Judy Jackson and her friends dashed down dusty paths of the Pierce Addition community without concern for the condition of the school they attended as children.
A sparse historical record portrays the two-room Pierce grade school as Topeka's backyard disgrace, but Jackson's memories of the largely forgotten school are more forgiving.
"It was very casual and very comfortable for a little kid," Jackson said. "Very safe. We walked those country streets, walked to school and walked home."
The Pierce school, at 2235 S.E. Jefferson, served a predominantly black community just outside of city limits. Because it wasn't part of Topeka Unified School District 501, Pierce wasn't involved in the landmark Brown v. Board case that ended segregation in 1954.
Often overlooked in the fight for equality, Pierce was the last all-black school in Shawnee County when it closed in 1959 after plunging into financial collapse. Newspaper clippings, historical publications and surviving Pierce alumni offer insight into everyday life in the impoverished district's school.
Jackson started at Pierce in 1937, along with Irma Scroggins and Betty Coleman Moore.
"We had a good education," Jackson said. "It was hammered into us."
A photo taken by Moore's sister shows a building that looks like a farmhouse in an open field, with an outhouse behind the school.
Inside, a sliding accordion-style wall separated space into two classrooms. One side held first through fourth grade, with fifth through eighth on the other side. Students were organized by rows for each grade.
Classes began each day with students reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and Lord's Prayer. They were called upon to talk about a current event from the newspaper.
Students walked home for lunch and returned within the hour. During recess, they played on swings, a teeter-totter, merry-go-round and baseball lot.
Teachers delivered instruction in every subject and demanded discipline. When boys misbehaved, they were whipped with a switch. Girls extended their hand so the teacher could beat their palm with a thick ruler.
Scroggins said the students respected Jennie Robinson, who continued to teach at Pierce into the 1950s. The teacher would accompany children to the county courthouse, where they had to pass a test before graduating.
"I don't think we were held back from learning anything," Scroggins said. "We were just as smart as the others when we went into the high school."
Lester Lewis, who attended Pierce from 1931 to 1939, recalled singing the national anthem, as well as the negro national anthem, at school programs.
During the infamous dust storm of 1935, Lewis said, "You just had to eat the dust and still stay in school."
The Pierce district covered a 12-block area that extended south from the city limits at S.E. 21st to S.E. 25th, ranging from S.E. Monroe to S.E. Adams.
Settlement there began in the 1880s as a real estate development by Gen. H.A. Pierce, referred to by the Topeka Daily Capital as a businessman who "needs no introduction to the people of Topeka."
The newspaper in 1886 published an outline of Pierce's Addition, which promised "homes for the people" with "every man under his own vine and fig tree." Lots were available for $50 or $100.
Two years later, district voters gathered to select sites for two schools to be built — one at Quinton Heights and one in Pierce's Addition. The Pierce school opened in 1892.
Colorful newspaper stories recall how boys at the school saved a widow's home from fire and a melee that unfolded as a girl used a chair to attack the teacher who was whipping her brother.
Thelma Cherry, a 7-year-old student at Pierce, wrote a letter to Santa Claus in 1912 with the following requests: "I want a big doll that can open and close its eyes, a doll buggy, washboard and tub, a little iron, a little piano, a table and some chairs, and new dress and candy nuts."
In 1914, a bond vote secured $600 in repairs for the Pierce school. The Topeka Plaindealer in 1916 said "it has been changed to a school equally as good as those of the city."
Republican candidates for state and county offices were invited in July of 1916 to deliver five-minute speeches on the school grounds. An advertisement promised "ice cream and soda pop will be given free to all who attend. Women are especially invited."
Betty Hall Jones, a songwriter and pianist who was born in Topeka in 1911, references the Pierce "Edition" school, a common misnomer, in an interview published in "Swingin' on Central Avenue," a book that chronicles black jazz musicians in Los Angeles. Jones' father worked for Santa Fe Railway, and her mother "got a job teaching at the rural school."
"She found out the people were illiterate, so they had night school," Jones recalled in a 1995 interview. "She taught them to read, and I can remember now they put on plays. They sold ice creams for a nickel deal, and they helped the boys to buy instruments.
"This was all at a little place called Pierce Edition, Topeka, Kansas. I started at her school when I was five. I think it was because Momma didn't want to leave me alone. Almost everybody in Pierce Edition was with the Santa Fe too."
Charles Henrie, who graduated from Pierce in 1949, said many of the fathers in the district worked for the railroad. He recalled a low-income community marked by dirt roads, juke joints and countryside.
The school wasn't entirely segregated. One white family was so poor, the Highland Park district wouldn't accept the children, Henrie said. They were sent to Pierce instead.
“It was a black school, but the kids had to go to school someplace, and they were pretty poor," Henrie said.
At the school, mesh wire covered rotting windows. In place of a cloak room, nails were pounded into the wall. The washroom was a basin set on an orange crate.
“The school was in terrible shape when I was a kid," Henrie said.
In September 1949, voters passed a bond issue by 104-1 vote to raise $10,000 for repairs. Students gained indoor restrooms, a fire alarm system, gas-powered furnace and library. An additional classroom was added for kindergarten.
The small, low-income district struggled to support the school's $15,000 per year operating budget. By 1957, the school imposed a 31.1 mill levy in an area where the total assessed property value was $127,000 — or $1,575 per pupil. At the same time, the per pupil average for Topeka was $8,000.
The Pierce school — described in a Daily Capital story as "one of the educational disgraces of the state" — supported 83 students in 1957, when the district could no longer afford to pay its teachers or bills.
"It was awful," said Gertrude Smith-Williams, who attended Pierce from 1954-59. "I don't see how they managed it, but they did, I guess."
Annexation brought the school into USD 501, which quickly moved to close the building. Pierce remained open for another school year while the now-famous Topeka Board of Education reviewed redistricting plans. The Pierce students were divided between Highland Park Central and Quinton Heights.
On May 29, 1959, the Daily Capital announced the closing of the "last negro school." A photo shows Lucinda Todd — a monumental figure in the Brown v. Board case who taught in the final year at Pierce — standing alone in the classroom, keeping "a lonely vigil" as she stares out the window.
Two months later, the board voted to pay $300 to tear the building down.