Little Rock Look Back: First Little Rock High School graduation

The Sherman School at 7th and Sherman Streets, which contained Little Rock’s first high school. It is now the site of the Kramer School apartments.

On June 13, 1873, the first Little Rock High School graduation ceremony took place. Newspaper accounts do not indicate how many were in the class.

The ceremony took place at the Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church, North, which was located on Main Street in the 400 block.  (Part of the Little Rock Technology Park is now on a portion of that site.)

Miss Eva K. Smith, the class Salutatorian was unable to attend and bring opening remarks due to illness.  However, several other speeches by students were given including “Earth’s Battlefields” by Mattie A. Chrisman, “Arkansas, Her Past and Future” by Marcus Mentzer, “Turning the Leaves” by Mary W. Smith, and “Water” by Ella Wood.  Mr. Mentzer also delivered a valedictory address which was praised by those in attendance, according to newspaper accounts.

School Board President Frederick Kramer also made remarks as did the school’s principal, Mr. Helm, and General A. W. Bishop.  Mr. Kramer also passed out the diplomas.

While education opportunities had been offered in Little Rock since the 1820s, these had been with private tutors or private academies.  A one room public school was created in the 1850s and governed by the City of Little Rock. No records exist of anyone graduating from that school.  In February 1869, the Arkansas General Assembly authorized the creation of school districts in cities as separate entities.  Little Rock voters approved the establishment of a Little Rock public school system.  Classes began in the autumn of 1869.

The Sherman School was originally built as one of Little Rock’s elementary schools but also contained the first high school classes.  In 1885, high school classes moved to 14th and Scott Streets to the Scott Street School. In 1890, they moved to the Peabody School at Capitol and Gaines Streets where they were located until the new Little Rock High School opened in 1905. This building was constructed on the site of the old Scott Street School. Today it is the East Side lofts. It served as Little Rock High School until 1927 when what is now Little Rock Central High School opened.

In the 1860s and 1870s, African American students studied at Capitol Hill and Union schools, which both contained elementary and secondary classes. By the early 1900s, Gibbs High School had opened as a new elementary and secondary school for African American students. It would serve as the City’s African American high school until Dunbar opened in 1929.

Final Horace Mann High School Graduation – June 2, 1971

Ms. Wordlow and Mr. Wilkins

On Wednesday, June 2, 1971, the final graduation took place for Horace Mann High School. Opened in the spring of 1956, it had served as Little Rock’s all African American high school for fifteen years. (Since the high schools reopened in August 1959, Central and Hall High had both been gradually increasing the number of African American students each year but students zoned for Mann continued to have the opportunity to attend that school.)

Two-hundred and forty students made up the final class. The graduation took place at Barton Coliseum on June 2.  Three days earlier, the Baccalaureate service took place at the school. The top graduate of the class was Samuel Ray Wilkins, with Eloise Wordlow ranked number two.

1971 marked the first graduating class at Little Rock’s newest high school, Parkview. The presence of that school helped hasten the end of Mann.  This was supposed to be the penultimate year for Mann, under the Little Rock School District’s plan. But in the summer of 1971, a federal court order mandated that Mann no longer serve as a one race high school effective the start of the 1971-1972 school year.

Because of the court order hastening the end of Mann as a high school, there was no opportunity to reflect on Mann’s legacy or note the final graduation.

So the group which thought they would be the final Mann class was instead split up to attend Central, Hall, and Parkview.  Mann was made into a junior high effective that new school year. The students who were supposed to be Mann’s last class have called themselves the 1972 Horace Mann Transitional Class and still have reunions.

Mann had followed Paul Laurence Dunbar High School as Little Rock’s African American high school. That facility had opened in 1929 with a junior high and junior college also in the same building.  Following the opening of Mann, Dunbar became solely a junior high.  The junior college component was dropped in 1955 with no publicly stated reason.

Prior to Dunbar, there had been Gibbs School which served as a primary and secondary school for Little Rock’s African American students beginning in the early 1900s. Eventually the elementary students were located in another building, which was the precursor to today’s Gibbs Elementary School.

Before Gibbs School, Capitol Hill and Union schools both existed at roughly the same time. Both included elementary, junior high, and high school students. After Gibbs School opened, they continued to serve as schools. Capitol Hill lasted as an elementary school into the 1940s.

Dr. William Grant Still, born on May 11, 1895 – A leading 20th Century American composer

Long known as the Dean of African American composers, Dr. William Grant Still was a legend in his own lifetime. Though not born in Little Rock, he spent much of his youth in the city.

Dr. Still, who wrote more than 150 compositions ranging from operas to arrangements of folk themes, is best known as a pioneer. He was the first African-American in the United States to have a symphonic composition performed by a major orchestra.

He was the first African American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the US; the first to conduct a major symphony in the south; first to conduct a white radio orchestra in New York City; first to have an opera produced by a major company. Dr. Still was also the first African-American to have an opera televised over a national network

Dr. Still was born May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi to parents who were teachers and musicians. When Dr. Still was only a few months old, his father died and his mother took him to Little Rock. Inspired by RCA Red Seal operatic recordings, his musical education began with violin lessons.  He graduated from Gibbs High School in Little Rock.

After his studies at Wilberforce University and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, he played in orchestras and orchestrated for various employers including the great W. C. Handy. For several years he arranged and conducted the “Deep River Hour” over CBS and WOR.  He also played in the orchestra for the 1921 musical Shuffle Along, which was the first Broadway musical to feature an all African-American cast and writing team.

In the 1920’s, Still made his first appearances as a serious composer in New York. Several fellowships and commissions followed. In 1994, his “Festive Overture” captured the Jubilee prize of the Cincinnati Symphony orchestra. In 1953, he won a Freedoms Foundation Award for “To You, America!” which honored West Point’s Sesquicentennial Celebration. In 1961, he received honors for this orchestral work, “The Peaceful Land”. Dr. Still also received numerous honorary degrees from various colleges and universities, as well as various awards and a citation from Arkansas Governor Dale Bumpers in 1972.

In 1939, Dr. Still married journalist and concert pianist Verna Avery, who became his principal collaborator. They remained together until Dr. Still’s death in 1978.  In a proclamation marking the centennial of Dr. Still’s birth, President Bill Clinton praised the composer for creating “works of such beauty and passion that they pierced the artificial barriers of race, nationality and time.”

In 1995, Dr. Still was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.  In 2016, the ballroom at Robinson Center was named in his honor. In 2018, Opera in the Rock performed Still’s opera Troubled Island.

Little Rock Look Back: William Grant Still

Long known as the Dean of African American composers, Dr. William Grant Still was a legend in his own lifetime.

Dr. Still, who wrote more than 150 compositions ranging from operas to arrangements of folk themes, is best known as a pioneer. He was the first African-American in the United States to have a symphonic composition performed by a major orchestra. He was the first to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the US; the first to conduct a major symphony in the south; first to conduct a white radio orchestra in New York City; first to have an opera produced by a major company. Dr. Still was also the first African-American to have an opera televised over a national network

Dr. Still was born May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi to parents who were teachers and musicians. When Dr. Still was only a few months old, his father died and his mother took him to Little Rock. Inspired by RCA Red Seal operatic recordings, his musical education began with violin lessons.  He graduated from Gibbs High School in Little Rock.

After his studies at Wilberforce University and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, he played in orchestras and orchestrated for various employers including the great W. C. Handy. For several years he arranged and conducted the “Deep River Hour” over CBS and WOR.  He also played in the orchestra for the 1921 musical Shuffle Along, which was the first Broadway musical to feature an all African-American cast and writing team.

In the 1920’s, Still made his first appearances as a serious composer in New York. Several fellowships and commissions followed. In 1994, his “Festive Overture” captured the Jubilee prize of the Cincinnati Symphony orchestra. In 1953, he won a Freedoms Foundation Award for “To You, America!” which honored West Point’s Sesquicentennial Celebration. In 1961, he received honors for this orchestral work, “The Peaceful Land”. Dr. Still also received numerous honorary degrees from various colleges and universities, as well as various awards and a citation from Arkansas Governor Dale Bumpers in 1972.

In 1939, Dr. Still married journalist and concert pianist Verna Avery, who became his principal collaborator. They remained together until Dr. Still’s death in 1978.  In a proclamation marking the centennial of Dr. Still’s birth, President Bill Clinton praised the composer for creating “works of such beauty and passion that they pierced the artificial barriers of race, nationality and time.”

In 1995, Dr. Still was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.  In 2016, the ballroom at Robinson Center was named in his honor.  Earlier this month, Opera in the Rock performed Still’s opera Troubled Island.

Rock the Oscars: William Grant Still

Long known as the Dean of African American composers, Dr. William Grant Still was a legend in his own lifetime.  As a prolific composer and arranger, his work was featured in numerous movies in the 1930s and 1940s including Oscar winning films The Awful Truth and Lost Horizon.

Dr. Still, who wrote more than 150 compositions ranging from operas to arrangements of folk themes, is best known as a pioneer. He was the first African-American in the United States to have a symphonic composition performed by a major orchestra. He was the first to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the US; the first to conduct a major symphony in the south; first to conduct a white radio orchestra in New York City; first to have an opera produced by a major company. Dr. Still was also the first African-American to have an opera televised over a national network

Dr. Still was born May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi to parents who were teachers and musicians. When Dr. Still was only a few months old, his father died and his mother took him to Little Rock. Inspired by RCA Red Seal operatic recordings, his musical education began with violin lessons.  He graduated from Gibbs High School in Little Rock.

After his studies at Wilberforce University and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, he played in orchestras and orchestrated for various employers including the great W. C. Handy. For several years he arranged and conducted the “Deep River Hour” over CBS and WOR.  He also played in the orchestra for the 1921 musical Shuffle Along, which was the first Broadway musical to feature an all African-American cast and writing team.

In the 1920’s, Still made his first appearances as a serious composer in New York. Several fellowships and commissions followed. In 1994, his “Festive Overture” captured the Jubilee prize of the Cincinnati Symphony orchestra. In 1953, he won a Freedoms Foundation Award for “To You, America!” which honored West Point’s Sesquicentennial Celebration. In 1961, he received honors for this orchestral work, “The Peaceful Land”. Dr. Still also received numerous honorary degrees from various colleges and universities, as well as various awards and a citation from Arkansas Governor Dale Bumpers in 1972.

In 1939, Dr. Still married journalist and concert pianist Verna Avery, who became his principal collaborator. They remained together until Dr. Still’s death in 1978.  In a proclamation marking the centennial of Dr. Still’s birth, President Bill Clinton praised the composer for creating “works of such beauty and passion that they pierced the artificial barriers of race, nationality and time.”

In 1995, Dr. Still was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.  In 2016, the ballroom at Robinson Center was named in his honor.

Little Rock Look Back: Dr. William Grant Still

Long known as the Dean of African American composers, Dr. William Grant Still was a legend in his own lifetime.

Dr. Still, who wrote more than 150 compositions ranging from operas to arrangements of folk themes, is best known as a pioneer. He was the first African-American in the United States to have a symphonic composition performed by a major orchestra. He was the first to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the US; the first to conduct a major symphony in the south; first to conduct a white radio orchestra in New York City; first to have an opera produced by a major company. Dr. Still was also the first African-American to have an opera televised over a national network

Dr. Still was born May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi to parents who were teachers and musicians. When Dr. Still was only a few months old, his father died and his mother took him to Little Rock. Inspired by RCA Red Seal operatic recordings, his musical education began with violin lessons.  He graduated from Gibbs High School in Little Rock.

After his studies at Wilberforce University and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, he played in orchestras and orchestrated for various employers including the great W. C. Handy. For several years he arranged and conducted the “Deep River Hour” over CBS and WOR.  He also played in the orchestra for the 1921 musical Shuffle Along, which was the first Broadway musical to feature an all African-American cast and writing team.

In the 1920’s, Still made his first appearances as a serious composer in New York. Several fellowships and commissions followed. In 1994, his “Festive Overture” captured the Jubilee prize of the Cincinnati Symphony orchestra. In 1953, he won a Freedoms Foundation Award for “To You, America!” which honored West Point’s Sesquicentennial Celebration. In 1961, he received honors for this orchestral work, “The Peaceful Land”. Dr. Still also received numerous honorary degrees from various colleges and universities, as well as various awards and a citation from Arkansas Governor Dale Bumpers in 1972.

In 1939, Dr. Still married journalist and concert pianist Verna Avery, who became his principal collaborator. They remained together until Dr. Still’s death in 1978.  In a proclamation marking the centennial of Dr. Still’s birth, President Bill Clinton praised the composer for creating “works of such beauty and passion that they pierced the artificial barriers of race, nationality and time.”

In 1995, Dr. Still was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.  In 2016, the ballroom at Robinson Center was named in his honor.

Little Rock Look Back: William Grant Still

bhm StillLong known as the Dean of African American composers, Dr. William Grant Still was a legend in his own lifetime.

Dr. Still, who wrote more than 150 compositions ranging from operas to arrangements of folk themes, is best known as a pioneer. He was the first African-American in the United States to have a symphonic composition performed by a major orchestra. He was the first to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the US; the first to conduct a major symphony in the south; first to conduct a white radio orchestra in New York City; first to have an opera produced by a major company. Dr. Still was also the first African-American to have an opera televised over a national network

Dr. Still was born May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi to parents who were teachers and musicians. When Dr. Still was only a few months old, his father died and his mother took him to Little Rock. Inspired by RCA Red Seal operatic recordings, his musical education began with violin lessons.  He graduated from Gibbs High School in Little Rock.

After his studies at Wilberforce University and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, he played in orchestras and orchestrated for various employers including the great W. C. Handy. For several years he arranged and conducted the “Deep River Hour” over CBS and WOR.  He also played in the orchestra for the 1921 musical Shuffle Along, which was the first Broadway musical to feature an all African-American cast and writing team.  A musical is currently on Broadway about the creation of that musical, but Still is not a character in it.

In the 1920’s, Still made his first appearances as a serious composer in New York. Several fellowships and commissions followed. In 1994, his “Festive Overture” captured the Jubilee prize of the Cincinnati Symphony orchestra. In 1953, he won a Freedoms Foundation Award for “To You, America!” which honored West Point’s Sesquicentennial Celebration. In 1961, he received honors for this orchestral work, “The Peaceful Land”. Dr. Still also received numerous honorary degrees from various colleges and universities, as well as various awards and a citation from Arkansas Governor Dale Bumpers in 1972.

In 1939, Dr. Still married journalist and concert pianist Verna Avery, who became his principal collaborator. They remained together until Dr. Still’s death in 1978.  In a proclamation marking the centennial of Dr. Still’s birth, President Bill Clinton praised the composer for creating “works of such beauty and passion that they pierced the artificial barriers of race, nationality and time.”

In 1995, Dr. Still was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.