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Vivion Mercer Lenon Brewer is best known for helping to found the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC) in 1958 during the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock (Pulaski County). She helped arrange the WEC’s initial meeting and served as the organization’s first chairperson until September 1960.
Vivion Lenon was born on October 6, 1900, in Little Rock to Warren E. and Clara (Mercer) Lenon. She graduated from Little Rock High School (now Central High) in 1917 and attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she majored in sociology and graduated in 1921. In 1926, she enrolled in the Arkansas Law School in Little Rock and worked in her father’s bank, People’s Savings Bank, in Little Rock. She graduated in 1928 and was promoted to vice president at the bank. After passing the bar exam in 1928, she continued working at the bank.
Lenon married Joseph Brewer, nephew of Arkansas Senator Joseph Taylor Robinson, in October 1930. The couple moved to Washington DC, where he held several positions in the federal government, including secretary to Senator Robinson. They returned to Arkansas in 1946 and settled in Scott (Pulaski and Lonoke Counties).
In 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine African-American students from entering Central High School. After a tumultuous year, in the fall of 1958, Little Rock’s citizens voted to close the city’s high schools rather than desegregate all of the city’s schools. Brewer joined with Adolphine Fletcher Terry to organize the WEC in September 1958. Brewer initially suggested working with African-American women to help better understand race relations in the city, but the WEC members decided that they needed to focus solely on reopening the schools in order to deflect segregationist criticism.
Brewer took the lead in dealing with the media for the WEC and, because of her highly-visible position in the WEC, quickly became the target of segregationists, often receiving threatening and offensive telephone calls and mail. (In her memoir, she recalled some reluctance serving as the WEC’s chairperson on account of the fact that she did not reside in Little Rock and her only child had not lived to school age.) The schools reopened in the fall of 1959, and Brewer resigned as chairperson of the WEC in 1960.
Smith College awarded Brewer an honorary doctorate of humane letters in 1961 for her work during the school crisis. She died June 18, 1991, in Sierra Madre, California, where she lived for the last three years of her life. She is buried in Roselawn Memorial Park in Little Rock.
For additional information:Brewer, Vivion. The Embattled Ladies of Little Rock, 1958–1963: The Struggle to Save Public Education at Central High. Fort Bragg, CA: Lost Coast Press, 1998.
Murphy, Sara. Breaking the Silence: Little Rock’s Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools, 1958–1963. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press,1997.
Vivion Lenon Brewer Papers, 1947–1991. Sophia Smith Collection. Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts.
Laura A. MillerLittle Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 12/12/2011
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