Sunday, September 16, 2007

Arkansas and Integration

When you think of "Arkansas" and "integration," you probably think of the vivid images from the Little Rock crisis in 1957 -- hateful people protesting, the 101st Airborne being called in by Eisenhower, etc.

What fewer people know is that a few Arkansas towns (including Fayetteville, a few miles from where I grew up) peacefully integrated before 1957. In fact, Fayetteville was the first city in the old Confederacy to vote to allow integration, and the first to have blacks graduate from its public high school (in 1956).

As a local news story puts it:
Public schools in Fayetteville and Charleston, in Franklin County, integrated shortly after the U. S. Supreme Court issued its 1954 decision declaring racial segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. Public schools in Hoxie, in Lawrence County, integrated in 1955.

* * *

“Little Rock pretty much stole the story in 1957 and set the tone for how people look at Arkansas and integration history,” Dillard said. “But the tone it set is one-dimensional. It doesn’t tell the whole story.”
I attended both of these events this past week:
Documentary films on the integration of Charleston and Hoxie public schools will be shown at 7 p. m. Thursday in Giffels Auditorium in Old Main. A second panel discussion will focus on the integration of Fayetteville High School at 6 p. m. Saturday in its auditorium.
Now Hoxie, Arkansas was an interesting case. Desegregation was peaceful at first, but then Life Magazine did a profile on Hoxie that showed several pictures of black and white students arm-in-arm. After that article came out, outside agitators started to descend on Hoxie to try to reverse the decision and to promote segregation. A White Citizen's Council was set up, and a lawsuit ensued (with the ultimate result that integration was upheld).

At the event the other night, the audience watched an excellent documentary on Hoxie.
Then, during a Q&A period, an elderly woman stood up and said that when she was growing up in Hoxie during that time period, she was a Catholic. At the local church, the priest -- a Rev. Joseph King -- told the parishioners that "if he caught anyone going to the White Citizen's Council meetings, it would be a matter for confession and they wouldn't be able to come to communion." You know how those Catholics are always up to some sort of theocratic meddling in the political process . . . . [By the way, so far as I can tell, this incident has never been publicly reported before now.]

The event last night about Fayetteville integration featured 7 panelists -- 2 blacks who were part of that first graduating class in 1956, 3 whites from that same class, 1 white female who had been the PE teacher, and 1 white man who had been the football coach (now 87 years old). Their comments were consistent with what they told the newspaper in the article that previewed the event:

[In 1954], Peggy Taylor Lewis and six other black students — five sophomores and two juniors — integrated Fayetteville High School.

Fayetteville resident Andrew Brill researched Fayetteville High School’s integration while completing his bachelor’s degree in history and English at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. Fayetteville had an elementary school for black pupils but no high school. That meant the state paid for black students to live in cities like Fort Smith or Hot Springs, away from their families, to go to school after eighth grade.

Lewis lived in Fort Smith for a year before entering Fayetteville High School as a junior. The first day in 1954, the black students were met by a “welcoming committee” that showed them to their classrooms.

“We didn’t have any problems,” Lewis said.

Nancy Cole Mays was a junior at Fayetteville High during integration. A white student, Mays remembers a few black girls in choir with her, but no one discussed integration much.

“I don’t remember there being any big deal,” she said.

Harry Vandergriff, 87, was a history teacher and football coach at Fayetteville High at the time.

“The first I knew about [the integration ] was when I read about it in the newspaper,” Vandergriff said. “It was OK with me. I didn’t really have a reaction.”

The following year, a few black students joined the football team. That year, one long-term booster refused to buy tickets. “He was irate that we integrated and absolutely refused to buy tickets,” Vandergriff said. “He said he would never set foot at a high school football game again.” That same year, high schools in Fort Smith, Russellville and Harrison refused to play Fayetteville if they brought their black players to the field, Vandergriff said. Principal Louise Bell called a meeting of faculty and student leaders, and all agreed the team would play together or not at all. “We had a short season that year,” Mays said.

REACTION TO LITTLE ROCK The integration of Fayetteville High School received no fanfare. There were no federal troops and no national media, Brill said. “It’s unfortunate that Little Rock gets so much attention, because people get the perception that the way desegregation happened at Little Rock is the way desegregation happened everywhere in the South,” he said.
Both of the black former students from Fayetteville said that they don't recall any incidents of discrimination at all, whether from other high school students or the teachers. I found that a pleasant surprise, considering how many desegregation stories are quite the opposite.

Also, two of the white men said that after they graduated from high school in 1956, they were part of the Arkansas National Guard in 1957, and found out much to their dismay that Orval Faubus was going to try to call them up to block desegregation in Little Rock. Said one fellow, "It was a terrible dilemma. If Eisenhower hadn't federalized us, I don't know what we would have done."



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home