TOPEKA, Kan. — The historic Sumner Elementary School in Topeka continues to deteriorate amid a dispute between its out-of-state owners and local advocates, who say they have heard nothing for two years from the owners of the school that was part of the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.
The school building is on the national historic register for its part in the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case, which ended legal segregation in the nation’s schools. It was purchased in 2009 by Bishop W.R. Portee of the Southside Christian Palace Church in Los Angeles.
The Topeka Capital-Journal reports the building is still owned by the Southside Christian Palace Church. Portee died in 2015.
Phil Gonzales, a Topeka man who is a liaison with the church owners, said the dispute is unlikely to be resolved if Topeka city councilwoman Karen Hiller is part of the process but he didn’t explain exactly why the owners were upset with Hiller.
“If I was the owner and I kept getting what I thought was some negative feelings and pressure, I might even go ask about getting it demolished,” said Gonzales, who formerly was part of the Brown v. Board Sumner Legacy Trust group. He said he wasn’t threatening that the school could be torn down but then added, “That’s always an option, right?”
Gonzales expressed hostility toward the Sumner Legacy Trust group, chaired by Hiller, and also the Ward Meade Neighborhood Improvement Association, which last week voted to ask the Topeka City Council to pursue action to save the school.
Hiller was stunned when asked Wednesday if she was aware of the anger expressed by Gonzales.
“No. Well, yes and no,” she said. “At least somebody is talking. It somehow had to break open.”
Gonzales said he had no legal authority to speak for the owners but said church officials call him about offers to buy the church and he checks out the potential purchasers.
Hiller said the relationship between Portee, the Sumner Legacy Trust and the NIA deteriorated after a disagreement in 2014-15. Portee and his representatives worked with both groups to put on a 60th anniversary celebration of the Brown v. Board decision on May 17, 2014. After that, they collaborated to apply for a Kansas historic preservation grant for renovation work on the building.
After they didn’t get the funds, volunteers offered to do some of the work. The legacy group sent a proposal to Portee, asking him to put in $17,000, which he had agreed to contribute as part of matching funds for the grant.
“We got a letter from the bishop — you would never think we had spent the last two years together,” she said. “It was so vitriolic. We were just so stunned, we did nothing. We didn’t respond right away. We just let it sit.”
The group eventually tried to reach out to Portee again but had no word from him or, after his death, from his heirs or the church, she said.
Deborah Edwards, chairwoman of the Ward Meade NIA, said her group has been agonizing over how to save the school. It is regularly vandalized and recently its iconic weather vane was stolen, leaving a hole in the roof.
“At this point, my opinion is that until we get it back into local ownership, nothing can happen except more deterioration and more blight and more of the same,” she said. “I am determined I am going to do what I can to say enough is enough. Something has to happen.”
Gonzales said he has no idea what church officials plan for the property and if they still intend to save the building.
Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, http://www.cjonline.com