Little Rock Look Back: Mayor W. E. Lenon

OMayor Lenonn October 8, 1867 in Panora, Iowa, future Little Rock Mayor Warren E. Lenon was born.  He was one of eleven children of John D. and Margaret M. Long Lenon.

Lenon came to Little Rock in 1888 after finishing his schooling in Iowa.  He helped set up an abstract company shortly after his arrival.  In 1902 he organized the Peoples Savings Bank.  Among his other business interests were the City Realty Company, the Factory Land Company, the Mountain Park Land Company, and the Pulaski Heights Land Company.

From 1895 to 1903, he was a Little Rock alderman, and in 1903, he was elected Mayor of the city. A progressive Mayor, he championed the construction of a new City Hall which opened in 1908.  At the first meeting of the City Council in that building, Mayor Lenon tendered his resignation.  His duties in his various business interests were taking up too much of his time.

Mayor Lenon had been a champion for the establishment of a municipal auditorium. He had wanted to include one in the new City Hall complex. But a court deemed it not permissible under Arkansas finance laws at the time.  He also worked to help establish the first Carnegie Library in Little Rock which opened in 1912.

Mayor Lenon continued to serve in a variety of public capacities after leaving office.  In the 1920s, he briefly chaired a public facilities board for an auditorium district. It appeared he would see his dream fulfilled of a municipal auditorium.  Unfortunately the Arkansas Supreme Court declared the enabling legislation invalid.

In 1889, he married Clara M. Mercer.  The couple had three children, two of whom survived him: a son W. E. Lenon Jr., and a daughter Vivion Mercer Lenon Brewer.  Together with Adolphine Fletcher Terry (also a daughter of a LR Mayor), Mrs. Brewer was a leader of the Women’s Emergency Committee.

Mayor Lenon died June 25, 1946 and is buried at Roselawn Cemetery.  Lenon Drive just off University Avenue is named after Mayor Lenon.

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Little Rock Look Back: 1958 Election continues LR High Schools closure

Signs placed outside of Little Rock’s high schools erroneously cited the federal government as the source of school closures. They also had a glaring spelling error.

On Saturday, September 27, 1958, voters in Little Rock approved the continuation of the closure of the city’s high schools.

Using legislation passed by the General Assembly in a hastily called special session in summer of 1958, Governor Orval Faubus had ordered the closure of Little Rock’s four public high schools in order to keep them from being desegregated.

But that state law only allowed the closure of Central, Hall, Horace Mann and Technical high schools on a temporary basis. In order for them to be closed permanently, the city’s voters must approve it by a vote.

The election date was to be set by Governor Faubus.  Originally scheduled for Tuesday, October 7, the date was moved to September 27.  Speculation for the new date selection centered on:

  • Faubus wanted it to be prior to the October 1 poll tax deadline so that only people who had paid their poll tax for the prior year were eligible
  • The election was on a Saturday.  Though Tuesday was the most common day of the week for elections, in the late 1950s Saturdays were used on elections as well.  The school board elections, for instance, were on Saturdays in some years.
  • On September 27, 1958, the Arkansas Razorbacks had a home football game in Fayetteville.

These were all designed to stifle voter turnout. In addition, the state law required a majority of eligible voters to approve reopening the schools.  The law also spelled out the confusing wording of the ballot question.  As historian Sondra Gordy points out in her book FINDING THE LOST YEAR, the ballot question was about only being for or against integration of the schools – it did not say anything about closure or opening of schools.

While the newly formed Women’s Emergency Committee did put forth efforts to educate voters about the issue and encourage a vote to reopen the schools, this nascent group was less than a fortnight old by the Saturday election day.  On the other side, the Governor campaigned for the remaining closure of the schools including in television appearances.

On that Saturday, Little Rock voters voted 19,470 to keep schools segregated to 7,561 to integrate them.

The WEC was disappointed but remained even more determined.  As some of the members have commented – having over 7,000 people be WITH them was encouraging.

It would be a long road ahead to reopen the schools.  It would take two more elections before the City’s four public high schools would reopen.

Little Rock Look Back: First Meeting of the WEC

Vivion Brewer, Adolphine Terry, and Pat House with an award presented to the WEC around the time the group disbanded.

On Tuesday, September 16, 1958, the first meeting of the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools took place at the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House in downtown Little Rock.  Fifty-eight women were in attendance at the initial meeting.

The group had been envisioned four days earlier, on September 12. At the time, Adolphine Fletcher Terry had invited Vivion Lenon Brewer and Velma Powell to her house to discuss the current school situation. Terry and Brewer were both daughters of former Little Rock mayors.  They were frustrated with the stalemate that was taking place with the Little Rock School District, the State, and the Federal Government.

In a conversation about the group with her friend Arkansas Gazette editor Harry Ashmore, Mrs. Terry stated, “The men have failed, it’s time to call out the women.”

The same day the trio met, an immediate concern superseded their general discontent.

On September 12, Governor Faubus had signed several segregationist bills into law. One of them gave him the authority to temporarily close schools in order to keep the from being integrated. After signing the bills, he issued an order closing Little Rock’s four high schools. He set October 2 as the election day for Little Rock voters to ratify or reject the closing.

The closure of the schools and impending election, gave an urgency and an immediate focus for the WEC. The women sprung into action.

The way the election law was written, keeping the schools open would require a majority of all registered voters — not just those voting in the election.  There were several other requirements written into the law that made it all but impossible to reject the closure.  Nonetheless the WEC went to work.  They wrote letters, made phone calls, made personal pleas, raised money, and placed newspaper ads.

Their need for a quick and efficient organization became even more paramount with the Governor moved the election forward to September 27.  His public reason was to remove the uncertainty; but privately he was likely concerned that there was organized opposition.

Though the voters approved keeping the high schools closed, the WEC was undaunted. They continued to work throughout the 1958-59 school year in a variety of ways. They backed candidates in the December 1958 school board elections, and succeeded in getting three moderates elected.  In May 1959, they were a crucial bloc in the campaign to recall of three segregationist school board members.

Following the reopening of the schools in 1959, the WEC continued to focus on social issues until disbanding in 1963.

The membership of the WEC was kept a secret. No official roll was kept.  With a membership which swelled to over 1,300, obviously not all attended meetings at once. There were well organized phone trees which quickly got the word out to the membership.  During elections, they would create files on all registered voters with codes for Saints, Sinners and Savable.

In an effort of intimidation (as if anyone could intimidate Adolphine Fletcher Terry), there were efforts to force the WEC to disclose membership lists. The officers and their legal counsel replied that there were no lists in existence, so there was nothing to disclose.

On March 13, 1998, the names of the WEC were made public for the first time when they were published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.  This was done in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the year of the founding.  Later in the year, the names were etched in glass in the solarium of the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House.  (In the 1970s, the house was given by the family to the City of Little Rock for use by the Arkansas Arts Center.)

A ceremony at the house in October 1998 celebrated the 40th anniversary and the names permanently etched there.  First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton came back to Little Rock to deliver remarks at the ceremony.

Sara Murphy, a member of the WEC wrote a book about the organization which was published in 1997, shortly after her death.  Around the same time, Sandra Hubbard produced a documentary called The Giants Wore White Gloves.  A sold out screening of the film is scheduled today at the CALS Ron Robinson Theatre as a presentation of the Clinton School Speaker Series in conjunction with the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.

Little Rock Look Back: 1959 Labor Day Bombings

Labor Day Bomb

ARKANSAS GAZETTE photos showing the exterior and interior of the LRSD building after the bomb blast.

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On September 7, 1959, a peaceful Labor Day in Little Rock was shattered by the explosions of three dynamite bombs.

The locations were Fire Chief Gene Nalley’s driveway on Baseline Road at 10:20pm, Baldwin Company offices at Fourth and Gaines at 10:53pm (where Little Rock Mayor Werner Knoop was a partner–the company is now known as Baldwin Shell), and the School District offices at 10:58pm (then located at Eighth and Louisiana streets).

Given the three targets, it was fairly quickly assumed that there was a connection between the bombings and the lingering effects of the 1957 integration crisis. In light of that, police officers were stationed at the homes of all Little Rock City Directors and School Board members.

The investigation into the bombings turned up a purported fourth location for a bomb. That was the office of Letcher Langford. (Culture Vulture Editorializing Note:  This could have been a ploy to throw investigators off the scent. Langford was the only City Director who had been backed by segregationist candidates and had been openly hostile to the Women’s Emergency Committee — to the point of threatening them with legal action for not disclosing their membership rolls.)

Investigators determined that the bombing had been planned in late August by members of the Ku Klux Klan.  Five individuals were arrested.  They were J. D. Sims, Jesse Raymond Perry, John Taylor Coggins, Samuel Graydon Beavers, and E. A. Lauderdale.  The latter had twice been an unsuccessful candidate for the City Board of Directors.

Sims pleaded guilty and started serving a prison term later in September 1959.  Perry, Coggins and Beavers all went to trial in October and November.  Each was found guilty. Their terms ranged from three to five years.  Lauderdale was convicted, but appealed his decision. Though the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the verdict against him, he did not start serving his sentence until the court decision in February 1961.

Governor Faubus commuted the sentences of Perry, Coggins and Beavers.  All three served less than six months.  Lauderdale’s sentence was reduced by Faubus so that he, too, was eligible for release after six months.  Sims, who was first to plead, served the longest: nearly two years.

Sadly, this would not be the last bombing in Little Rock tied to 1957. In February 1960, Carlotta Walls’ house was bombed.

Little Rock Look Back: The Aftermath of the Recall

The day after the recall election, there was still uncertainty.  The results were not uncertain – even the two boxes from Woodruff Elementary which were not counted until the the day after did not change the outcome.

The uncertainty stemmed from the process.  The School Board recall law which had been hastily passed by the Arkansas General Assembly (to be used as a tool against integration), had many glaring omissions. Written by Attorney General (and avowed segregationist) Bruce Bennett, it did not indicate when recalled members lost their seats – was it after election results were announced? After they were certified? Or after the new members were appointed?

In addition, the Election Commission was prepared to certify the results, but did not know to whom they were issuing the certification.  Because it was a citizen-initiated recall for a school district race, none of the pre-existing rules applied.  And again, the Bennett bill did not spell it out.

The Pulaski County Board of Education had to wait for the results to be certified before they could appoint the three new members.  Each of these new members would stand for re-election in December at the next School Board election.

In the interim, the School Board had a scheduled meeting set for two days after the election.  But with its membership uncertain and no pressing matters, the three retained members (Everett Tucker, Russell Matson and Ted Lamb) were considering postponing the meeting.

In the coming days, the Election Commission would meet and certify the results.  They ended up sending them to the County Judge.  One of the three members appointed to fill the vacancies was ineligible (he did not live in the district).  But by the end of June, the Little Rock School Board was back to six members.

A court ruling over the summer which struck down the law allowing the closure of schools, cleared the way for Little Rock high schools to reopen as integrated in the fall.  There would be much more legal wrangling in the weeks, months and years to come.  The rate at which the Little Rock public schools were integrated was much more focused on the word “deliberate” than on “speed.”

But on May 26, 1958, those matters were for another day.  The supporters of the fired 44 teachers and the three school board members who defended them were left to savor their victory.

A look at the voting by the City’s five wards shows that while individual precinct totals varied, Messrs. Lamb, Matson and Tucker all fared well in Wards 1 and 5 as well as in Cammack Village and Absentee voting.  Ben Rowland and Bob Laster fared well in Wards 2, 3, and 4 as well as the unincorporated area around Wilson Elementary.  Ed McKinley was supported in Wards 3 & 4 as well as the Wilson Elementary environs.

Here is a breakdown of the voting locations in each Ward to give a sense of the geographic location:

Ward 1 – 16th & Park, 14th & Pulaski, 15th & State, 28th & Wolfe, 23rd & Arch

Ward 2 – 316 E. 8th, 12th & Commerce, 424 E. 21st, 1101 E Roosevelt, 6th & Fletcher

Ward 3 – County Courthouse, 1116 W Markham, 11th & Ringo, 9th & Battery, Deaf School, 7th & Johnson, Cantrell Rd in Riverdale

Ward 4 – 4710 W 12th, 3515 W 12th, 24th & Garland, 22nd & Peyton, Broadmoor Methodist

Ward 5 – Markham & Elm, Kavanaugh & Beech, Cantrell & Pierce, Kavanaugh & Harrison, Kavanaugh & McKinley, 7524 Cantrell, H & Hayes

Little Rock Look Back: 1959 Recall Election Day

The triumphant trio who were retained by Little Rock voters.

May 25, 1959, was not only the Recall Election Day, it was the last day of school for the Little Rock School District’s elementary and junior high students.  The results of that day’s vote would determine whether the ninth grade students would be in class come fall, or joining their older friends and neighbors in sitting out a school year.

While expectations that a new record of turnout would be set were off, over 25,000 of the 42,000 registered voters DID cast ballots in the May 25, 1959, Recall Election.

As the precinct results started coming in, some unexpected trends developed.  Some of the boxes in the more affluent, western neighborhoods which had been expected to be strongly in favor of keeping Everett Tucker, Russell Matson and Ted Lamb were not providing the anticipated overwhelming numbers.  Likewise, some of the more working class neighborhoods which had been projected to be strongly in favor of keeping Ed McKinley, Ben Rowland and Bob Laster were more receptive to keeping Tucker, Matson and Lamb.

As the night rolled onward, only Everett Tucker looked like a sure thing to be retained on the School Board.  At one point in the evening it appeared that the other five members would be recalled.  By the time they were down to four boxes still uncounted, the three CROSS-backed candidates were guaranteed to be recalled, but the status of Lamb and Matson was still undetermined.  Finally, with only two boxes remaining, there was a sufficient cushion to guarantee Matson and Lamb would continue as board members.

Two boxes from the Woodruff school were uncounted at the end of Monday. They had 611 votes between the two of them, which was not enough to change any outcomes.  They were being kept under lock and key to ensure there was no tampering with them.

Once it became apparent that Tucker, Lamb and Matson were retained, the STOP watch party erupted.  Six young men hoisted the triumphant three on their shoulders and paraded them through the crowd.  Dr. Drew Agar enthusiastically announced to the crowd, “Mission completely accomplished.”

At around 11:00 p.m. William S. Mitchell addressed the crowd.  “This is a great awakening of our home town…I have never seen such a wonderful demonstration of community spirit.”  He later went on to thank the thousands of people who volunteered in the effort.

At the CROSS headquarters, Ed McKinley and Rev. M. L. Moser were sequestered in a room poring over results.  When it appeared that 5 of the 6 might be recalled, McKinley issued what turned out to be a premature statement.

Back at the STOP party, the celebration continued.  While people knew that much work was still ahead, the men and women in attendance were enjoying a rare moment of joy after nearly two years of strife.

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.