On Tuesday, May 5, 1959, the deeply divided Little Rock School Board met to consider contracts for the coming year. The topic of contract renewal had been on the April agenda, but with two of the six members out of town, it had been delayed.
The 1958-1959 school year had been anything but routine in Little Rock. To keep the high schools segregated, the city’s four high schools had been closed – first by action of Governor Orval Faubus and then by Little Rock voters. Frustrated by actions taken at the State level, the School Board had resigned en masse by November 1958, except for the one member who had won a surprise write-in election to unseat Congressman Brooks Hays. A new school board was elected in December and was equally divided between segregationists and those who felt the law and federal court rulings should be followed.
The May 5, 1959, School Board meeting began at 9am with a room packed full of spectators and was carried live on the radio. There had been rumblings that the pro-segregation school board members were going to try to fire any teachers they viewed as in favor of desegregation. Every vote in the morning session ended with a 3/3 vote as Everett Tucker, Russell Matson and Ted Lamb voted one way and the other three: Ed McKinley, Robert Laster and Ben Rowland, voted the other.
After lunch, Tucker, Matson and Lamb decided to leave the meeting. They saw no way to break the stalemate that was paralyzing the discussions. Upon advice of attorneys, they walked out. With only three members remaining, they three thought it end the meeting for lack of quorum.
School Board President Ed McKinley declared the remaining members a quorum. The trio alternated between open and closed sessions. At the end of the day, they had fired forty-four LRSD employees who they viewed as integrationists. This included 39 whites and five African Americans. Twenty-seven worked at Central High, while the other seventeen were scattered across other Little Rock schools. Seven principals, thirty-four teachers, and three secretaries made up the group. The meeting had lasted the entire day. The afternoon Arkansas Democrat (with a mid-day deadline) carried a story pondering whether teachers would be fired.
At the same meeting, Superintendent Terrell Powell was fired. He had taken the reins of the district in December 1958 after having been Hall High’s first principal. Mr. Powell was replaced by Tom Alford, a former Jacksonville superintendent who was the father of congressman (and former LRSD school board member) Dale Alford.
During a portion of the school board meeting (which was at the corner of Eighth Street and Louisiana Street), phone calls were being made from the LRSD headquarters to a house a few blocks away. That house was the home of Adolphine Fletcher Terry. She was hosting an executive board meeting of the Women’s Emergency Committee that day.
Not ones to shy away on anything, the WEC executive board voted to condemn the firings and support the teachers. Fairly quickly, the Parent Teachers Association of Little Rock, the Arkansas Education Association, League of Women Voters, and Little Rock Ministerial Alliance joined in the call condemning the action. Leadership at the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce also joined in decrying the purge.
And the fallout was just beginning……
(The purge and subsequent recall election will be the topic of a Brown Bag luncheon at the Old State House Museum at 12 noon on Thursday, May 9.)