blacks from all over the city had previously gone to Lincoln and R.T. Coles; that year Central’s black population was 11.2 percent and East’s was 4.9 percent.)
Because of Central’s storied history as the leading white school in town, observers predicted riots. On the first days of school, police officers parked nearby. The media reported that “white and Negro students began living by gangland rule. Bullies of both races extorted nickels and dimes from younger students; when arguments started, the races closed ranks.” But for young Melba Dudley, Central opened a world of opportunities.
Now known as Missouri State Representative Melba Curls, she got her start in government on Central’s student council. She also joined the girls’ glee club, thespians, pep club, French club, zoology club and Junior Achievement. But some activities were off-limits because of the color of her skin. Curls and a couple of her friends tried out for the cheerleading squad year after year but never made it. They even took dance classes to improve their chances. “I was pretty limber back then,” Curls says. But during her time at Central, no black girl ever shook a pompom on the sidelines at a basketball game.
Curls was also excluded from Central’s most elite extracurricular group: the Intersociety, a group of boys’ and girls’ clubs that resembled academic fraternities and sororities. In a tradition dating back to 1886, each spring the Minervas, Delphians, Websters, Violets and others competed in the prestigious Intersociety Contest. The winner was heralded with a banner headline in the final edition of the Central Luminary. Blacks were not allowed in the Intersociety, and as Central’s white population rapidly decreased during the late ’50s, the Intersociety’s pool of eligible students declined. “Rather than dwindle to nothing, each of the clubs voted … to disband in a final blaze of glory,” reads an article in Central’s 1959 yearbook.
The 1958-’59 school year was the last time whites were the majority at Central. The next year, its student body was 70 percent black. By 1962, it was 99 percent. This rapid change was fueled by a district policy established in response to a violent incident at the school. During Curls’ senior year, a group of black students beat up two white teachers. Dozens of white teachers quit or requested transfers. In January 1959, Superintendent James A. Hazlett visited the school and was met by a student who threw a long butcher knife on the ground in front of him. The superintendent blamed the unrest on the racial mix at the school, and the school board responded by allowing white parents to transfer their children to predominantly white high schools such as Paseo, East or Van Horn.
It was an obvious violation of the Brown decision. But afterward, Central improved academically. Before integration, Central had sent fewer than 15 percent of its graduates to college, according to a 1961 report by economics scholar Martin Mayer. But in its first years as a predominantly black school, Mayer wrote, Central saw “150 out of 350 graduates go on to college, 50 of them with scholarships.” And he didn’t mean junior colleges. Centralites gained admittance to Yale, Vassar, Smith, Oberlin, Northwestern and the University of Chicago.
This success drew the attention of Time magazine. In a 1961 article — ironically titled “Central Sets Example in Integration” — the school’s principal, a white man named James Boyd, hailed the board’s decision to encourage white flight. “You have most of the problem when you have no definite [racial] majority,” he observed. “When you have a definite majority, it reduces friction.”
But Boyd also demanded that his staff not let the school’s standards slide. One of the students who benefited from those high expectations was William McClendon, who today is the school’s principal.
McClendon grew up in the neighborhood around Central. To earn money, he threw copies of both the Kansas City Call and the Kansas City Star on his neighbors’ front porches. “We had a high quality of living,” he says. “There was still a feeling of neighborhood connection…. There was a strong sense of pride from the standpoint of strong academic standards.”
That “feeling of neighborhood connection” remained through the early ’70s. For Ray Wilson, who grew up a few houses down from David Smith, the community around Central was like an extended family. “Every night, if the weather was good, you could hear mothers holler for dinner,” he says. “Word would follow a chain all down the street until it found you.”
Growing up, the promise of Central loomed large in Wilson’s future. “You knew early on what Central was about,” he says. “In our neighborhood, it was not a good idea to be walking around with some other school’s letter jacket.”
Now, when Wilson drives down his old street, the place doesn’t look or feel the same. A few of the stately homes are still in good shape, but people don’t sit on their porches as often as they used to. Other houses along the block sag with peeling paint and broken windows looking out on weedy, litter-strewn yards. There are no kids outside. “On a good day like today,” Wilson says, scoping the scene from his pickup, “this street would have been full of kids out playing games. You wouldn’t have been able to get through without going through a pick-up game.”
Wilson turns a corner and spots a couple of teens sauntering along Indiana. He wonders who’s looking after those kids. “Back in the day, people would know these kids who are walking right here,” he says. “Everyone would know who they are and where they’re supposed to be.”
Wilson didn’t notice it at the time, but the neighborhood was beginning to decline while he was still in school. The district’s black population began dissipating in 1972 — his junior year. Like the whites who had fled more than a decade earlier, members of the black middle class were leaving, too.
One of the reasons was undoubtedly the neglect Central High School was suffering. After becoming nearly all-black in the early ’60s, the school’s student population mushroomed. Each day, the building was packed with 1,000 more students than it had been designed to hold. Student bodies at all-white Northeast and Van Horn — both of which were adjacent to Central’s boundaries — remained level because the school board continually tweaked the district’s boundaries to maintain segregation. Resources tended to follow the white students, so Central deteriorated rapidly. Cracks spread across the walls, and holes opened up between floors. Students studied with books that had been used years earlier at whiter schools like Southwest.
Though community pride remained, the effects of racial inequality continued to dog the neighborhood. People started getting fed up. Wilson’s senior-class yearbook is scattered with indications of social unrest, quotes from Frederick Douglass (“It only takes a spark to light a fuse. We are the fuse”), Malcolm X (“Who would be free themselves must strike the blow”) and Stokely Carmichael (“Black power!”). Some of the teachers who had heeded Principal Boyd’s call for high academic standards retired or sought transfers to other schools because they were frustrated by the changing attitudes of their students.
This sentiment was expressed most clearly during three days in April 1968, after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was laid to rest.
On April 9, the day of King’s funeral, some Central students — upset that students in Kansas City, Kansas, had been given the day off while students in Missouri had not — gathered outside the school. Ray Wilson was an eighth-grader at Central Junior High, on the same block as the high school. He wandered onto the football field and watched as students poured out of the high school. Kids were shouting, “Let’s go! Come on!”
According to one account, students inside the school ran through the halls shouting, pushing teachers aside, setting trash cans on fire and throwing books and desks through windows. David Smith was in school that day, but he only remembers hearing the principal announce over the intercom that classes were being dismissed. Once outside, he hung around for a while as the crowd swelled with the arrival of students from Paseo and Southeast, which by that point had substantial black populations.
Cop cars swarmed the scene. Black officers were ordered to roam the crowd on foot and urge calmness, according to an eyewitness account published in the Call. White officers sat watching from their cars in the distance. With the exception of a few bottles lobbed here and there, the crowd remained peaceful at first — partly due to the presence of a cadre of black clergy and a pair of Kansas City Chiefs players.
The students, now more than 1,000-strong, moved east on 33rd street until they reached a police barricade, then turned around and headed back toward the school. But when a student staggered back from a cop car, writhing in pain from a chemical sprayed in his eyes, the crowd erupted and surged northward. A few agitators smashed windows, hurled bricks and overturned cars. When they reached I-70, they leaped over the embankment and forced traffic to a standstill before moving on to City Hall.
In an attempt to calm the mob, radio station KPRS announced a party in a church at 23rd and Benton. The crowd was just dispersing when cops fired tear gas. Violence engulfed the streets.
Wilson, who had followed the march all the way downtown, felt the sting of tear gas. He ran past broken store windows and followed a crowd onto a Greyhound bus. They asked the driver where he was going. “New York,” he said. “No,” Wilson remembers the agitators’ saying, “this bus is going to 31st and Prospect!”
“So he took us there,” Wilson says. “Then he got his bus bricked.”
Smith had gone to the party at the church. The atmosphere there remained calm until, he says, the cops “shot rubber bullets” and tear gas into the church.
As Smith returned home through the old Central Park, he says, he “started to see all the craziness unfold.” The violence continued for three days, much of it within a block or two of Smith’s and Wilson’s homes. A massive apartment building just around the corner burned. Wilson says he could feel the heat from it and that flames rose so high that night seemed like day. Smith’s brothers went to help firefighters, but he stayed home “on the floor peeking out of the window.” At one point, he watched massive troop carriers full of soldiers roll down his street. “I saw the fire coming out of their guns,” he says.
“The next day, I saw the businesses burning in my neighborhood,” Smith says. “The drugstores and cleaners. It was pretty devastating. You know, you couldn’t believe it, right there in your community. I mean, we’d go in there and drink limeades, sitting at the counter.”
“We had some radicals,” coach Bush says of the uprising. “These kids, these so-called radicals, were brainwashed. These were individuals who in the past had not been of that nature. So we [teachers and administrators] fought it, and eventually we won out. We were just able to convince the kids that what they were listening to from these so-called radicals was poppycock. We were able to persuade the kids that the radicals were idiots.”
But that didn’t happen overnight. The next fall, a few rogue students attacked two teachers, injuring one severely enough to require plastic surgery. The next spring, punks broke into the school and destroyed records, trophies and typewriters, showered offices with fire-extinguisher foam and ripped phones out of walls. The damage totaled $10,000.
At the beginning of the 1970 school year, Central’s security guards came to school wearing guns. When school board members learned of this, they called an emergency meeting. Classes dismissed early so that teachers could show their support for the drastic measures of protection. Some threatened to quit if the guards couldn’t wear their guns. But after weeks of community outcry, the guards agreed to disarm.
Then in 1972, a mass brawl erupted after a basketball game between Central and Raytown South. There had long been bad blood between the two schools. Raytown South always paraded a giant confederate flag before games and during intermission — a tradition that Central didn’t appreciate. The two schools were to meet in a state quarterfinals match-up. State activities officials hoped to avert trouble by holding the game in Maryville, a small town an hour to the east.
The game was excruciatingly close. It ended with a goal-tending call in favor of Raytown. Central fans cried “bad call!” while Raytown fans unfurled the Stars and Bars and shouted racist epithets. Central fans stormed the floor, throwing chairs and swinging fists. Though coach Bush and his players tried to stop the fight, the state activities association suspended Central for a year. The stiff penalty brought national attention, and state officials lifted the ban after the NAACP threatened to sue.
“Central had a reputation,” Smith admits. “We had some rough crowds that did go to Central.”
“That was the thing about this school,” Wilson says. “We had an image of sheer terror. There were incidents where we had badasses, no doubt about it. But they were in the minority.”
The press, however, tended to reinforce Central’s negative image. A 1971 Star article headlined “Chicken as Morale Builder,” for example, began by asking, “Will fried chicken in the cafeteria prevent student uprisings at Central high school?” It closed with an obviously out-of-context quote from a black board member: “Is there an expert here who can tell us whether fried chicken is soul food?” Days later, black leaders picketed the Star‘s office to protest the article.
When Central grad William McClendon returned as a student teacher in 1969, he noticed that “a lot of the expectations [students had been held to] in the early ’60s had gone…. The neighborhood had changed.”
Statistics back him up. From 1965 to 1968, Central’s tenth graders scored lower on standardized tests than the school district’s average.
During this period, Kansas City saw the first serious pushes for a comprehensive desegregation plan. These initially arose from the black community’s response to overcrowding at Central. The district bused about a hundred kids from Central to other schools, though that was hardly enough to ease the problem. Meanwhile, the all-white populations at Northeast, Van Horn and Southwest remained at their same levels.
In 1968, Superintendent Hazlett released a long-awaited master plan for integrating the district. It proposed busing kids out of overcrowded schools, clustering several segregated elementary schools so their racially diverse student bodies could mix and establishing “magnet” high schools. The magnets would offer specialized curricula (vocational education, fine arts, science) to attract students from all areas of the city. The report also recommended offering multicultural and African-American history courses districtwide. After the riots, Mayor Ilus Davis’ Commission on Civil Disorders urged compliance with this plan. But the school board issued a statement that read, “We do not advocate ‘bussing’ for the sole purpose of integration.” In 1971, another city task force pushed for African-themed classes, among other things, but the school board again declined.
In 1973, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference filed a lawsuit to desegregate the high schools. Federal officials applied pressure, threatening to sever funds. The school board responded by adopting an integration plan that affected only 17 of the district’s 98 schools. It involved busing about 700 of the district’s 65,000 students. Most of the bused kids were black. Unsatisfied, federal officials launched an investigation, found the district guilty of discrimination and withheld millions of dollars.
So the school board came up with “Plan 6C.” It emerged after two years of contentious board meetings at which parents and residents — most of them from the areas around Van Horn and Northeast — brandished signs saying “No Busing!” and “Integration should be a choice!” In 1976, a white group known as the Southwest Area Educational Council, led by William Buckner and school board president James Lyddon, wrote a letter to the school board asking that it limit minority enrollment at Southwest and several other schools in the area to 30 percent.
When Plan 6C was finally launched at the start of the school year in 1977, it eliminated the district’s all-white high schools by busing black kids to all-white Northeast and Van Horn. But it left a swath of all-black schools running through the heart of the city. For the most part, black students were the only ones who had to board buses bound for integrated schools.
The plan enraged blacks and whites alike. “This is probably the weakest desegregation effort in the country,” the Reverend Emanuel Cleaver, then president of the SCLC, complained to reporters.
“6C has divided our community when support is needed,” said Alice Ellison, the black president of the Central High School Alumni Association. “Our community identity is slowly slipping away.”
Whites expressed their outrage by leaving the district in greater numbers than before.
The media were ready for a fight on the first day of school in 1977. Amid threats of a Ku Klux Klan rally, black students arrived at Van Horn wearing their Central letter jackets. “The tension was very thick,” principal David Griffin told the Star. “That first year there were a lot of rumors, uncertainties and fights.”
But there was also more money. The federal government increased funding for schools such as Van Horn and Northeast, which, despite their vicious protestations, became more mixed than schools such as Central. So Central continued to deteriorate. Students there continued studying with outdated, hand-me-down books. Classes remained overcrowded, sometimes meeting in utility closets.
In the late ’70s, civil rights leader Bernard Powell, a Central graduate, grew dismayed at the decay at his alma mater. He helped form a coalition of alumni and neighbors to improve the school. David Smith joined, leading a team to compile an inventory of the floor-to-ceiling cracks, the window casings perforated with wide gaps, the dangerous old light fixtures with bare wires and the dingy walls and chipped tiles.
Powell’s group “believed in the neighborhood concept of the village as a means to raise kids and give them a sense of direction and purpose,” says Carl Evans, who was a teacher at Central at the time and is now principal at Paseo. To build a stronger village, Powell’s group embraced Jesse Jackson’s national inner-city education-reform movement, which sought to rally communities around their schoolchildren. Jackson visited Central several times, but the community revival around Central began to fizzle, Smith says, after Powell was murdered in 1979 at Papa Doc’s East Side Social Club, just a few blocks away from his old school.
Jesse Jackson spoke at Central on May 25, 1977, the same day the school board directed its lawyers to file a desegregation lawsuit against eighteen suburban school districts in Kansas and Missouri, both state governments and the federal departments of transportation, housing and urban development, and health, education and welfare.
The lawyers filed the case the next day, the same day Star Wars opened. The suit proposed either consolidating metro school districts or cross-district busing. Still, the day’s top story was the abrupt resignation of school board president James Lyddon. Throughout his tenure, Lyddon had fought to maintain “the delicate balance” in the district and had warned against an integration plan that would make the district virtually all-black. “I no longer feel I can go to groups both black and white to try to justify why living cooperatively together will benefit us all,” he wrote in his resignation letter. “Neither has wanted to hear.”
The case started slowly, but within ten years, it grew into the most ambitious desegregation attempt in American history.
The presiding federal judge, Russell G. Clark, switched the school board from plaintiff to defendant. The district ultimately faced a guilty verdict, as did the state; Clark exonerated the suburban districts. This made things tricky. By then, the district was nearly 70 percent black, so it would have been futile to bus kids for the sake of racial balance. But that was the goal — the Brown decision of 1954 offered only the right to a desegregated education. So Clark needed white kids, and the only way to get them was to lure them from the suburbs.
His solution was another magnet plan, with specialized schools offering theme-based courses kids couldn’t get anywhere else. Because Clark found the state and school district “joint and severally liable,” both sides had to pay for the expensive plan. If one party couldn’t afford its share, the other had to pick up the tab. The school district had been unable to persuade white-majority voters to increase the tax levy since the schools had become predominantly black in 1969. So in a decision that would be argued all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Clark raised taxes himself. Because the state was found to be the primary offender, Missouri was forced to pay most of the cost. A small group of lawyers and “education experts” — one set hired by longtime plaintiff attorney Arthur A. Benson II, the other by the school district — devised the plan in the mid-’80s. They came up with it in “a series of meetings over a couple of weeks,” Benson says.
The public had no access to these meetings, in which the lawyers and “experts” compiled a long list of academic themes they imagined might be attractive to suburban whites as well as urban blacks — foreign languages, fine arts, business, science, law enforcement and agriculture. After whittling the list to a manageable size, the group held three public meetings and hired two more consultants to write the final plan. While these two consultants wrote in one room, Benson and the other hired guns examined the printed drafts, fine-tuning the plan.
At the end of it all, Central High School emerged as the proposed site for two magnet themes: Computers Unlimited and Classical Greek.
Many people have wondered why the planners chose to reconfigure a predominantly black high school around such a blatantly Eurocentric theme as Classical Greek. Benson says it was to appeal to kids’ affinity for sports. (He and his fellow planners included a brief essay by Sir Richard Livingstone in the school’s plan, presumably to offer poetic insight. “And what is a complete human being?” Livingstone asked in the 1940s. “I shall take the Greek answer to this question. Human beings have bodies, minds and characters…. This trinity of body, mind and character is man; man’s aim, besides earning his living, is to make the most of all three.”)
They didn’t choose Central because of its long tradition of athletic dominance, Benson says. “I don’t think we even knew that,” he says. “I think we might have known they had a good basketball team, but that didn’t really factor into our decision.” Instead, their logic was based on the need of both the school and the Classical Greek program for a new building to house facilities for the breadth of athletics it would offer — swimming, diving, gymnastics and fencing, in addition to traditional sports.
At first, the prospect of a new building and supercharged academic programs thrilled the Central community. “I thought it was a fantastic idea,” says coach Bush. “I felt that by getting facilities that were equal or comparable to other schools’, maybe now we could finally get some things cooking.”
“We felt for once like our community was getting something that would really make difference,” says Sandra Beasley, who was then an assistant principal. Beasley joined other educators and people from the community on a task force to plan the new school. But the group was hamstrung. Members had to work within the parameters of the desegregation plan, and that left basically one goal: Bring whites to the school.
Beasley says it was a mistake not to try to tap the forces that had previously rallied around Central. Looking back, she says, “One of the mistakes we have made in this district is not capitalizing on some of the talent that was already here. The people with the true commitment. We brought in people who didn’t have any urban experience and we let them out-talk us.”
Art Rainwater, who was Central’s principal then, concedes this might have been a mistake. “Of course, the times were different then,” he explains. “You didn’t have the same emphasis on parental involvement that you do today.” But Rainwater says his ultimate goal was to build a community of support among the parents whose kids attended the school. The members of that community might not have lived next door to one another, but Rainwater believes they could have affected students’ lives if the magnet plan had been allowed to continue.
The common perception among longtime Kansas Citians, however, is that the plan was inherently flawed because it bused students to scattered sites around the city, helping to erode community bonds already frayed by middle-class flight and the crack epidemic, which hit urban neighborhoods at the same time as the magnet plan.
The neighborhood-as-extended-family experience Ray Wilson had enjoyed as a youth disappeared. “[The desegregation plan] separated our community into individual families,” says Dorothy Fauntleroy, a longtime resident of the neighborhood. “Now families don’t talk to one another. They don’t tell other families’ kids to behave.”
Benson still defends the plan. “I think they’re wrong,” he says. “The sentiment is real, and the nostalgia behind the sentiment is real, but the facts on the ground indicate otherwise. That community disappeared between 1968 and 1985.” He says that much of the black middle class left the inner-city neighborhood around Central in search of better services in suburban communities. They left behind a highly mobile lower class. The district, he says, has struggled to educate children who are sometimes forced to switch schools several times a year. “The magnet plans, if anything, actually brought stability to the lives of children,” he says, because it offered to pick up students wherever they lived and take them to the same school every day.
In late October 1988, a group of protesters gathered on the front steps of the old Central High School carrying signs reading “Flunk the school board!” and “End educational and economic apartheid!”
“We’re fired up!” they shouted. “We want our share!”
“This is the beginning of a movement,” said Ajamu Webster, president of the local chapter of the National Black United Front.
The movement, which came to be known as the Coalition for Educational and Economic Justice, was sparked in part by the bidding process to supply equipment for Central’s computer magnet theme.
Several months earlier, Tandy Corp., the parent company of Radio Shack, sued the school board after it voted to award Newspaper Electronics — a local black-owned business — a $1 million contract to install and supply computer stations. Tandy alleged that district officials had improperly handled its bid, making it appear higher than that of Newspaper Electronics when it in fact was lower by $20,000. Jackson County Circuit Judge Donald Mason agreed in a strongly worded decision, calling the district’s explanation of the situation “absurd and not worthy of belief.”
Board members agreed in a divided vote to award the contract to Tandy. But they also unanimously agreed to rebuke Judge Mason for his heated statements. Two board members complained that the judge’s statements hurt the district’s efforts to involve minority-owned firms in district business.
At their rally, Webster and his fellow activists pointed out that most of the $200 million the district had spent up to that point in the desegregation case had gone to white-owned firms.
Shortly after the costly desegregation order, the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City — a secretive consortium of the city’s top CEOs that directs power toward various public causes — offered to supply the district with a chief financial officer to help oversee the process. Though the group had been in existence since 1964, the predominantly white organization had not offered any public support of earlier desegregation efforts. But as money began flowing into the district, these leaders appeared to suddenly become involved. Their appointee was James L. Rainey, a former Farmland executive. He immediately devoted his attention to helping manage more than $488 million in capital improvement projects.
The district established a “project management team” to oversee the district’s building frenzy. This consisted of four private companies that seemed to represent a fifty-fifty split: two white-owned companies, HNTB Architects and Dunn Construction; and two minority firms, Allied Construction and Jaramillo & Associates. In reality, the $12.75 million contract to shepherd the projects from planning through completion stipulated only a 19 percent minority involvement.
The tens of millions of dollars earmarked for Central’s new building were similarly split. A local black-owned firm called By Design Architects drew the plans for the building at a cost of $1.2 million, but a white-owned firm from Johnson County earned more than $22 million to build it. That company, Midwest Titan, also won the contract for another massive desegregation project at Paseo High School. In its bid for Central, Midwest Titan had promised to subcontract more than 20 percent of the work to minority- and woman-owned businesses. But the firm later faced allegations of unfair business practices from some of those minority-owned firms.
Late in 1991, Jimmy Watts, president of the Minority Contractors Association, blasted a report produced by district administrators claiming that minority contractors had carried out 20 percent of the district’s capital improvement work. “For people reading this,” Watts told the Kansas City Call, “They just ought to ride by the schools and see how many minority workers there are.”
In response, a district official admitted, “There have been instances when we have hired minority contractors and they have not hired minorities. There’s no way for us to tell who the minority contractors are hiring.”
Black leaders also raised concerns about the educational side of the desegregation scheme. Later, in the summer of 1989, members of the Coalition for Educational and Economic Justice and other civic and political groups such as Freedom Inc. passed a petition expressing dissatisfaction with Benson’s handling of the case. They decried the use of racial quotas to fill the district’s classrooms. At the time, the district was abiding by a federal court order mandating that minority enrollment in magnet schools be limited to 60 percent. The district had always found it difficult to bring whites back into inner city classrooms, despite a massive ad campaign and a team of recruiters who roamed the suburbs holding coffee meetings with prospective parents. So when some schools reached their 60 percent limit, they stopped enrolling blacks in order to keep desks empty and waiting for white kids.
This enraged blacks. They urged Benson to back off on the quotas. When he refused, they called on him to resign. But Benson and Judge Clark refused to back down on their quota. When Clinton Adams Jr., fiery spokesperson for the coalition, accused Benson of not representing the best interests of black schoolchildren, Benson replied, “I represent schoolchildren of all races, present and future.”
Eventually Clark agreed to ease the quotas, but it did not appease the more vocal members of the black community. On a Saturday in April 1992, members of the coalition once again gathered at Central — this time in a Greek theater inside the brand new $32 million building — and lambasted the desegregation plan. Among the protesters’ numerous complaints was the charge that the district had too few black principals, teachers and administrators. (At the time, Central had a black principal, Robert Jackson.)
Coalition members also ripped the magnet plans. Classical Greek, Latin, Spanish, French — all of them were Eurocentric. They believed a district with a majority of African-American students should offer African-centered education as well. Despite Benson’s repeated protests, the district did establish several African-centered schools — first J. S. Chick Elementary, then much later Sanford B. Ladd elementary, King Middle and Southeast High.
In Jefferson City, forces with far more power were fighting Kansas City’s desegregation plan, too. Missouri ended up paying for most of Judge Clark’s $2 billion plan — but not without a long, vicious legal fight that twice reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case was the state’s hottest political issue, and Central High School was at the heart of it. Even before students stepped through the front door of the new building, rural newspapers ran stories about its opulence. Dubbed “the ultimate jock school,” Central once again drew national attention as reporters from 60 Minutes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe touted its Olympic-sized swimming pool, racquetball courts, indoor track, “sprawling weight room” and computer terminals for each student. The school spent tens of thousands of dollars to send two students to fencing competitions in Germany and Spain. Utility bills approached half a million dollars a year rather than the $61,000 it cost annually to heat the old building.
The state’s budget was in crisis. Facing a deficit, Governor John Ashcroft chose to divert funds from other school districts, and his cabinet made sure every taxpayer between St. Louis and Kansas City understood that desegregation in those cities was to blame. During the 1992 race for governor, Kansas City’s costly program became a central issue. In TV markets outside Kansas City, Mel Carnahan and his Republican opponent, Bill Webster, aired ads attacking one another’s position on the case. On the campaign trail, Webster often referred to Central as “the gold-plated school.”
Carnahan rode into office thanks in part to his promise to settle the case and free the state from the burden of paying for it. But he couldn’t do it without a major break from the U.S. Supreme Court. By the mid-’90s, the balance of the high court had tipped toward the conservative — Thurgood Marshall, the lead attorney for Brown, had been replaced on the bench by Clarence Thomas.
Thomas was no stranger to discrimination. He’d grown up in the deep South. Later in life, on a visit to the Kansas City area, he and a white friend were refused service at a pizza parlor in Johnson County, according to his recently published biography. At a conference prior to deciding the Kansas City case, Thomas looked at his white peers and reminded them of his experiences with racism. “I’m the only one at this table who attended a segregated school,” he reportedly said. “And the problem with segregation was not that we didn’t have white people in our class. The problem was that we didn’t have equal facilities, we didn’t have heating, we didn’t have books and we had rickety chairs.”
On June 13, 1995, Thomas joined four other justices in striking down the underlying premise of Kansas City’s desegregation case, ruling that Judge Clark had overstepped his constitutional authority by mandating a costly network of schools aimed at attracting white students. “It never ceases to amaze me that the courts are so willing to assume that anything that is predominately black must be inferior,” Thomas famously wrote in his concurring opinion. At one point in his long written opinion, he could easily have been talking about the old Central: “Black schools might actually benefit blacks because they can function as the center and symbol of black communities, and provide examples of independent black leadership, success and achievement.”
Three years later, after a long settlement process in which the state bought its freedom for $320 million, Central reverted to being a neighborhood school. During its ten years as a magnet, it had made some strides toward integration — before becoming a magnet in 1988, Central had just one white student; by 1993, it was 20 percent white. “It was fantastic,” coach Bush says of Central during the height of the desegregation action. “I saw some mighty fine fencing expeditions. It was just beautiful and then — boom! — when you cut off all the funds, it just goes away.”
Fencing and racial mixing aside, Central never really improved where it counted most: student achievement. In 2001, state officials descended upon the school and declared it academically deficient.
Danielle Hicks, a recent Central graduate, says that dishonor doesn’t tell the whole story about the school. She finished near the top of her class and earned a scholarship to the University of Missouri in Columbia. She values the time she spent at Central. “As a matter of fact,” Hicks says, “what I learned in my … history classes at Central has led me to hate going to my political-science class here at MU. It’s just boring!”
But she concedes that she was more ambitious than most of her peers and that her teachers could have done more to challenge her. “I think that Central babied me a lot,” Hicks says. “With some teachers, if I didn’t want to do something, I didn’t have to.”
Her prescription for the school is nothing new. Like others before her, she believes Central needs to rebuild the pride and community involvement it used to enjoy. “Parents are going to have to become more involved in their children’s education,” Hicks says. “The reason that many of Central’s students don’t care is because their parents don’t care.”
Even Central’s brightest students lament the lack of community pride and support for the school. “Our generation sucks, school-spirit-wise,” says Brandon Dial, a member of Central’s highly competitive debate team. “There’s just not enough kids around who care. Like spirit week — no one participates any more. I’ve looked at pictures in old yearbooks. It’s nothing compared to what it used to be.”
When William McClendon told people last summer he planned to return to his alma mater as its principal, they told him he was crazy. But he’d been there when the school had been great, and he believes he can bring back some of that glory. “I know the neighborhood,” he says. “And I know what these kids can accomplish if they have the resources to help them learn.”
McClendon believes high-quality education depends on a strong school and school district, strong parental support and strong community support. As soon as he took his position at Central, he strove to strengthen all three. He directed his staff to work on the basics of discipline, making sure students arrived at school on time and stayed in their classes instead of roaming the halls. He established a school uniform policy. He tried to get parents more involved in the School Advisory Committee (the Kansas City district’s equivalent of a parent-teacher association). He met with the chief of police to address the problem of kids’ and young adults’ hanging out on the corner across the street from the school. He visited with city councilwoman Mary Williams Neal. He is close to setting up a satellite school in a nearby church, where parents can overcome their own academic deficiencies. McClendon himself is a minister.
He has attained immediate success. After the state declared the school academically deficient, a state management team studied the school and announced that it had made significant improvement. “It’s not just jargon,” McClendon says. “The state believes it. And you can’t fool these people. They believe in what I’m doing here.”
As for the continuation of the desegregation case, McClendon says, “I don’t think it has any impact on what I do now…. None whatsoever.”
Yet the 25-year-old case continues under the auspices of doing just that — improving the academic achievement levels at schools like Central. Kansas City’s desegregation case is the only one in the country that contains a provision for closing the achievement gap between black and white students. All of the cases in other cities have been tied exclusively to the racial balance of classrooms.
After the district drafted its settlement with the state in 1996, the matter went before Judge Clark. On March 25, 1997, Clark didn’t hide his bitterness over the district’s failure when he wrote his final order before retiring from the case, writing, “This court warns not only the citizens of Kansas City, but also the entire country, that while this court may be powerless to remedy social ills, some action must come soon to give hope to these disenfranchised [black] citizens before the chasm in America becomes so wide that it cannot be crossed.” Clark approved the agreement, noting that the school district had assumed an “awkward posture” in its motion to bring about a gradual end to the case. On one hand, the district argued that it had done all it could to desegregate its classrooms, which are now more segregated than they’d been when the case was filed. On the other, it argued that it had not done enough to reduce the achievement gap between black and white students.
The district did this for one reason: to avoid bankruptcy. The magnet plan had bloated the district, which was operating on funds generated by a court-ordered levy increase that would disappear upon the case’s closure. To keep the money flowing, the district needed to keep the case going.
It worked, but it was a devil’s gambit. In 1999, voters approved a statewide referendum (heavily advertised outside the city as a stick-it-to-KC plan but barely promoted here) freezing the court-ordered tax rate that Judge Clark had imposed on Kansas Citians to fund the magnet schools.
Though it’s well-known that the achievement gap is the only reason the case — and all its attendant legal bills — continues today, few people realize that Kansas City’s gap is actually narrower than the average gap between black and white students nationwide, according to the testimony of education expert Dr. David Armor, cited at length in Clark’s final order. Moreover, Kansas City’s gap is based on scores from a multiple-choice test the district no longer gives. So to prove whether the gap has closed, the district will have to somehow convert the answers from the state’s long-form tests into answers from the old (and, most agree, inferior) multiple-choice tests.
Benson believes the continuation of the case is good for Kansas City’s students because it requires the district to continue making improvements. “I’m a thorn in the district’s side,” he says.
But superintendent Dr. Bernard Taylor says the case is “just one of the factors we have to deal with.” Taylor adds, “I don’t think that it has anything to do with what our mission is to begin with. I don’t think it’s helping or hurting. I think it’s just a reality.”
For Smith and Wilson, the ongoing case has become surreal. Wilson, who is now the School Advisory Committee chairman for Ladd Elementary, is battling Benson over plans to expand the district’s African-centered education program to include a middle school. Wilson supports the program because he’s seen it inspire Ladd’s parents to create a school community akin to the one he experienced at Central. The school’s test scores, which had been among the worst in the district, have improved dramatically.
Benson at first opposed the African-centered program, but after it was established at J.S. Chick Elementary eleven years ago, he agreed to expand it into several other schools in the district. Now he claims he is merely “raising questions about the program,” though he has filed a motion with the federal court to stop current expansion plans.
Like his former neighbor, Smith has also entered a battle with Benson, though his will be more constant and prolonged. When he took an oath in early April to serve four years on the Kansas City school board, Smith instantly became a defendant in the case. Ironically, Smith had testified on behalf of the plaintiffs a dozen years ago. But he was really just sticking up for his alma mater. When the state had tried to find a way out of paying the bill for the new $32 million building, he had taken the stand to say that the new school and its fabulous facilities would benefit the neighborhood. The state’s lawyers tried to strike his testimony by arguing that he didn’t qualify as an expert about the teens who lived around Central. “I was very pleased when the judge overruled that argument,” Smith says.
The building has benefited the neighborhood. On any given weeknight or Saturday, Central is alive with people who use its sports facilities and classrooms for community activities. But all these years later, Smith and many of his peers in the black community have come to see the desegregation case as just another means of disenfranchising blacks. “We know now that the magnet system imparted real damage on the African-American community,” he says. “Some today say African-Americans may have been better off to stay segregated with regards to education. The focus was pretty direct in those days.”
Even when he took the stand, Smith had doubted the underlying premise of the case. “I didn’t much buy into the notion that the building would draw in white students,” he says. Nor did he believe that black kids needed to share classes with white kids to get a solid education. “I thought the answer was stronger teachers, parental involvement, community support,” he explains. “The things I had when I was growing up.”