Former students of Topeka's all black schools share their stories

TOPEKA, Kan, (WIBW) -- Palmer Blackwell, Victoria Lawton Benson, and Alice Lee each attended one of four all black elementary schools in Topeka.

Out of 22 neighborhood schools McKinley, Buchanan, Monroe, and Washington were the only elementary schools African Americans had access to.

Students often had to travel further to get to school even though another one may have been closer.

“It was about three blocks further for me to go than the school called Van Buren which was a white school,” Lee, who attended Monroe, said.

Some like Blackwell, who attended McKinley, heavily relied on the teachers.

“The teacher Mrs. Monroe would come to my house and pick me up and take me to school,” he said.

Benson, who attended Buchanan, said the teachers really cared for their students.

“They were more like family that teachers. They lived in our neighborhoods and went to the same churches,” she said.

However, they said this was all normal for them at the time.

“We never talked about it because that’s just the way it was,” Lee said.

Blackwell said it never bothered him as a child.

“A youngster like me it really didn’t mean that much to me because I played with everybody in the neighborhood. We was all friends. I didn’t know anything about none of that stuff,” he explained.

Many of the students can still clearly remember those around them.

“I even remember Mr. McDonald the janitor. I can see him today. And I’m soon to be 80. So some good memories. Ms. Williams, Ethel Williams, that was our principal. Ms. Harmon. I remember all of them,” Blackwell said.

Benson remembers some of the teachers including what they wore.

“I remember our principal Mrs. Montgomery. She always had gray suits on with the padded shoulder out here. And she’s always standing on the top of the stairs with her hands on her hips,” she said.

Lee can remember most of her classmates and still keeps in touch with a few.

“This one is still working at the library and she’s one of my best friends,” she said while looking at a class photo.”

Today most of the schools look very different.

Buchanan is now home to several organizations.

McKinley is vacant.

“Now as an old man every now and then I’ll go over there and just sit there and look at the old building,” Blackwell said.

Monroe is now the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, and Lee said some areas never changed.

“The same doors on the different rooms are still there. And the stairway is still the same. Of course we didn’t have an elevator back then,” she explained.

Washington Elementary was torn down due to a street expansion.

All three former students said they would have had it any other way.

“I’m very proud and grateful. I learned. And so I like it just like it was,” Blackwell said.