Little Rock Look Back: A 1956 attempt at integrating LR schools

Arkansas Democrat photo by staff photographer Mr. Bisgood

Arkansas Democrat photo by staff photographer Mr. Bisgood

On Monday, January 23, 1956, twenty-seven African American students attempted to integrate four Little Rock schools.  By the end of the day, all four school principals had refused entry and some of the students had met with LRSD Superintendent Virgil Blossom.

Eight girls who were students at Horace Mann High School arrived at Central High at 9:30 am accompanied by Daisy Bates and Frank W. Smith both of the NAACP.  One male student attempted to integrate Little Rock Technical High School.  Four students arrived at Forest Heights Junior High (accompanied by three adults) and fourteen students attempted to integrate Forest Park Elementary (accompanied by four adults).  Neither the Arkansas Gazette nor the Arkansas Democrat broke down the age or gender of the junior high and elementary students.

Though all were referred to meet with Mr. Blossom, only the young women from Horace Mann visited with him.  After the conversation both he and Mrs. Bates declared the conversation had been friendly.   Mr. Blossom, in denying the request, noted that the Little Rock School District had a plan for integration. To allow them to integrate immediately would have been going against the plan.  The integration plan was connected to the completion of the new high school.  If it were ready to open in the fall of 1957, then integration at the high schools would start then.  The newspapers noted that there was no timeline for when it would extend down to the junior high and elementary levels.

That evening, Rev. J. C. Crenchaw, the president of the Little Rock NAACP, issued a statement.  In it he expressed frustration that the LRSD was vague on its timeline for integration.  He noted that the students lived near the schools which they tried to integrate and were therefore forced to travel several extra miles each day to attend school.  He also commented that the young man who attempted to enroll at Tech was not afforded the training available there at his current school.

The Arkansas Democrat ran a photo of the meeting with Mr. Blossom.  It identified the seven students who were pictured.  No mention was made as to whether the eighth student was present but not photographed, or if she did not attend the meeting.  As was the practice at the time, the addresses of the students were listed by their names.  Based on those addresses, the students lived between 0.4 and 0.9 miles from Central High School and were between 2.1 and 3.2 miles away from Horace Mann High School.  Of the seven students in the photo, two were seniors, three were juniors, and three were sophomores.  None of the students named became part of the Little Rock Nine who did integrate Central High twenty-one months later.

On January 24, the Gazette editorial writer opined they were glad for the amicable nature of the conversations. They hoped it did not affect the good race relations in Little Rock.  The writer concluded by saying they did not want it to incite extremists (but did not specify if they viewed the extremists as being for or against integration.)

Little Rock Look Back: STOP announced to end Teacher Purge

Following the success of meetings at Forest Park Elementary and the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, as well as other school, PTA, and civic meetings, the effort was underway to recall the three segregationist members of the Little Rock School Board.

On May 7, 1959, at Brier’s Restaurant, a group of young civic leaders gathered as they often did. This time, their conversation focused on how to capitalize on the momentum mounting in the desire to recall the three segregationist School Board members.  Attorneys Edward Lester, Robert Shults, and Maurice Mitchell were present as well as Gene Fretz, a Gazette editor.  It was he who came up with the acronym STOP – Stop This Outrageous Purge.

That afternoon, the group reconvened at the Grady Manning Hotel.  This time joined by esteemed attorney Will Mitchell.  Among the other men who were instrumental in getting STOP started were attorney Henry Woods, attorney W. P. Hamilton Jr., and banker B. Finley Vinson.  As chair of the Chamber of Commerce, Grainger Williams had been a vocal supporter of the efforts to reopen the school.  His leadership was, no doubt, instrumental in the Chamber’s quick and vocal support for the fired LRSD personnel.

Dr. Drew Agar was chosen to be the chair of STOP.  The father of three children at Forest Park Elementary School, he was vice president of the Forest Park PTA.  It was he who had presided over the successful Forest Park PTA meeting which saw several hundred parents oppose the firing and endorse the recall of the three segregationist members. (Dr. Agar had to use some fancy footing to get the items added to the agenda at the last minute, but with creative parliamentary maneuvering, he succeeded.)

On May 8, 1959, STOP was publicly announced.  The event took place at Union National Bank.  Approximately 179 men were in attendance.  Those present were asked to contribute or solicit $100.  (In time, approximately $36,000 would be raised.)

In addition to Dr. Agar serving as chair, Maurice Mitchell served as finance chair, Will Mitchell and Henry Woods were political strategists behind the campaign.  Many other men stepped up.  Dr. Agar announced at the May 8 meeting that a STOP office would open in room 1010 of the Pyramid Life building on May 9.  It was to be open between 9am and 5pm to accept donations and to to collect recall petitions.

At the meeting standing ovations were given to R. A. Lile, a former member of the Little Rock School Board, and Everett Tucker, Ted Lamb and Russell Matson, current members.  (Remember, this was back in the day when standing ovations were few and far between.)

Because most of the STOP members were younger, and second-tier business executives, the leadership of Will Mitchell and the chamber’s leadership by Grainger Williams was crucial in giving not only sage advice, but adding gravitas.

In the coming weeks, STOP would work closely with the Women’s Emergency Committee. The WEC had studied voter registration lists. They would put this skill to use as potential voters were identified as “Saints,” “Sinners,” or “Savables.”  The two groups, working hand in hand behind the scenes, had their work cut out for them.

When the issue about reopening the schools had been put to the voters the previous autumn, Little Rock voters had overwhelmingly approved keeping the schools closed.  There were many factors which had led to it – confusing ballot title, short campaign time, belief that the schools would reopen soon, etc.  But even though there were some key factors in favor of STOP and the WEC this time, nothing could be taken for granted.

Little Rock Look Back: 27 students attempt to integrate LR schools in 1956

Arkansas Democrat photo by staff photographer Mr. Bisgood.

On Monday, January 23, 1956, twenty-seven African American students attempted to integrate four Little Rock schools.  By the end of the day, all four school principals had refused entry and some of the students had met with LRSD Superintendent Virgil Blossom.

Eight girls who were students at Horace Mann High School arrived at Central High at 9:30 am accompanied by Daisy Bates and Frank W. Smith both of the NAACP.  One male student attempted to integrate Little Rock Technical High School.  Four students arrived at Forest Heights Junior High (accompanied by three adults) and fourteen students attempted to integrate Forest Park Elementary (accompanied by four adults).  Neither the Arkansas Gazette nor the Arkansas Democrat broke down the age or gender of the junior high and elementary students.

Though all were referred to meet with Mr. Blossom, only the young women from Horace Mann visited with him.  After the conversation both he and Mrs. Bates declared the conversation had been friendly.   Mr. Blossom, in denying the request, noted that the Little Rock School District had a plan for integration. To allow them to integrate immediately would have been going against the plan.  The integration plan was connected to the completion of the new high school.  If it were ready to open in the fall of 1957, then integration at the high schools would start then.  The newspapers noted that there was no timeline for when it would extend down to the junior high and elementary levels.

That evening, Rev. J. C. Crenchaw, the president of the Little Rock NAACP, issued a statement.  In it he expressed frustration that the LRSD was vague on its timeline for integration.  He noted that the students lived near the schools which they tried to integrate and were therefore forced to travel several extra miles each day to attend school.  He also commented that the young man who attempted to enroll at Tech was not afforded the training available there at his current school.

The Arkansas Democrat ran a photo of the meeting with Mr. Blossom.  It identified the seven students who were pictured.  No mention was made as to whether the eighth student was present but not photographed, or if she did not attend the meeting.  As was the practice at the time, the addresses of the students were listed by their names.  Based on those addresses, the students lived between 0.4 and 0.9 miles from Central High School and were between 2.1 and 3.2 miles away from Horace Mann High School.  Of the seven students in the photo, two were seniors, three were juniors, and three were sophomores.  None of the students named became part of the Little Rock Nine who did integrate Central High twenty-one months later.

On January 24, the Gazette editorial writer opined they were glad for the amicable nature of the conversations. They hoped it did not affect the good race relations in Little Rock.  The writer concluded by saying they did not want it to incite extremists (but did not specify if they viewed the extremists as being for or against integration.)