Desegregation of Bentonville Schools
Bentonville (Benton County) was one of the earliest school districts in Arkansas to admit African American students after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision. As Benton County was located in an area of low Black population, in practice this meant admitting the sole Black student living in the district to Bentonville High School. Even so, desegregation took place under a veil of secrecy.
At the time of the Brown decision, Arkansas had a total of 423 school districts. Of these, 184 served only white students, eleven served only Black students, and 228 had both white and Black students.
Many of the early moves toward school desegregation were in northwestern Arkansas, which had the lowest proportion of the state’s Black population. In fall 1954, Charleston (Franklin County) and Fayetteville (Washington County) were among the first school districts in the South to admit Black students.
In fall 1955, two more Arkansas school districts desegregated. The small town of Hoxie (Lawrence County) in northeastern Arkansas received by far the most coverage. National publicity meant that the town quickly became a lightning rod for massive resistance in the state, fronted by James D. Johnson, president of the newly formed White Citizens’ Council of Arkansas. Although the Hoxie School Board, backed by the courts, held firm and continued with desegregation, the rise of organized resistance put other school districts on the back foot.
Learning from the difficulties that publicity brought to Hoxie, the Bentonville School District in the northwestern corner of Arkansas did not tell anyone when it desegregated in fall 1955. This was easy enough to do, since desegregation there involved admitting the only Black student in the district, Carl Stewart, to Bentonville High School. Stewart had previously been privately tutored in the home of Black teacher Cinco Dickerson.
It was not until over a year later that a Bentonville school official, who had since moved away from the district, leaked the news that desegregation had occurred. This news was confirmed by Bentonville Superintendent of Schools R. E. Baker, who took up his role in 1956, after Stewart had been admitted to the high school. In 1957, Carl’s brother, Charles Stewart, also enrolled at the school. As with Carl’s admission, no instances of trouble were reported.
When the schools desegregated, Cinco Dickerson lost her job as a private tutor; like many other Black teachers after the Brown decision, she became collateral damage in the process of desegregation. It was not until after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that school districts were obliged to consider the impact of school desegregation on Black teachers.
For additional information:
Kirk, John A. “Not Quite Black and White: School Desegregation in Arkansas, 1954–1966.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 70 (Autumn 2011): 225–257.
Rosen, Marjorie. Boom Town: How Wal-Mart Transformed an All-American Town into an International Community. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2009.
John A. Kirk
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
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