Desegregation of Hot Springs Schools
Hot Springs (Garland County), a tourist town, had one of the largest school districts in Arkansas at the time the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision. Black students made up 14.7 percent of the school population, with 2,778 white and 522 Black students at elementary level and 1,942 white and 357 Black students at junior and senior high level.
In October 1955, the Hot Springs School Board appointed an advisory committee of twenty-three white and five Black citizens to draw up plans for desegregation. In April 1956, the committee recommended beginning desegregation with a high school auto mechanics course. On September 4, 1956, the course admitted four white and six Black students. By September 1957, the automobile mechanics class had twelve white students and five Black students enrolled. But the conflict over the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock (Pulaski County) in September 1957 stalled any further efforts to desegregate schools in Hot Springs.
In 1963, Rev. James D. Rice, president of the Hot Springs branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had just been reorganized in December 1962, called for the desegregation of public schools, the desegregation of Ouachita Baptist Memorial Hospital, and the desegregation of downtown lunch counters, motels, hotels, and restaurants.
Placing further pressure on the Hot Springs School Board to act, the parents of two Black students entering the second grade formally requested a transfer to the white Jones Elementary School. Rev. Rice threatened a lawsuit if their requests were not met. On August 12, 1963, the school board announced a limited voluntary desegregation plan. The board said that it would desegregate the first and second grades while employing the state’s pupil assignment laws, which gave extensive powers to local school boards to choose which students would be assigned to which schools based on a range of factors that did not expressly mention race.
All other grades, starting with the third grade, would be desegregated using a grade-a-year “stairstep” plan. The school board subsequently assigned eight Black students to previously all-white elementary schools: one to Greenwood, two to Rix, two to East Side, and three to Jones. It turned down six other applications for transfers.
At enrollment, five Black students signed up for classes at the three previously all-white schools. Of the three other Black students assigned to the schools, one asked to transfer back to a Black school, one failed to turn up for enrollment, and the other appeared to be a miscount as a result of an administrative error. No incidents were reported at any of the schools.
For additional information:
Kirk, John A. “Not Quite Black and White: School Desegregation in Arkansas, 1954–1966.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 70 (August 2011): 225–257.
John A. Kirk
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
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