College Station Freedom School

While the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education marked the end of legally sanctioned school segregation, the implementation of the mandate was slow in coming. The College Station Freedom School was a short-lived effort in 1970 that shined a spotlight on the challenges that school officials and families, Black and white, faced in making the promise of Brown real. While Brown signified a legal end to school segregation, the southern response was anything but supportive, and no state offered a higher profile example of that approach, as well as the potential fallout, than Arkansas with the crisis at Central High School in the fall of 1957.

The process of desegregation remained slow, and it was not until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legislation that among its many provisions armed the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) with greater power to enforce the dictates of Brown, that things began to change. Indeed, in response to threats from HEW, states across the South began to offer plans that sought to meet at least the minimum requirements. While there were numerous approaches considered and used across the state and region, in the summer of 1970 Pulaski County announced the adoption of a busing program that, while acceptable to HEW, raised the hackles of students and parents, both Black and white.

In fact, the District Court’s initial desegregation proposal, which called for busing whites to the Black school in College Station (Pulaski County), was met with intense opposition by the white community, whose vehement response sent planners back to the drawing board. But the alternative plan called for little more than busing half of College Station’s Black elementary students to Badgett Elementary, creating a situation in which Black children were simply being bussed from one Black school to another.

In response, at the start of the school year, Black parents in College Station, in hopes of pressuring school officials to come up with a more acceptable plan, undertook what observers said was a unique school boycott. These parents created a steering committee headed by Austin Porter Sr., an employee of the Veterans Administration Hospital in Little Rock (Pulaski County), to devise a plan. The College Station parents decided to take a page from the opposition’s handbook, one which had made the establishment of white academies a centerpiece of its anti-desegregation efforts. Their plan called for parents to refuse to register their children in the public schools. At the same time that they were boycotting, they were to send their children to Freedom Schools, a more noble title for what one observer called the “boycott schools,” intended to prevent the students from having to suffer an educational loss because of the protest efforts. The schools were to serve students in grades 7–12 and were held in churches, staffed by volunteers from the local high schools and colleges.

The local Black community was initially enthusiastic in its support of the plan, and as the first day of school approached, only about twenty Black students were registered for the public schools, in contrast to the more than 400 who had signed up for the Freedom Schools. From the first, officials discouraged the boycott. Pulaski County Superintendent Leroy Gattin told parents that children would not receive credit for schooling overseen by volunteer teachers. He also warned that the public schools might not receive federal funding if the students left. Lawrence Wyatt from the federal government’s Follow Through program also warned parents against removing their children from public schools. In addition, one school official, the Reverend William Holshauser, a supporter of the New Party in Arkansas, warned the College Station parents that a boycott the previous year in Carthage, Mississippi, had been met by threats of withheld welfare checks for families who refused to send their children to school, although authorities ultimately acknowledged that those threats had not been carried out.

In just a matter of days, the parents’ resolve weakened, and the number of Black students returning to public school quickly approached the expected enrollment numbers. Indeed, the number of attendees grew significantly with each passing day. Despite their initial optimism, the enrollment at the College Station Freedom School never exceeded 300 in its two weeks of operation. Finally, on September 15, 1970, the organizers of the boycott announced a temporary halt to the effort, while noting that the District Court’s plan had been appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. The College Station Freedom School did not resume, however.

For additional information:
“College Station Boycott Called Unique.” Northwest Arkansas Times, September 7, 1970, p. 3.

“College Station Boycott Ended Temporarily.” Northwest Arkansas Times, September 16, 1970, p. 22.

“College Station Boycott Failing.” Northwest Arkansas Times, September 3, 1970, p. 22.

“College Station Boycott Urged Sunday.” Northwest Arkansas Times, August 31, 1970, p. 6.

“Condition Set for Concluding School Boycott.” Arkansas Gazette, September, 3, 1970, p. 1B.

Trimble, Mike. “Most College Station Children Stay Away in Boycott of School.” Arkansas Gazette, September 1, 1970, p. 1B.

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School

 

Last Updated: 01/07/2022