In the spring of 1954, the Supreme Court would hand down a decision on Brown vs. the Board of Education Topeka case that would forever change public education. The decision determined that segregation had no place in public schools and would trigger desegregation in schools across the nation. In the fall of 1957, Central High School located in Little Rock would desegregate thrusting nine black children in the spotlight for years to come, those children became widely known as the “Little Rock Nine”.
While much has been written about the desegregation of Central High School and the Little Rock Nine, three years prior a handful of schools in Arkansas were some of the first school districts in the south to desegregate. Starting in 1954 the school districts of Charleston, Fayetteville, Sheridan, and Hoxie began to desegregate; for some, desegregation was met with little resistance while for some others, the desegregation process was met with a great deal of resistance and turmoil.
In the 1896 Plessey vs.
Ferguson Case, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation for black and whites was legal as long the facilities for each were equal. This ruling essentially barred black people from sharing schools and buses with white people. This ruling would become the “separate but equal” standard for the next six decades. While the “separate but equal” standard had been the norm for segregation in the country for so long, it was challenged in 1951 when a man named Oliver Brown tried to enroll his daughter into an all-white school in Topeka, Kansas.
After Brown’s daughter was denied entrance into the school he filed a class-action lawsuit again the Board of Education in Topeka; the lawsuit claimed that the schools for all black children were not equal to those for all white children, this claim violated the “separate but equal’ clause in the 14th amendment that says no state can “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”. Brown’s case went before the US District Court in Kansas which agreed with that segregation in schools had damaging consequences on the black students, but the court ultimately upheld the “separate but equal” principle.
In 1952, Brown and four other cases related to segregation in public schools went before the U.S. Supreme Court; the court would combine all their suits into one and named the suit Brown v. Board of Education Topeka. At the beginning of this suit, the Supreme Court Justices were divided on how to rule; the deciding vote would have been that of Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, who was a believer in that the Plessy Verdict, “separate but equal” should remain in effect; however, before Chief Justice Vinson could cast his vote he passed away and was replaced with Earl Warren, the then governor of California. Earl Warren was known for his political determination, which helped him succeed in rendering a unanimous vote against segregation in public schools. On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme court would hand down the decision on the Brown v. Board of Education Topeka case, the decision stated that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” as segregated schools are “inherently unequal.” The Supreme court ruled that the plaintiffs were being “deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.” This historic ruling by the Supreme Court put an end to the “separate but equal” ruling that the Supreme Court had put in place sixty years earlier. Over the next year, the Supreme Court would hear arguments on how to enforce the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education case. On May 31, 1955, Chief Justice would again give another unanimous ruling that the states must begin desegregation “with all deliberate speed”.
When you look in the history books or Google desegregation in Arkansas schools you will more than likely read about Little Rock Central and the Little Rock Nine. In September of 1957 nine black teens would enter Little Rock Central, from this point on in history these nine black students would be forever known as “The Little Rock Nine”. While they entered the school building on the 27th day of September it did not come without controversy, in fact the 27th of September was the fourth attempt for the nine black students to enter the school. The Little Rock Nine were first set to enter Little Rock Central High on September 3, 1957 but the night before Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to block the entrance of Central High School and not let the nine black students enter the building. After a federal judge ordered the nine black students to enter the building, the students attempted to attend Central High School again on September 4, but this time an angry group of protestors along with the National Guard again prevented the nine black students from entering the school.
Sixteen days after the second attempt of the nine black students to enter Central High School a federal judge orders the National Guard to move away from the school and allow the nine black students to enter; again the nine black students tried to enter the school on September 23rd and again they were met with great resistance and when the angry crowd tried to rush the high school, school officials decided that for the safety of the nine black students it would be best for them to be sent home, but this time they were able to attend classes that day for about three hours. After the third failed attempt in getting the nine black students into Central High School the Little Rock Mayor, Woodrow Mann asked President Dwight Eisenhower for his assistance with the growing tense situation. President Eisenhower sent U.S. Army troops and the Arkansas National Guard to Central High School; on September 25, 1957 the Little Rock Nine attended regular classes at Central High School while being personally guarded by Arkansas National Guard and the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne division.
While Central High School and the Little Rock Nine, along with the crisis that surrounded them, became the most infamous symbol of the Brown v. Board of Education Topeka and the U.S. Supreme Courts’ ruling, they were not the first school in the south to desegregate. On July 27, 1954, after the supreme court ruling in May, the Charleston School Board unanimously voted to desegregate and allow eleven black students to attend their all-white school. Before the desegregation of Charleston Schools, the district had to pay roughly $4500 to enroll and transport their black high school students to Ft. Smith to attend the all black high school; the Charleston School district also had a separate school, which was in much need of repair and updating, that provided the education for black students from first through eighth grade. While the school board knew that integrating the local black students into their all-white school made sense economically, local attorney and future governor of Arkansas, Dale Bumpers, reassured the board that it also made sense morally, he was quoted as saying “I told the board I believed the decision was morally correct and legally binding.”.
Charleston’s School Superintendent, Woodrow H. Haynes, spent the better part of the summer convincing local business leaders and the local newspaper not to discuss the plans of desegregation with any out of town news outlets. On, August 23, 1954, the small town of Charleston, Arkansas quietly and successfully integrated eleven black students, three ninth graders, and eight elementary-aged students, into their all-white school of approximately 480 white students. Those outside of Charleston were unaware the desegregation even happened much less than the Charleston School District had made history. While the integration of the Charleston School District was successful, it was not immune to some backlash, the night before school was to start some racial slurs had been painted on the school and was found by Superintendent Haynes, the graffiti was removed prior to the arrival to the students; other local football teams refused to play Charleston due to the black students being on the team and the band was not able to compete in competitions because of black band members. Because of the Charleston School Boards’ decision to integrate in all twelve grades, Charleston School was named a National Commemorative Site by the U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service; a monument representing this school as a National Commemorative Site is located in front of the Charleston Middle School.
The story of Charleston’s decision to integrate the eleven black students into their school district was not reported publicly until three weeks after school had started and by this time, the Fayetteville School District had integrated black students into their high school. Just four days after the US Supreme Court ruling, the Fayetteville School Board unanimously voted to begin integrating black students into their high school. Unlike Charleston, the Fayetteville School Districts’ decision to desegregate was public knowledge and during this time their Superintendent, Wayne White was under a lot of pressure from other school districts across the state not to integrate. Even though Fayetteville made public knowledge of their intent to integrate black students into their high school, there was almost no media coverage, which helped keep the opponents of desegregation from holding up the process.
When the Fayetteville School Board decided to move forward with the integration process, their main discussion was how to proceed. Some school board members felt compelled to integrate based on money-saving measures, at the time the Fayetteville School District bused their black high school students to the all-black high school located in Ft. Smith, however, the cost transporting and housing these students to Ft. Smith only cost the district $5,000 a year. At the time that Fayetteville was preparing to integrate their high school, racial relations in the city was calm compared to the rest of the south; most white people in Fayetteville had daily contact with black people during this time and the city had already been exposed to integration when the University of Arkansas allowed the admission of Silas Hunt to their law school in 1948 as the first black student at the University. The school board’s suggestion on how to integrate was to first enroll five black students into the high school in the fall of 1954 followed by a grade level added each year with the junior high starting the following school year. The elementary school’s integration would depend on the integration success of the high school and junior high school; this suggestion was voted on an unanimously approved.
Like Charleston, Fayetteville dealt with little backlash in the fall when the black students were integrated; only one black student came to school on the first day due to rumors of a protest, as it turned out the protest was one white woman holding a sign objecting to the integration. After a few days of school, two more black students enrolled bringing the total to seven black students in Fayetteville’s high school. As with Charleston, the Fayetteville School District also ran into issues with other schools playing them in sporting events; other schools tried to pressure Fayetteville into not playing black students on their football team, they would tell them to bench the black players or they would forfeit their game, Fayetteville’s football coach Harry Vandergriff decided to let his team vote on whether to bench the black players or forfeit the games, all of the players voted on forfeiting their games over benching the black players. While there was little protest when Fayetteville integrated, they were not immune to the issues that took place later at Central High School in Little Rock. In 1957, Fayetteville was prepared to start with the integration of the elementary schools, but with the crisis that was happening with Central High School and the Little Rock Nine, the Fayetteville School Board voted to put the integration of the elementary schools on hold. It wasn’t until 1964 that the desegregation of the elementary schools in Fayetteville would fully take place.
While the integration process for Charleston and Fayetteville went relatively smooth for these two districts, things did not go near as smooth for the Sheridan School District. Like Fayetteville, just days after the Supreme Court ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education Topeka, the Sheridan school district voted to desegregate. The board tried to sell the public that desegregating was a cost-saving measure; the school district spent around $4,000 dollars a year busing their black students to another county to attend school. Once word got out about the plans to desegregate the Sheridan Schools, citizens began filing petitions to block the desegregation efforts; this caused the school board members to back down from the desegregating efforts and would lead to several members of the school board to resign. While the school board back down and halted the desegregation, this was not enough for some of the townspeople; one of the largest employers and landlord to the black people of Sheridan told them that if they didn’t move out of town, he would burn down their homes. Upon hearing this threat, the black people left Sheridan which ended all talk of desegregation.
In the summer of 1955, the Hoxie School Board unanimously voted to integrate their schools. At this time, Hoxie had one elementary school that was for blacks only; during this time there were approximately 30 black students attended the school, which was in dire need of repairs and updating. Hoxie bused the black high school students to an all-black high school located in Jonesboro. The president of the Hoxie school board gave the public three reason for the unanimous decision to the dissolve the all-black elementary school and to forgo busing the black high school students to Jonesboro: he stated that “it was right in the sight of God, it complied with the supreme court’s decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case, and that board felt the school district did not have the funding to keep maintaining the dual schools for blacks and whites. With the successful integration of black students at Charleston and Fayetteville, the Hoxie School Board felt that Hoxie would have the same result, little did they know that Hoxie would be the first school to desegregate that would be met with resistance.
Hoxie, like many other school districts in this area, had a split fall term; the split fall term meant that school would start earlier in the summer but would break in late September into early October for the students to help pick cotton on the local cotton farms. On July 11, 1955, Hoxie would start their fall term with 21 black students attending the previously all-white schools made up of approximately 1000 students. For the first two weeks of the fall term, it appeared that Hoxie would follow suit and successfully integrate without many incidences just as the Charleston and Fayetteville school districts. However, on July 25, 1955, all the bottom would fall out on the successful integration when an article in Life Magazine was released. The article in Life Magazine was about small communities in the south that were integrating their schools in compliance with the Brown v. Board of Education Topeka’s ruling; while the intent of the article was good, it would put the spotlight on Hoxie and attract opponents of the desegregation efforts not only from local areas but from across the region. Cabell Phillips a writer for the New York Times would soon reference the situation in Hoxie as “a battle in a test tube.”.
The initial backlash with the integration of the Hoxie School District first came from local people in the community, on August 3, 1955, more than 300 locals began to protest the desegregation of the Hoxie schools. Protesters initiated a boycott trying to persuade the white students not to attend school and encouraged others not to support the district. It was reported that half the students stayed at home the next day, however, the Hoxie Superintendent argued that number but would release the actual number of students not in attendance. Protesters from outside the Hoxie area began to take note of the situation and would soon come to the aide of the local protesters. Outside protesters felt that the integration of the Hoxie School District was a test and vowed to help fight the school board on their decision to integrate. On August 13, 1955, protesters from the Little Rock area would attend a rally where a petition with more than 1000 signatures was presented, the petition demanded the resignation of all five board members from the Hoxie School Board. As the board members refused to resign, they promised to remain steadfast in their decision to integrate. The Times-Dispatch, a newspaper out of Walnut Ridge reported that “Hoxie battle lines drawn as both sides stand firm in integration dispute.”
While the battle between supporters and opponents of the desegregation of the Hoxie schools began to hear up, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus told the Hoxie school board that he nor the state government would intervene in the dispute. Without the support of the governor and with the opposition to desegregation gaining support from outsiders, the Hoxie School Board filed suit against the desegregation opponents not only from the local area but also from the opponents across the state. The suit claimed that the integration of the Hoxie School District was successful until the opponents began to argue against the board’s decision to integrate. In November 1955, Federal District Judge Thomas C. Trimble issued a temporary restraining order against the opponents citing that the opponents conspired against the integration at Hoxie Schools; a hearing to make the ruling permanent was held in December of 1955, the court ruled in favor of the Hoxie School Board.
In the court’s ruling, it said that the Hoxie School Board could have been held liable had it not made the decision to desegregate as the Brown v. Board of Education Topeka ruling instructed school districts to do so. The opponents of desegregation appealed the court’s decision through the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, but on October 25, 1956 the office of Attorney General Herbert Brownell ruled in favor of the Hoxie School Board; this would mark the first time that the office of the Attorney General would intervene in a school district’s decision to comply with the Brown v. Board of Education Topeka’s ruling.
The integration of the Hoxie School District and the resilience of the Hoxie School Board proved to be a turning point in integration with Arkansas’ Public Schools. The events surrounding the desegregation of Hoxie Schools would be the first time that a school district would successfully integrate while facing such opposition.