Sports often give members of racial minorities the chance to challenge racist thinking. From Jesse Owens to Remember the Titans, American sports history is full of stories of how athletic integration led to integration in other areas of community, too.
But for the Lincoln School Kittens of Atchison, Kansas, the opposite proved to be the case.
Before the 1950s, African American high school students in the northeast Kansas town attended high school with whites, but they were often prohibited from taking part in extracurricular activities and some athletics. Instead, black high school students who wanted to play sports would complete the day’s classes at Atchison High School, then suit up for athletics at the town’s segregated elementary and junior high school, the Lincoln School.
It was a familiar environment for many of the returning players, almost all of whom graduated from the Lincoln School themselves. Built in 1921, the Lincoln School educated the children of Atchison’s African American community for 34 years.
The Lincoln School got its own basketball team around 1927, when the Kittens began to play. As with other segregated teams, the issue wasn’t talent. It was touching. White players and fans objected to the degree of interracial contact that took place in basketball, so it remained segregated long after non-contact sports like track were integrated.
After spending years in the elementary and junior high basketball programs, students who moved on to Atchison High School could remain connected to their former teachers and classmates through the school’s basketball program.
That sense of community helped the Kittens grow into an excellent team. They won the Kansas state high school basketball championship in 1936, less than 10 years after the program got its start, then won again in 1945.
By the early 1950s, that talent was being noticed at Atchison High School.
In fact, as former Lincoln School student Arthur Bratton told Atchison Globe writer Mary Meyers in 2006, it was the AHS coaches who made the final decision to integrate the basketball team: “‘They told [the school administration] they were going to play the blacks on the team,’ Mr. Bratton said.”
That was the end of the Kittens, but not of what the Lincoln School meant to the community.
Situated among the homes of many of its students and surrounded by businesses and churches serving a primarily African American clientele, the school increasingly began to serve as the main point of contact for integrationists in Atchison. Thanks to the efforts of the faculty, staff and students at the Lincoln School, by the time that the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in May 1954, a desegregation plan for Atchison was already in its final stages.
“Sports creates some interesting situations,” said Chris Taylor, director of the Atchison County Historical Society and Hometown Teams Project Director. He hopes that by focusing on sports, the exhibit will attract new audiences, allowing the town to shine a light on the rich African American history in Atchison.
Both the Hometown Teams traveling Smithsonian exhibition and Atchison’s exhibition about the Lincoln School Kittens will be on display at the Atchison County Historical Society and Museum from June 27 through August 9. For more information, contact the Atchison County Historical Society at 913-367-6238.