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Sue Cowan Williams (1910–1994)

Sue Cowan Williams represented African-American teachers in the Little Rock School District as the plaintiff in the case challenging the rate of salaries allotted to teachers in the district based solely on skin color. The tenth library in the Central Arkansas Library System (CALS) is named after her.

Born in Eudora (Chicot County) to J. Alex Cowan and Leila Roberts Cowan on May 29, 1910, Sue Cowan began life in a small town in Arkansas. Her mother died soon after her birth. Raised until age four by her maternal grandmother in Texas, Cowan returned to Arkansas to live with her father. From fifth grade until high school, she attended Spelman, a religious boarding school in Atlanta, Georgia. She undertook undergraduate studies at Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama, and extended her education to receive a degree from the University of Chicago.

Cowan’s teaching career at Dunbar High School in Little Rock (Pulaski County) began in 1935. She resided with her father at 1518 Cross Street. Seven years later, she had apparently married, as the city directory shows her last name changing to Morris (though what happened to her husband is unknown), and became the plaintiff in a class action lawsuit seeking a balance of salaries between black and white teachers in the segregated South. The suit, Morris v. Williams, was filed on February 28, 1942, and followed a March 1941 petition filed with the Little Rock School Board requesting equalization of salaries between black and white teachers. The trial, heard in Judge J. W. Trimble’s court, lasted one week, with the verdict going against her. Morris’s appeal was heard in 1943 in the District Court of the United States, the Western Division of Eastern Arkansas, and was decided in her favor.

At the end of the 1942–43 school year, her contract was not renewed. She was not the only casualty of the backlash following the lawsuit; Dr. John H. Lewis, principal of Dunbar, and John H. Gipson, president of the City Teachers Association of Little Rock, were also dismissed. Morris contracted work with Arkansas AM&N College (now the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff), the Arkansas Ordnance Plant in Jacksonville (Pulaski County), and Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock before regaining a position with the Little Rock School District. Dr. LeRoy Christophe, named principal of Dunbar in the fall of 1945, requested the reinstatement of Morris. In 1952, a call from then-superintendent Harry Little, asking if she had “learned her lesson,” preceded her reinstatement in the Little Rock School District. She taught at Dunbar until 1974, when she retired.

Morris was active in the community. She was a member of Mt. Zion Baptist Church and became the church’s first youth director. She was also president of the Phyllis Wheatley Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in downtown Little Rock, as well as president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and a founding member of the Little Rock alumnae chapter. She helped to establish the Gamma Gamma chapter of Delta Sigma Theta on the campus of Philander Smith College. In addition, she was a member of the National Dunbar Alumni Association, Links, Inc., the Urban League, and the National Council of Negro Women.

Later in life, Morris married Reverend Booker T. Williams, who preceded her in death.

Sue Cowan Williams died on May 31, 1994, in Little Rock. The tenth library in the Central Arkansas Library System was dedicated on March 22, 1997, in honor of her. It was the most expensive building constructed to date in the library system and appropriately serves the community near the historic Dunbar High School building.

For additional information:
“Black Teacher Cites ‘Expediency’ in ’43 Decision Not to Rehire Her.” Arkansas Gazette. July 22, 1979, p. 16A.

Christophe, LeRoy Matthew. The Arkansas African American Hall of Fame. Little Rock: National Dunbar Alumni Association of Little Rock, 1993.

Green, William. “Dunbar Graduates Honor Teacher in Ceremony at Robinson Auditorium.” Arkansas Gazette. July 22, 1979, p. 16A.

“LR educator fought battle for equal pay.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. June 3, 1994, p. 6B.

Obituary of Sue Cowan Williams. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. June 2, 1994, p. 8B.

Rhonda Stewart
Central Arkansas Library System

Last Updated 1/6/2012

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