Little Rock Look Back: Classes resume in Little Rock high schools

On August 12, 1959, something remarkable and yet unremarkable happened.  Little Rock teenagers started the high school year.

After turmoil and no classes in 1958-1959 (dubbed the Lost Year), the state law allowing for schools to be shut down in order to keep them segregated had been overturned.

The six new school board members (all of whom had started since December 1958) decided to start classes in the middle of August instead of the traditional post-Labor Day start. The original start date of post-Labor Day was changed in an announcement on Monday, August 4.  Among the reasons was to get classes started before Gov. Faubus could convene the Arkansas General Assembly into special session and create more mischief in order to try to keep Little Rock’s high Schools segregated.

While it WAS important to have the schools reopened, the desegregation was minimal.  Originally, only three African Americans were admitted to Central High (Jefferson Thomas, Elizabeth Eckford, and Carlotta Walls, who had all been part of the Little Rock Nine) and only three were admitted to Hall High.  One of the three admitted to Central, Eckford, had enough credits due to correspondence courses, and did not enroll.

On August 12, about 1,000 segregationists attended a rally at the State Capitol hearing from Gov. Faubus and other speakers.  After it was over, about 250 marched or drove toward Central High School.  A block away from the school, they met a phalanx of police officers who turned them away.  When the marchers broke into rioters, the Fire Department turned its hoses on them. The police ended up arresting 24 people.  (This more active response by Police and Fire personnel was a marked difference from two years prior.)

After the school year started, the School Board interviewed over a dozen African American students who wished to transfer from Horace Mann to either Central, Hall, or Technical high schools.  Of these, three would be admitted to Central, including sophomore Sybil L. Jordan (now better known as Dr. Sybil Jordan Hampton).

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.

First Hall High School graduation – May 28, 1958

Another historic high school graduation took place on May 28, 1958.  It was the first graduation ceremony for Little Rock Hall High School.

The school opened in September 1957 as Little Rock’s newest high school, located in “west” Little Rock.  (It is sometimes listed as the second Little Rock high school, ignoring the fact that Horace Mann and the Vo Tech high schools existed.)

The first graduating class was smaller than future classes would be.  Because they had attended Central High School for their sophomore and junior years, many seniors who were zoned for Hall High chose to attend Central for their senior year.

Instead of processing in to Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” the Hall High seniors entered to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Procession of the Nobles.”  The music for ceremony also included “The Star Spangled Banner,” Scarmolin’s “My Creed” and Handel’s “Sarabande and Bouree.”

Principal Terrell E. Powell (who would be tapped as superintendent of the district in a few months) presided over the ceremonies.  Superintendent Virgil Blossom (whose daughter had graduated from Central High the day before) spoke briefly to introduce the School Board members.  One of them, R. A. Lile, presented the students with their diplomas.

There were 109 seniors listed in the graduation program, seven were honor graduates.  The senior class officers were: Redding Stevenson, president; Amanda Jeanne “Toppy” Cameron, vice president; and Karl E. Stahlkopf, secretary. Porter Briggs was the first student body president. Linda Overstreet was student body vice president and Linda Neathery was 12th grade representative on the student council.

The Senior speakers were:  Anita Kluglose (“Toward a Pathless Wood”), Karl Stahlkopf (“Toward the Mysterious Stars”), Linda Neathery (“Toward Majestic Mountains”) and Thomas York (“Toward Unlimited Horizons”).  Other students participating were Redding Stevenson presenting the senior gift, Mary Ellen Lenggenhager giving the invocation, and Michael Ebert giving the benediction.

Final Dunbar High School Graduation – May 27, 1955

On May 27, 1955, on the stage of Robinson Auditorium, the Dunbar High School senior class graduated. This academic year marked not only the 25th anniversary of Dunbar’s opening, but it was the last year that the school building would offer junior high through junior college classes.

In the fall of 1955, the new Horace Mann High School would open. Dunbar would continue to be open, but only as a junior high.  (Though no reason was ever publicly given, the junior college component ended in May 1955.)

The new Mann High School was constructed, in part, as a way to delay any integration plans for the Little Rock School District.  With a new second all-white high school in the works for Little Rock, it was thought that a new African American school would placate the African-American community by not only giving them a new building, but relieving the overcrowding at Dunbar.

But on May 27, 1955, and the days leading up to it, the focus was on celebrating the final graduation class and the 25th anniversary of Dunbar High School.  On May 25, teachers who had taught for 25 years at the school, and original teachers who retired from the school were honored.

The school’s original principal, Dr. John H. Lewis, was the commencement speaker.  The current principal, Dr. L. W. Christophe presided over the awarding of the diplomas and announcements of scholarships.  Among the higher education institutions to which they received scholarships were the University of Michigan, Wiley College, Tennessee State, Arkansas AM&N, Talladega College, and Philander Smith College.

While the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat  both DID run stories on the graduation, it was hardly equal to the coverage they gave Central High School.  In fact, on the day after Dunbar’s graduation, the Democrat ran a photo of two Central graduates huddled under an umbrella in the rain – three days after the ceremony took place.

In 1971, Mann ceased its status as a high school as well.  Today, both Mann and Dunbar serve as middle schools within the Little Rock School District.