1881: Elijah Tinnon v. The Board of Education of Ottawa
Elijah Tinnon was an African American parent who spoke and acted for equal educational opportunity in Kansas before the concept had a name. Tinnon, listed in the census as a laborer born in Arkansas before the Civil War, addressed the Ottawa Board of Education in 1876. He and six other parents questioned the placing of their children in a separate room within the Central School and the qualifications of the teacher assigned to this room. The Board's committee looking into the matter contended that most African American parents were in favor of the black teacher whose certification to teach the board belatedly checked into.
The protesting parents were not deterred. Superintendent of Schools, William Wheeler, advised the school board that Tinnon and other parents "demanded admission for their children into the proper grades of the public school." The board then voted "that the colored class lately taught by Mr. Wade be discontinued, and the pupils in attendance there be assigned to the various rooms in graded school." The Board obtained the teacher's resignation and paid him one month's wage of $40.00.
Equal access to education in Ottawa appeared to have been decided. However, less than four years later Tinnon was again at odds with Board policies. The Board opened a one-room school for black children, grades 1 to 6, in a frame building across the street from the brick Central School. Tinnon's demand that his seven-year-old son Lesile be assigned to the brick school, the school nearest his home, was refused.
Represented by local white lawyers, Tinnon took his case to the courts. He was the first of more than a dozen little known African American parents to challenge school segregation through to the Kansas Supreme Court. The 1881 Tinnon case was first tried in District Court in Franklin County, Kansas. Judge Nelson D. Stephens cited the fourteenth amendment to the United States Constitution guaranteeing individual rights of citizenship among his reasons for deciding in favor of Tinnon. The Ottawa School Board appealed the decision to the Kansas Supreme Court. In words anticipating school decisions to come, Judge Daniel M. Valentine wrote in upholding Tinnon "is it not better for the aggregate of human society as well as for individuals that all children should mingle together and learn to know each other?" This case had elements of the first desegregation case in Boston, Massachusetts, and of later court challenges in Kansas: 1) the challenge became known by one name although several parents were often involved; 2) the victory of one year often disappeared the next; 3) the jobs of black teachers were at risk; 4) high schools, with one exception, were open to all; and 5) the courts offered the best avenue for equal access to education.
Read the Tinnon opinion.
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