Corinthian Nutter, a black teacher whose rejection of degrading conditions in her Kansas school during the 1940s led to an important early role in this country’s desegregation battles, died Wednesday at her home in Shawnee, Kan., after a period of declining health. She was 97.
Nutter was a key witness in a 1949 lawsuit that helped pave the way for Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark 1954 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional.
“She is one of many unsung female heroines in the civil rights movement who were behind the scenes doing the sort of courageous acts that made it possible for the lawyers to take these cases to court,” said LynNell Hancock, an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia University, who spent many hours interviewing Nutter for a book.
A poor Texas native who spent much of her childhood in the cotton fields, Nutter eventually earned a master’s degree in education and was the only certified teacher at Walker Elementary School in Merriam, Kan., in the late 1940s.
Only black children attended Walker, where eight grades studied in two classrooms. The school was run-down, lacked indoor plumbing and made do with outdated textbooks and castoffs from other schools.
School for Whites
In 1947, administrators in School District No. 90, which encompassed Merriam, built a new school with the proceeds from a $90,000 bond election. Unlike Walker, South Park Elementary School had indoor plumbing, an auditorium and a cafeteria. It also had one teacher and one classroom for each of its eight grades, plus a music teacher and a kindergarten.
Only white students were enrolled at South Park.
When the black parents of Walker demanded that their children be admitted to the new campus, the district trustees denied access, contending that enrollment was based on the attendance areas drawn up for each school.
(The Kansas Supreme Court would later find that the attendance boundaries followed an arbitrary design that “meanders up streets and alleys” and allowed many white children to walk right past Walker to get to the new school.)
The black parents were outraged. They knew the doors to South Park were barred to them only because of race.
One of the parents complained to her employer, a white woman named Esther Brown, who lived next door to South Park. Brown, the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants who had moved to Merriam to escape anti-Semitism, urged the parents to sue. She also made contact with leaders of the NAACP, a chapter of which soon was formed in Merriam.
The civil rights group mobilized the parents and led them to court. Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP attorney who later became a Supreme Court justice, was among those who went to Merriam to help wage the legal battle in the case known as Webb vs. School District No. 90.
Nutter would take a bold stand that would endanger her career as a public school teacher, a position she had earned after a difficult journey.
Nutter was born in Forney, Texas, where her mother washed clothes for white people, and her father, the son of a slave, worked for the railroad. Whenever her mother found work picking cotton, she took her daughter out of school, causing Nutter to fall behind. She dropped out at 14 and had a short-lived first marriage before moving to Kansas City, where the YWCA found her lodging with a member of Bennie Moten’s famous jazz band. She became a close friend of both Moten and his young pianist, William “Count” Basie.
Back to School
Although she enjoyed the distractions of her musical companions, Nutter yearned to complete her education. She went back to school, earning a high school diploma in 1936 and a Kansas teaching certificate in 1938. She married Austin K. Nutter in 1941. He died in 1998. They had no children.
Nutter began to teach at Walker in the mid-1940s.
When 39 of 41 Walker families joined the desegregation lawsuit and boycotted their school, Nutter went with them. For the next year she held classes in church basements and living rooms. She was “instrumental in keeping the spirits of the children and the Walker School parents from wavering,” said Hancock, who called Nutter “the glue that kept them moving forward.”
When the case went to trial, Nutter supplied crucial testimony.
“I just told them the truth,” she recalled in an interview with the Kansas City Star two years ago. “The school was dilapidated. We had no modern conveniences -- had to go outside to go to the toilet. And if they were going to build a new school and the parents were paying taxes like everybody else, why couldn’t their children go? Schools shouldn’t be for a color. They should be for children.”
When the Kansas Supreme Court examined the district’s convoluted attendance boundaries, it found “a clear case of the school board doing by subterfuge ... what it could not do directly,” which was segregation.
The effect of the Walker parents’ victory was felt across northeast Kansas, where schools opened their doors to blacks for the first time. The win also “gave NAACP leaders the confidence to take the fight to larger cities,” according to Milton S. Katz, a humanities professor at the Kansas City Art Institute who has studied the South Park conflict. There had been many court challenges to school segregation in Kansas, dating from the 1880s, but the Merriam case carried the NAACP on to Topeka, the battleground for the case that eventually would topple barriers to equal education across the nation.
Although Nutter always gave credit to Brown, others have said that Nutter was the central force propelling the Walker parents.
“Had not someone like her said, ‘I’m with you. Let’s do this. I’ll hang in there with you and teach the kids to the best of my ability,’ this might not have happened then,” one of her former students, Harvey Webb, told the Kansas City Star a few years ago.
After the successful conclusion of the Walker case, Nutter was offered a teaching job at South Park, but she turned it down when she learned that the district planned to put all the black students in her class. She later accepted a position at Westview Elementary School in nearby Olathe, where hers was for decades the only face that wasn’t white. She eventually became the school’s principal before retiring in 1972.
Nutter was proud of the role she played in history but never thought of her actions as unusual or courageous.
“I was just the teacher who could tell the tale,” she said.