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Between 1954 and 1965, Fayetteville (Washington County) underwent the gradual integration of all primary and secondary schools. Though the Fayetteville School District (FSD) was quick to integrate at the high school and junior high levels, new state laws and concerns from the Fayetteville School Board slowed the speed of integration at the elementary level. In the first few weeks of its efforts, however, Fayetteville was presented in the media as the first city in the former Confederacy to desegregate its schools; Charleston (Franklin County) schools had done so earlier, but officials and residents there worked to keep it secret from the outside world for several weeks.
Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the FSD maintained a public school through the ninth grade for African-American residents. This school, known as the Lincoln School, was constructed in 1936 as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Beginning in 1947, the Fayetteville School Board agreed to pay black students tuition and room and board necessary to attend segregated black high schools in Fort Smith (Sebastian County) and Hot Springs (Garland County). This practice cost the FSD approximately $5,000 a year.
Fayetteville’s race relations in 1954 were calm compared to the rest of the South and the nation as a whole. Only two percent of the town’s residents were black, and most had daily contact with white members of the community. The admission of Silas Hunt to the University of Arkansas School of Law in 1948 had provided the city’s first exposure to racial integration.
Four days after the Brown decision was handed down on May 17, 1954, the Fayetteville School Board held a meeting to decide how to proceed. Superintendent Wayne White was under pressure from other superintendents and administrators in the state not to integrate. In Sheridan (Grant County), the school board voted to integrate only to back down after protests from whites in the community. When Secretary Hal C. Douglas, publisher of the Northwest Arkansas Times and brother-in-law to U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright, broached the topic of desegregation, the board crafted a process to begin integration in the fall. Fayetteville High School (grades 10–12) was to be integrated immediately, with one grade at the junior high to follow each successive year. The status of the elementary schools would be determined later based on the success of integration at other levels. The board passed the resolution unanimously.
Unlike Charleston, which successfully kept the desegregation of Charleston schools under the media radar, the FSD publicly announced its intention to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling. This initial notification was followed by a summer of almost no coverage of Fayetteville school integration. Though the community was well aware of the imminent integration of Fayetteville High School, the lack of newspaper coverage prevented grassroots segregationists from obstructing the process. There were active steps within church and school organizations to prepare students. Minnie Dawkins, principal of the Lincoln School, and Louise Bell, principal of Fayetteville High School, worked closely with black high school students and white student leaders to ensure that the school’s reputation for order and discipline would remain intact, despite the national hysteria surrounding integration in the South.
On September 10, 1954, five black students entered Fayetteville High School. A few days later two more black students entered the school, bringing the total to seven. The only male black student to enroll in classes on September 10, Preston Lackey, entered with the support of white students who had heard rumors of planned violence. Similarly, an Associated Press reporter came prepared to report on violent protests. The only opposition was a lone white woman with a placard.
Bringing black students into the high school proved to be the easiest part of integration in Fayetteville. Sporadic complaints came from black students about racial slurs and having to acclimate to a predominately white environment. However, objection from the white community never took the organized and violent form that it did in other parts of Arkansas.
Other schools in Arkansas tried to pressure the Fayetteville School District to scale back efforts at racial integration. In the fall of 1955, several schools refused to play Fayetteville in football because the high school had black athletes on the team. Coach Harry Vandergriff allowed his team to vote on whether Fayetteville would bench black players or forfeit games. The team unanimously voted to forfeit games rather than bench their black teammates.
In 1957, Fayetteville had completed integration at the high school and junior high levels. However, the desegregation crisis at Central High School in Little Rock (Pulaski County) slowed the momentum of Fayetteville in desegregating at the elementary level. Segregationists had drawn national attention to Little Rock, and the Arkansas General Assembly, at the behest of Governor Orval Faubus, passed several laws that gave the governor unprecedented control over school districts. Fayetteville School Board members and administrators feared that further desegregation would result in lawsuits against the district.
The complete desegregation of the elementary schools came as a result of pressure on the Fayetteville School Board by community organizations. The Fayetteville Community Relations Association, the Fayetteville chapter of the League of Women Voters, and the Arkansas Council on Human Relations (ACHR) all worked to end segregation at the elementary levels. Though these organizations worked toward integration in the fall of 1964, the school board postponed closing the Lincoln School until the fall of 1965. There were black members of the Fayetteville community who opposed the closing of the Lincoln School. Chief among them was the school’s principal, Pearlie Williams.
Community organizations again played an important role in preparing black students for integration. The League of Women Voters held summer school to help black students overcome the academic gap that existed and established reading clinics at the Lincoln School. Superintendent White met regularly with black parents to update them on the process. Students were assigned to schools according to where they resided. In the fall of 1965, Fayetteville completed integration at all levels of public education.
For additional information:Adams, Julianne Lewis, and Thomas DeBlack, eds. Civil Obedience: An Oral History of School Desegregation in Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1954–1965. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.
Brill, Andrew. “Brown in Fayetteville: Peaceful Southern School Desegregation in 1954.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 65 (Winter 2006): 337–359.
David PraterLittle Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 12/14/2016
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