Desegregation of Fort Smith Schools
At the time the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision, the African American population of Fort Smith (Sebastian County) accounted for nine percent of the city’s 47,942 residents. The Black-to-white student ratio in the city was roughly the same, with 1,055 Black students and 10,297 white students.
When the Court handed down its implementation order for school desegregation (which became known as Brown II) in May 1955, Fort Smith Superintendent of Schools Chris Corbin announced that school desegregation would begin in 1957 using a “stairstep” desegregation plan of one grade per year starting with the first grade.
Pupil assignment to schools was based on geographical attendance zones that were clearly drawn with existing Black and white areas of residence in mind. The plan included provisions to allow any student assigned to a school in which they were a racial minority to apply for a transfer.
Disappointed by the school board’s slow-moving desegregation plan, and backed by the Arkansas National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) State Conference of branches, members of Fort Smith’s Black community petitioned for an immediate start to desegregation in September 1955 rather than waiting until 1957. Their request was denied. One Black student, six-year-old Charles Nichols, was admitted into the first grade at Fort Smith’s DuVal Elementary School on August 29, 1957.
In 1961, the Fort Smith School Board proposed rebuilding the historically Black Dunbar Elementary School as part of its ongoing school construction program. Arkansas NAACP attorney Wiley Branton filed a complaint on behalf of over 200 Black parents demanding that all new school buildings be integrated.
Other developments also caused concern. In preparation for high school desegregation, a new school, Southside High School, was built in a predominantly white residential area on the south side of the city. The city’s existing high school, now renamed Northside High School, was in a predominantly Black area of residence on the north side of the city.
Indicating a clear racial designation to the new school, Southside High School’s nickname was the Rebels, their fight song was “Dixie,” and their mascot incorporated the Confederate flag. A large wooden Johnny Reb figure was placed in the entrance to the school.
On September 12, 1963, Black community concerns crystallized in a lawsuit filed by Corine Rogers on behalf of her two daughters, sixteen-year-old Janice and fifteen-year-old Patricia. The Fort Smith NAACP branch lent its assistance to the case.
Rogers and her daughters complained that they were being denied their constitutional right to an equal education, since Fort Smith still operated segregated high schools, still drew school attendance zones along racial lines, and had embarked upon a school construction program purposefully designed to perpetuate geographical racial segregation.
At a pretrial hearing in June 1964, Judge John E. Miller ordered the Fort Smith School Board to come up with a more robust plan for school desegregation. He specifically ordered the board to drop its voluntary transfer provisions, which had been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 3 in the Tennessee case of Goss v. Board of Education. At trial in August 1964, Miller accepted the school board’s revised plan and dismissed the Rogerses’ complaint.
The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals also upheld the school board’s revised desegregation plan. But on December 6, 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5–4 split decision in Rogers v. Paul, directed the Fort Smith School Board to desegregate all of its high schools immediately. The Court also ordered Judge Miller to consider the plaintiff’s complaint about the assignment of school faculty members to city schools on the basis of their race.
Judge Miller indicated that he would allow students at historically Black Lincoln High School who were in the tenth through twelfth grades, the grades not yet affected by the grade-by-grade desegregation plan, to request mid-term transfers to Northside High if they applied by January 10, 1966.
Seventy-six Black students—including forty-five sophomores, twenty-nine juniors, and two seniors—applied for transfer. This left only 126 Black students attending Lincoln High. The school board decided to close the school at the end of the year. All remaining Black students were transferred to Northside High.
When the U.S. Supreme Court decision was handed down in the Rogers case in 1965, 450 Black students were already attending six predominantly white schools, and there were nine white students attending Howard Elementary School with 400 African Americans. Nevertheless, at that time, not one white school in the south side of the city had admitted a single Black student, and fifteen elementary schools, as well as Southside High School, remained all-white.
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.
John A. Kirk
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
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