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A Sumner Academy alumna reflects on the KCK school’s legacy of empowerment & acceptance

When Micah Rose Emerson was in seventh grade, she knew exactly where she wanted to go to high school: the Pembroke Hill School near Loose Park.

“They had air conditioning,” she said with a laugh. “I literally visited one time and was sold on it.”

But Emerson’s mom insisted that, instead, she attend the same prestigious Kansas City, Kansas high school as her great grandmother: the Sumner Academy of Arts and Science. It’s a decision that she says made her the person she is today.

“Going to Sumner was probably the best time of my entire life,” she told The Star. “That’s where I learned how to be an adult, and I learned how to learn.”

Sumner’s history offers a glimpse into Kansas’ racial politics over the last century. The school was founded in the wake of the 1904 murder of a white high school student in Kerr Park. Some locals placed blame for the shooting on a Black man, igniting racial animus among the city’s white population.

The resulting racial tensions caused some residents to petition the state legislature to exempt Kansas City, Kansas from a 1879 state law prohibiting racially divided high schools. The legislature granted the exemption in 1905.

While then-governor E. W. Hoch reluctantly signed the new law, he advocated for a new high school building to be constructed for Black students that was as well-equipped as the already existing Kansas City, Kansas High School.

Initially called the School for Manual Training, the new building opened in 1906 at Ninth and Washington and was quickly renamed Sumner High School after the prominent abolitionist U.S. Senator Charles S. Sumner — best known for being caned on the Senate floor after giving a speech condemning slavery in Kansas.

Over the following decades, Sumner High School drew Black students from the surrounding areas, including Johnson County, and eventually outgrew its building space. In 1940, it moved to its current location at Eighth and Oakland, and the former building was repurposed into an activities center for Black youth that students called “The Rec.”

It wasn’t until 1978, decades after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, that Sumner High School became subject to court-ordered desegregation. It closed officially that year, with some of its Black students relocated to other school districts. The school then reopened under the name Sumner Academy of Arts and Science as an academically rigorous public high school for students of all races.

Today, Sumner is a magnet high school within the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools system. Its student body is now 56% Hispanic, 18% Black and 12% white, according to state demographic data, and 58% of its students are female. The U.S. News & World Report ranks it the best high school both in the state of Kansas and in the Kansas City metro area.

Emerson, now 44, attended the school from 1993 until her graduation in 1998. Today, she teaches AP English at the Kipp Legacy Academy and lives in Kansas City with her wife, two nieces and their dogs and cats. The Star sat down with her to learn about the Black student experience at Sumner, and how her time there has shaped her life.

Micah Rose Emerson, an English teacher at KIPP Legacy High School and Sumner Academy alumna, poses for a portrait on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, in Kansas City.
Micah Rose Emerson, an English teacher at KIPP Legacy High School and Sumner Academy alumna, poses for a portrait on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, in Kansas City.

You mentioned that you weren’t especially excited about going to Sumner at first. What sort of reputation did the school have when you were a kid?

I grew up hearing about Sumner all the time, I knew people who had graduated from Sumner, like my cousin’s husband graduated from Sumner. So it was a very well-known space. It was our school for smart kids, and especially smart kids of color. From what I remember, it was 50% Black, 30% white and 20% other — so Hispanic, Latinx, Native American, Asian.

What was your experience like when you got to Sumner?

I found my little group. I’m still friends with several of the people I went to high school with. And a lot of them were my neighbors, too. So yeah, I was able to find my group of nerdy, eclectic, just strange (people).

What sort of stuff were you into?

I was super into Dave Matthews Band, I was super into country, but also Tupac and hip hop and stuff like that. I was just all over the place. And I loved movies and musicals and I loved to write and I didn’t necessarily fit in other places. I was six feet tall and didn’t want to really play sports, I just wanted to do artsy things.

I took a couple of theater classes, but I would really throw myself into productions. I wanted to be backstage and learn all of those roles. I was in a bunch of different choirs. And I played basketball, but I was not very good — I was just tall.

Did you feel supported in doing all those different activities?

I found myself by being in that space. I was given so much encouragement from my teachers to like, find out who I was and figure out what I liked and try new things. If you would have told me in eighth grade that I would have been the one who loved to read Crime and Punishment? Or The Metamorphosis by Kafka? Like, I’m a black girl from KCK. I’m from the inner city. There’s no way I’m reading that. But all of a sudden, I was like, “Oh my gosh, I love Russian literature.” And my teachers were like, “Yay!”

Who were some teachers who you remember being influential?

Mrs. Hollinshed, she was an English teacher. And Mrs. Kile, she was also an English teacher. They opened my world.

I hear a number of people talking about, like, “I didn’t have a Black teacher or teacher of color until I was in college.” I’m like, “Oh, no, my whole life I’ve had Black teachers. I had a Black teacher in elementary school. I had Gifted Ed teachers that were Black. And at Sumner I had a lot of Black teachers. And so I think that also really impacted me and influenced me.

But they’re the ones, those two, who really opened my mind to, “Hey, you can do this, you can find what you like, and it doesn’t have to be what everyone else likes.”

How did the academic structure within Sumner foster that? Were you allowed to just take whatever classes you wanted?

It was more like, you were just really exposed to quite a bit. And then we had projects where you would explore something that the teacher maybe hit on, or maybe it was a roundabout way of saying, “Well, I want to learn more about this, so I’m going to do a project based on that,” depending on the class.

I mean, I spent years in Spanish class. I don’t speak a lick of Spanish. But I had a Spanish teacher who let me take my test orally. Or she would speak Spanish and I would answer her in English. So there was just this willingness to kind of meet us where we were. But we were all pursuing academic rigor. We were all going after, “What is going to make me ready for an Ivy League college? What’s gonna make me ready for life in the real world?” And our teachers let us do it. They guided us very nicely.

Was there a lot of emphasis on college admissions?

Oh, yeah. You were going to college. There was no question. My second cousin was also my counselor, so she was on top of it, she’d be like “I’m going to call your mom, you’re not doing what you should be doing.”

Did you get into trouble?

All the time!

What sort of things did you get up to?

Mostly my mouth, and mostly being lazy. Nothing bad — I wasn’t cussing anyone out. My teachers would be like, “Oh, we’re gonna do this.” And I’d be like, “That stupid. I don’t want to do it.” Or I just wouldn’t go to class, because I would be interested in doing something else.

I did a lot of extracurricular stuff. Like, I started teaching sex ed when I was 14. There was a program through Wyandotte Mental Health called Student AIDS Ambassadors, and I would go to a middle school, as a ninth or tenth grader, and teach sex ed. Again, that’s an opportunity that came because of my involvement in Sumner.

Was there an explicit LGBT presence at the school at all when you were there?

We had boys who were coming into school with high heels, or girls who were dressing super butch, and we knew, right, that because we come to Sumner, we are free to be ourselves and to show up. I don’t remember any feeling of, “Oh my gosh, that person’s queer, I can’t talk to them.” In fact, I think I had lots of queer friends.

We didn’t have the language back then to say “trans,” I mean, it was more like “You’re a drag queen!” But not in a negative way. I don’t think people got beat up for being gay, at least from my viewpoint. And it wasn’t even anything that teachers really talked about, like, no one ever really complained.

How did spending those years in that accepting environment impact your life after Sumner?

I felt like I was boosted up by just the ideas these people had of me. They were like, “Oh, you’re great, you’re wonderful.” They would tell me, “You’re smart.” So I had all these people that had all these opinions that they just sort of settled into me. And so I was like, of course I’m moving to New York. Of course I’m moving to Atlanta. It wasn’t like, “Yeah, I don’t know if I can do it —” No, I can. Obviously, I can.

Do you have more questions about Kansas City’s diverse history? Do you or a loved one have a unique story to share? Let the Service Journalism team know by emailing kcq@kcstar.com.