Historian tells of Sumner High School

Chester Owens

by Murrel Bland

Chester Owens Jr. received a telephone call in about 2005 (he can’t recall the exact date) telling him that many artifacts of Sumner High School were about to be destroyed. He quickly rescued these historic items, storing many of them in the basement of his home.

This is one of several stories that Owens told Sunday afternoon, March 20, at a quarterly meeting of the Wyandotte County Historical Society at the Wyandotte County Museum in Wyandotte County Park, Bonner Springs. About 50 persons attended.

Today, there is a history room at Sumner Academy of Arts and Sciences displaying many items including the rescued artifacts.

Owens, a dedicated historian of Sumner High School, came to Wyandotte County with his family from Ashdown, Arkansas, in 1946. He became a sophomore at Sumner.

Owns told of how Sumner became the only segregated high school, by law, in Kansas. On April 12, 1904, a very popular white youth, Roy Martin, was shot and killed in Kerr Park. Charged and convicted was Louis Gregory, a Black youth. Throughout the years, Black historians have argued that Gregory was trying to defend himself. The white community was up in arms. The solution was to segregate schools—all Black students would attend Northeast Junior High and Sumner High School.

Kansas Gov. E.W. Hoch was reluctant to sign the bill that made Sumner a segregated school; he did it only after being assured Sumner would be of the same quality as other buildings in the Kansas City, Kansas, School District. The law also guaranteed that Sumner faculty members would be paid as well as their white counterparts. These factors attracted faculty members from all over the United States.

The name of the high school was chosen honoring U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, an abolitionist.

Owens told several prominent graduates, faculty members and administrators of Sumner. They included:

• William Foster, president of the American Bandmasters Association and board member of the John Phillips Sousa Foundation.
• Fernando J. Gaitan Jr., senior U.S. Court Judge for the Western District of Missouri.
• John McClendon, first Black head coach of any professional sport.
• Leon Brady was band director at Sumner. His jazz band raised $25,000 from private sources so the band could attend international competition in Paris—they called the event “Sumner in Paris.”
• Col. Vernon Coffey was appointed as the U.S. Army aide to President Richard M. Nixon.

The Historical Society named Owens the “Historian of the Year.”

Murrel Bland is the former editor of The Wyandotte West and The Piper Press. He a member of the Board of Trustees of the Wyandotte County Historical Society.

Owens to speak at historical society’s quarterly meeting Sunday

Chester Owens (File photo)

Local historian Chester Owens Jr. will be the guest speaker at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 20, at the quarterly meeting of the Wyandotte County Historical Society and Museum.

The meeting will be at the Wyandotte County Museum, 631 N. 126th, in the Wyandotte County Park, Bonner Springs. The entrance road is off 126th and State Avenue.

Owens will speak on the history of Sumner High School.

A graduate of Sumner High School, Owens was the first black person elected to the Kansas City, Kansas, City Council. Elected in 1983, he served two terms on the council.

Owens is a graduate of Pittsburg State University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He retired in 1998 as president at H.W. Sewing and Co.

Winter Speakers Series to start Dec. 11 at Grinter Place

Grinter Place will kick off its Winter Speakers Series at 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 11.

David Meditz will speak about George Washington Jackson, a Wyandotte County citizen who had ties to the late President U.S. Grant, according to Pat Spencer of the Grinter Place Friends.

The Dec. 11 presentation will include information about a Spanish-American War infantry unit with almost all Wyandotte County residents.

Grinter Place is a state historic site at 1420 S. 78th St., Kansas City, Kansas. The museum is the 1857 home of Moses and Annie Grinter. Moses Grinter ran a ferry across the Kansas River and was the postmaster in the area.

There is no admission charge for the speakers series. Questions and answers will follow the program, which is expected to be 30 to 45 minutes long.

Tours of the Grinter House will be available. The historic house is decorated for Christmas in the style of the 1850s.

Light refreshments including cinnamon rolls, coffee and tea, will be served on Dec. 11, Spencer said.

Other dates in the Grinter Winter Speakers Series include Jan. 15, Louise Crable, Wyandotte County historian, “Plants and Herbs of the Grinter Era”; Feb. 12, Wyandot Nation of Kansas, Principal Chief Judith Manthe, Wyandot tribal history and culture; and March 12, Bill Nicks, Wyandotte County historian and re-enactor, who has a sunflower collection, will speak on sunflowers since 1861.

In the event of inclement weather, contact the organization to see if the event will still be held. Masks are required for indoor events.

For more information, visit the Grinter Place Friends Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/GrinterPlaceFriendsInc or call 913-334-2500.