Arkansas Teachers Association (ATA)

The Arkansas Teachers Association (ATA) was an organization that strove for racial equality in education for young African Americans. From 1898 to 1969, it was instrumental in equalizing salaries for black teachers across the state, integrating schools during the desegregation era, and fighting teacher displacement.

In 1898, a group of fewer than a dozen teachers in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) created the State Teachers Association of Arkansas, which later became the Arkansas Teachers Association. The teachers—including the association’s first president, Joseph Carter Corbin—wanted to increase the value of black children’s education, ensure better health for the black community, improve school buildings and equipment, and provide better preparation for teachers.

No written records are available on the association until the 1928 introduction of a newsletter, the Journal, which became the Bulletin in 1930. The State Teachers Association of Arkansas changed its name to the Association of Teachers of Negro Youth in Arkansas in 1931, then to the Arkansas Teachers Association in 1938. A headquarters building was constructed in Little Rock (Pulaski County) in the early 1960s.

In the years leading to the Great Depression, the association focused on health classes, teaching adults how to read and write, encouraging school attendance, and achieving accreditation for high schools serving black youths. About half of the state’s black teachers were members of the organization in the 1920s, and leaders encouraged teachers to strive for racial cooperation in their schools.

In 1931–32, the state Department of Education created a survey and a list of accredited schools. The survey offered a checklist of items that needed to be fulfilled for a school to be accredited; principals were to complete this survey. The ATA added several schools, even those in financial trouble, to the accreditation list.

Membership declined during the Depression, and only twenty-three percent of black teachers were members of the association by 1937. But the first black superintendent for a school district in the state was hired in the 1930s—L. W. Johnson, who was appointed to Oak Grove School District No. 4 in Rosston (Nevada County) in 1935. The association worked closely with national organizations such as the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers, the American Teachers Association, and the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools to improve conditions for teachers and students in Arkansas.

During the civil rights era, the ATA pushed for equal salaries for black teachers and equal facilities and materials for black students. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the landmark desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954, the association’s mission grew to include integration. During integration of black and white schools, districts were forced to cut staff, and black teachers were often the ones dismissed. The displacement caused black teachers to lose political influence in public schools; Arkansas was among the hardest-hit states with regard to the loss of black teachers. The ATA’s executive secretary, S. E. Patterson, appealed to the State Board of Education, and the ATA filed a lawsuit, on the behalf of black teachers in Arkansas.

In 1969, the Arkansas Teachers Association merged with the formerly all-white Arkansas Education Association. Former ATA members lobbied inside of the AEA for minority representation in the organization’s government because they were often ignored or unable to get reelected. Ten years after the merger, the AEA guaranteed ethnic minority representation in the organization’s government, and AEA members had elected a black president, treasurer, and alternate National Education Association director.

For additional information:
Patterson, Thomas E. History of the Arkansas Teachers Association. Washington DC: National Education Association, 1981.

Denise Malan
Fayetteville, Arkansas


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