Tennessee Town was an African American community in what was then west Topeka. Children in this community had access to a unique education effort in the 1890s and early 1900s organized by the Central Congregational Church. The church is best known through the work of its minister at that time—Charles M. Sheldon—who wrote bestseller of that era, In His Steps. The essence of Sheldon’s message was that everyone should live each day as Jesus would have done. This philosophy was part of what was known as the Social Gospel Movement that encouraged traditional congregations to focus their “home missionary” activities on improving their own communities.
In a desire to act upon this philosophy, Sheldon and the Central Congregational Church directed their efforts to their neighbors in Tennessee Town. The area, which had been settled by a number of Exodusters from Tennessee and Mississippi in the 1870s, was adjacent to the location of the church at Huntoon and Buchanan and contained some of the poorest families in the community. Sheldon and his African American neighbors believed that education was the best tool for improving the quality of life. He encouraged his congregation to undertake a number of educational activities in Tennessee Town.
The Sheldon or Tennessee Town town kindergarten was one of the first of these efforts. Classes were first held in Union Hall in April 1893. By 1895 they were being held in the church. Attendance averaged 28 students at the sessions that were held Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and by 1900, 287 students had attended the kindergarten. Students participated in the usual kindergarten activities of learning the alphabet, numbers, beginning reading, and hygiene. The kindergarten movement was in its infancy and the Topeka school system had no kindergartens at the time. The Tennessee Town kindergarten held parties for Washington’s birthday and initiated a band. Students were taken on various excursions and picnics. The school had two to three paid female staff during most of its existence. It was incorporated into the Topeka school system in 1910.
Many aspects of religious education were included in the school, but few of the participants joined Central Congregational Church. Rather, they continued to support the four African American churches in the area; Baptists and Methodists had the largest memberships. But even though these efforts did not result in new members for Central Congregational Church, they demonstrated the commitment of Sheldon and the members toward the Social Gospel Movement, which held that because “industrial capitalism” was unjust to many of the workers; churches should accept the responsibility of helping improve their communities.
Entry: Sheldon Kindergarten
Date Created: August 2004
Date Modified: April 2013
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