Desegregation of Des Arc Schools

The 1966 desegregation of schools at Des Arc (Prairie County) was accomplished under the leadership of Arkansas native James (Jim) “Doc” H. Ford, who later went on to work with school districts across Arkansas and into northern Louisiana, implementing desegregation in those districts as well.

James Ford was born on September 25, 1933, in Prairie County to Howard G. Ford, who was a store owner and later a soybean and rice farmer, and Mary Lodean Guess Ford. After graduating from Des Arc High School in 1951, he attended Arkansas A&M College in Monticello (now the University of Arkansas at Monticello), earning his BS in 1955, after which he taught science and biology, coached senior boys’ basketball, and drove a school bus in Star City (Lincoln County). While his family stayed in Des Arc, he earned a master’s degree in education in 1958 from the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) and returned to Des Arc that year, taking the position of principal. He was hired as the superintendent of the Des Arc School District in the summer of 1963.

In 1963, Ford had been attending class at what is now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock on Saturday mornings. His association with the education professors developed into a field study, created for Des Arc schools, in coordination with the Arkansas Department of Education. The field study looked at school districts across east-central Arkansas and compared them to the Des Arc School District to find strengths and weaknesses at Des Arc. Numerous members of the community and public school administrators served on these committees.

The committees’ findings showed that the Black-only schools in the district were far below the standard in many categories, with the white-only schools also in need of many improvements. The field study showed the need for a new gym, lunchroom, and agriculture shop, as well as upgraded lighting and buses. A millage increase was sorely needed.

Budget discussions took into consideration the current cost of busing Black high school students from Hickory Plains (Prairie County), part of the Des Arc district, east and south through Hazen (Prairie County) to Biscoe (Prairie County), part of the DeValls Bluff School District. (Des Arc’s Black high school students were also bussed to Biscoe on an additional route.) The Douglas Colored School in Des Arc had burned in 1963, and Black students grades one through eight went to school at Fellowship Baptist church in Des Arc.

The need for an overhaul matched the need for reorganization of the students, both Black and white, within the school district. In 1964, Ford made the decision to move forward with integration not only to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ruling to desegregate public schools but also to resolve the district’s building puzzle. Ford stated, “Desegregation was something that had been mandated to do, but more than that, it was the right thing to do. It was right and necessary.”

Ford recommended to the school board that Des Arc integrate grades one through twelve all on one campus in the 1966–1967 school year, while spending 1965–1966 preparing for it. The board approved.

The plan to transition into integration included the following: 1) having an integrated summer school program for elementary students who were achieving below grade level; 2) holding meetings in the community, where the city leaders encouraged obeying the law; and 3) dismissing school at 2:00 p.m. at least once a month for teacher in-service meetings to help build a professional relationship and educate both Black and white teachers on cultural differences and similarities, differences in language patterns, and use of words and phrases that may be perceived as offensive.

An important mediator in the process was James Bradford, principal, teacher, and basketball coach at Hickory Plains in 1965–1966 and student coordinator and assistant basketball and football coach at Des Arc in 1966–1967. He was a member of the Black community and was especially valuable in easing the transition by counseling parents on the changes.

In July 1967, Ford moved to Fayetteville, taking doctoral courses in education at UA. Because of his experience in Des Arc, Ford was hired in February 1969 by the Arkansas Technical Assistance and Consultive Center (ATAC), located on the Ouachita Baptist University campus in Arkadelphia (Clark County). He moved to Arkadelphia in the summer of 1969 and completed his dissertation while working for ATAC. There, he worked with schools by holding workshops and providing resources to teachers and principals in over 200 schools, to implement desegregation in southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana.

For additional information:
Root, Paul, compiler. Learning Together at Last: Memories of the Desegregation of the Arkansas Public School System. Arkadelphia, AR: The Pete Parks Center for Regional Studies at Ouachita Baptist University, 2005.

Garth, H. K. A History of Des Arc High School, 1870–2004. Des Arc, AR: 2005.

Rita Earles
Arkadelphia, Arkansas


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