Monroe Elementary

Monroe Elementary School, an imposing, yet simple brick structure on the corner of 15th and Monroe Streets in Southeast Topeka, Kansas is typical of many early twentieth-century school buildings. This school so seemingly commonplace, nonetheless holds a special place in American memory. Here the National Park Service, U.S. Department of Interior, commemorates one of the most influential decisions rendered by the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) made racial segregation illegal in America's schools and launched the Modern Civil Rights Movement. Monroe Elementary School was one of the segregated schools African American plaintiffs in the case were forced to attend after being refused admission to schools for whites in their neighborhoods. It symbolizes the value society places on education, the struggle of African American families to secure educational opportunities for their children and the realities of racial discrimination under a segregated educational system.

School Days
The story of Monroe Elementary begins long before the Brown decision. In 1859, John Ritchie, an abolitionist, bought 160 acres from Jacob Chase in. Topeka, Kansas. After the Civil War a number of newly freed African Americans came to Topeka and built homes on this land. Due to the sizable African American population, the school board decided to establish a school for black children in the neighborhood. Monroe School "Ritchie's Addition" became the site of. After Ritchie's death in 1877, the land was purchased by the Topeka Board of Education to build a school for African American children.

The current building is actually the third Monroe school to sit on the corner of Fifteenth and Monroe streets. The first school was located in a small rented building that was used from 1868 until a permanent structure was erected in 1874. The current building was constructed in 1926 just to the south of the old school. It was one of many educational facilities in Topeka designed by the prominent Topeka architect Thomas W. Williamson between 1920 and 1935. His firm, Williamson and Co., was hired by the Topeka Board of Education to design a series of progressive schools. Monroe Elementary School is a two-story brick and limestone building in the Italian Renaissance Revival style. The building was made with some of the best materials and the most modern technology of the time.

Monroe was the newest of the four segregated schools serving Topeka's African American community. The other schools were Buchanan, McKinley, and Washington. Washington no longer stands and the Topeka Board of Education no longer owns the remaining schools.

Use through the 1950's
Monroe originally had thirteen classrooms. From the time of its construction until 1941, Monroe served Kindergarten through eighth grades. After this time the three upper grades were transferred to integrated junior high schools, leaving additional classroom space in the school. The Manual Training Room was later used as a lunchroom and two classrooms were converted for use in music and visual education.

Directly across the street from Monroe, there is an area that was used for an additional playground. This playground is a visible triangular-shaped area that is part of the park site. This property was used for the older children to participate in athletic activities especially for softball, baseball, track and football. The younger children would have used the playgrounds on the north and south ends of the building.

Changing Ownership
Monroe School was closed in 1975 due to declining enrollment. The school district utilized the school building as a warehouse and the grounds for parking buses and performing vehicle maintenance. Eventually the school and grounds were sold to private owners. Monroe Elementary remained in private ownership for more than fifteen years. Richard Appelhans and Richard L. Plush, Jr. intended to convert the school to offices or a private school, instead they sold it in 1982. The new owner was the Church of the Nazarene which used the property as a community outreach program and meeting place. The next owner, Mark A. Steuve, President of S/S Builders purchased the school from the church in 1988 to use as a warehouse. In 1990, Mr. Steuve announced his intention to auction the building off.

The Brown Foundation began a crusade to save Monroe Elementary School from being sold. After a series of letter writing campaigns and meetings with local Congressional leadership and the Trust for Public Lands the school was secured. The Trust for Public Land purchased the property in 1991 and it was added to the National Historic Landmark nomination for the Sumner Elementary School, listed in 1987. On October 26, 1992, President George Bush signed legislation establishing Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. The title was transferred to the National Park Service in December of 1993.

Monroe school is not the only site where the story of Brown v. Board of Education can be told. There were many segregated schools throughout the country, and countless parents who disliked the segregated system and wanted something better for their children. As a symbol of the struggle for equal educational opportunity, Monroe provides an ideal setting from which to interpret Brown v. Board of Education.


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Last modified: 5/30/2000