With the 59th anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School just a few weeks away, attention will no doubt focus again on that landmark event. Though of course important, that story has often overshadowed other developments taking place in school desegregation in Arkansas at the same time. Events in Little Rock played an important role in shaping what happened elsewhere in the state.
Take, for example, the story of school desegregation in Van Buren. In 1954, the Van Buren School District had 2,634 white students and 87 African-American students. Black students attended a segregated elementary school, and after graduation they were bused over the Arkansas River to the segregated Lincoln High School in Fort Smith. After the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision, with assistance from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 19 black parents sued for the entry of 24 black students into Van Buren’s white high school, in the first case of its kind in Arkansas.
At the trial, Van Buren Superintendent Everett Kelley told the court that it would “take time to educate school patrons for integration,” and that he did not “intend to integrate until forced or until the feeling in Van Buren changes.” Federal District Judge John E. Miller warned that after Brown the only issue was how long the “transition to a racially nondiscriminatory school system” would take. Miller ordered the board to produce an integration plan and report back to the court.
On Aug. 20, 1956, the school board submitted a nine-year desegregation plan beginning in August 1957. Under the plan, the first four high school grades would desegregate in 1957, the eighth grade in 1958, and the seventh grade in 1960. On Aug. 28, 1957, the school board implemented this plan by enrolling 23 African-American students with 550 white students. No trouble was reported.
Van Buren High School remained successfully integrated even as events unfolded at Central High School in Little Rock in September 1957. But because of the continuing defiance of the law in Little Rock, the mood had changed considerably the following year. On Sept. 2, 1958, when 13 black students attempted to enroll, they were met by jeering white students carrying signs reading, “Niggers, Go Home” and “Chicken Whites Go to School With Jigs.”
For four days, around 40 white students staged a strike outside the school. On the third night, they burned an effigy of an African-American student on the school grounds. The students sent a telegram to Gov. Orval E. Faubus telling him, “In behalf of [sic] Van Buren High School we are on strike here. In order to stay integration, we need your help.” There was speculation that Faubus might use legislation passed by an extraordinary session of Arkansas General Assembly in 1958 to close the school.
School officials were in no doubt about the cause of the disturbances. “If it hadn’t been for Little Rock, we wouldn’t have this trouble now,” one said. “We had Negroes in the school last year — more than this year — and we didn’t have any trouble.” Others agreed. A member of the student council claimed that the strikers were “just trouble makers … . They’re always into something and now they’re just trying to imitate Little Rock.” A mother of one of the white students told reporters that Little Rock “gave us an example up here,” adding, “All we needed was something to get it started. And now that it’s started, we’ll soon have those colored children out of there.”
With black students refusing to return to school until their safety was assured, the white students ended the strike. At the next school board meeting, the president of the newly formed Van Buren Citizens’ Council (VBCC), Sam Cox Jr., claimed they had nothing against African Americans, but, he said, “We just want them to go to their own schools.” Parents demanded to know why the Van Buren School Board was not seeking a delay in its integration plan in the courts as the Little Rock School Board was doing in the state Capitol.
The 15-year-old president of the student council, Jessie Angelina “Angie” Evans, said that a poll of 160 students in the school favored admitting African-American students, with 85 for, 45 against and 30 undecided. Afterward, Evans told a Time magazine reporter, “Someone had to speak up. I just don’t think segregation is a Christian thing.”
On Friday, Sept. 19, 1958, Judge Miller turned down the request of the NAACP to intervene in events at Van Buren. He expressed confidence that black students could now safely resume classes. On Sept. 22, eight of the 13 black students returned to school without incident.
The VBCC responded by circulating petitions for the recall of school board members. School board president J.J. Izard, whose seat was targeted by segregationists, explained that the school board had no choice under existing law but to desegregate. Izard stepped down before the election, and his place on the school board was contested by Sam Cox Jr. and local businessman Russell Myers. Myers took the position in the election that he was against integration but for keeping the schools open. He won by 1,084 votes to 256 votes. The school remained integrated, and the VBCC disbanded.
Events in Little Rock threatened the peace in other communities and encouraged copycat protests elsewhere. However, the Van Buren story of school desegregation is one of a number in Arkansas where local citizens stood strong to preserve local control over their public schools and desegregate. And, as they ably demonstrated, even in an increasingly hostile environment, it was still possible to do so and prevail.
John A. Kirk is the George W. Donaghey distinguished professor of history and director of the Joel E. Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. This piece is an adapted version of his entry “Desegregation of Van Buren Public Schools” in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.