Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


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Little Rock Look Back: Brown v. Board of Education

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.  

This landmark United States Supreme Court case declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. The decision overturned 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which allowed state-sponsored segregation in public education. In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the Warren Court stated “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”  The results of this decision would be tested on the streets of Little Rock in 1957.Th

The Court’s fourteen page decision did not spell out any sort of method for ending racial segregation in schools, and the Court’s second decision in Brown II, muddied the waters even further by only ordering states to desegregate with the oxymoronic “all deliberate speed.”

Brown v. Board grew out of a class action suit filed in Topeka, Kansas, by thirteen African American parents on behalf of their children.  Mr. Oliver Brown was the only male. He was chosen to be the lead plaintiff, because it was felt that the court would look more favorably on a male plaintiff.  The District Court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing Plessy v. Ferguson.  The court did note that segregation had a detrimental effect on African American students, but that since the Topeka schools were substantially equal, there was no relief to be granted.

When it was appealed to the Supreme Court, Brown v. Board was combined with four other cases from other jurisdictions.  All were NAACP sponsored cases.  Thurgood Marshall was the lead attorney for the plaintiffs.  In December 1952, the Justice Department filed a “friend of the court” brief and argued, in part, that racial segregation had a detrimental effect on US foreign policy. Communist countries were using racial separation in anti-US propaganda.

In the spring of 1953, the Supreme Court held the case.  Unable to decide the issue, they reheard it in the fall of 1953.  They then put special emphasis on the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

During deliberations, Chief Justice Earl Warren insisted on a unanimous ruling to avoid massive Southern resistance.

Since the Topeka schools were found to be substantially equal, the Court’s ruling was important in noting that the harm came from the separation.  While there was no doubt that many (if not most) African American public schools were inferior in infrastructure and supplies to white schools – that in and of itself was not the issue.

School leaders in Little Rock started perusing the Brown decision and considering how the Little Rock School District would comply.

 


Little Rock Look Back: President Thomas Jefferson

On April 13, 1743, Thomas Jefferson was born in Virginia.  Along with Benjamin Franklin, he was one of the first American multi-hyphenate Renaissance men.  Author, musician, inventor, diplomat, epicurean, architect, educator, and President. Certainly his writing of the Declaration of Independence was of paramount importance to the US, even if he had never served as President.

It was during his Presidency that Thomas Jefferson actively pursued the Louisiana Purchase which brought what is now Arkansas into the United States.  While he never visited the area, he did send explorers to chart out the Louisiana Purchase.  The subsequent surveying which took place during the Madison presidency was based on standards developed by Jefferson for the surveying of Ohio.

In Little Rock, Jefferson is remembered with Jefferson Elementary and Jefferson Street. He is also the eponym for Bill Clinton’s middle name.


Women’s History Month – Charlotte Stephens

Charlotte Andrews Stephens was the first African American teacher in the Little Rock School District.  Between 1910 and 1912, when an elementary school for African Americans was named after her, she became the first woman to have a public building in Little Rock named after her.  For nearly fifty years, Stephens Elementary (which is now in its third building) would be the only LRSD building named after a woman.

Born into slavery, Charlotte Stephens was educated first by her father who ran a private school in what is now Wesley Chapel UMC.  At the age of 15, she started teaching at the Union School to finish out the term of a white teacher who had become ill.  She taught for 70 years, retiring at age 85 in 1939.

From 1870 to 1873, she attended college at Oberlin College, though not always every semester. (It is possible she was the first African American woman from Arkansas to attend college, but that cannot be verified.)  During her career with the LRSD, she taught students in all grades. She was twice principal of Capitol Hill School, and later headed the high school Latin Department.  At the time of her retirement, she was librarian of Dunbar High School.

The land on which Stephens Elementary now sits was once owned by Charlotte Stephens.  She donated the land and attended the 1950 dedication of the second Stephens Elementary.  That building was torn down in 1994 to make way for the current Stephens Elementary.  Some of her grandchildren attended the dedication of the new and current Stephens Elementary.

 


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Women’s History Month – Dr. Ida Joe Brooks, first female medical doctor in Arkansas

Dr. Ida Joe Brooks was the first woman to practice medicine in Arkansas.  In 1920, she became the first woman to be a party nominee for a statewide office.  She was the Republican nominee for State Superintendent of Public Instruction. However, due to her gender, the state Attorney General would not let her name appear on the ballot. (Even though this was the first election in which women could vote.)

In 1877, Dr. Brooks, became the first woman to head a state teachers’ organization. She was president of the Arkansas Educational Association.  After teaching for several years, she wanted to attend medical school.  She had to do so out of state, because the Arkansas medical school would not admit her based on her gender.  In 1914, she ended up becoming the first female faculty member of what is now UAMS.

During World War I, she attempted to enlist in military service.  When she was denied, due to her gender, she was commissioned in the US Public Health Service and served at Camp Pike specializing in psychiatry.  After the war, she was health director for the Little Rock School District.


Women’s History Month – Lucy Dixon, first woman on Little Rock Board of Directors

Photo courtesy Little Rock School District

Photo courtesy Little Rock School District

First woman elected to the City of Little Rock Board of Directors:  Lucy Dixon.

Lucy Dixon was elected to the initial Little Rock Board of Directors in November 1957.  She previously had served for six years on the Little Rock School Board.

Mrs. Dixon is the only woman to have served on both the governing boards of the City and the school district.  Mrs. Dixon chose not to seek a second term and left the City Board on December 31, 1960.

Mrs. Dixon is the first woman to be elected to a City position without her husband having previously held that position.

Her father had a lumber business, in which she worked off and on throughout her lifetime. She served not only as an officer of the business, but had a desk at the office and participated in the daily business.  She was also very active in Methodist Woman functions in Little Rock and Arkansas.


Women’s History Month – Lillian Dees McDermott

glass-mcdermottLillian Dees McDermott served on the Little Rock School Board from 1922 to 1946.

Not only was she the first woman to be elected to the School Board, she was also one of the longest-serving members of the board.  She was elected several times to serve as President of the School Board, becoming the first woman to have that title.  During one of her terms, plans to construct Little Rock High School (now Central) and Dunbar High School (now Dunbar Middle School) were finalized.

In her capacity as President, she had to sign contracts. She became the first woman in the country to sign a multi-million dollar contract for a public building project.  McDermott Elementary is named in her memory.


Black History Month – Wiley Branton and Robinson Auditorium

brantonMost of the people who are being featured this month have played at Robinson Center.  But today’s entry, Wiley A. Branton, Sr. worked to integrate Robinson Center.

In 1962, he filed a suit on behalf of several African American residents of Little Rock to integrate the City’s public facilities including Robinson Auditorium.  (The City Board and the Auditorium Commission were named in the lawsuit.)  In 1963, the decision came down and the facilities had to integrate.

This lawsuit was just one of many in which Branton paved the way for equal opportunities for all.  He helped desegregate the University of Arkansas School of Law and later filed suit against the Little Rock School Board in a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court as Cooper v. Aaron.

A native of Pine Bluff, he graduated from what is now UAPB. After first being refused admission, he later became the fifth African American to attend the UA Law School and the third to graduate.  From 1953 to 1962, he had a law practice in Pine Bluff.  Between 1962 and 1965, Branton worked with representatives of the major African-American civil rights organizations to register almost 700,000 new black voters in eleven Southern states. Following that, he became executive director of the President’s Council on Equal Opportunity and help coordinate implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He spent 1965 to 1967 at the Justice Department, before becoming executive director of the United Planning Organization (UPO).  After working with a couple of other organizations, he returned to private practice in 1971.  In December 1977 it was announced that Branton would be the new dean of Howard University School of Law. After five years, he joined the law firm of Sidley and Austin in its Washington DC office.

Branton died of a heart attack in December 1988.  Eleven hundred mourners gathered at a memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Among those present was Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. The eulogy was delivered by Vernon E. Jordan, Jr..  Then-Gov. Bill Clinton spoke at the Pine Bluff memorial service for Branton.