Edwin Luther Hawkins Sr. (1914–1974)

Edwin Luther Hawkins Sr. was an African-American educator in Little Rock (Pulaski County) who served as principal of Dunbar High School, where he was involved with the students who desegregated Little Rock Central High School. A few years after the Central High Desegregation Crisis, Hawkins became the first Black principal of Central High.

Born on December 2, 1914, to Joseph B. Hawkins and Gertrude Hawkins, Edwin L. Hawkins grew up in Denton, Texas. He received a BA in education from Texas College in Tyler in 1938. A few years later, he received an MA in chemistry from Indiana University in Bloomington. In addition, he completed some graduate work at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County). He married Nannie Lee “Georgia” Pigee on July 4, 1939, in Quitman, Texas, and they had one son, Edward L. Hawkins Jr. While in Texas, he served as both a coach and a science teacher for five years at Sherman Public Schools. In 1943, the U.S. Navy drafted Hawkins into service for two years in World War II.

After Hawkins’s discharge, the couple found themselves in Arkansas, close to Georgia’s hometown of Nashville (Howard County). Hawkins taught at the Clow Training School, a school for Black students in Hempstead County, from 1946 to 1952. From Clow, Hawkins moved with Georgia to Little Rock to become the principal of Bush Elementary School from 1952 to 1954.

Hawkins then became the principal of Dunbar Junior High School, serving from 1957 to 1959 and then of Horace Mann High School. During his tenure, Little Rock found itself at the center of national attention with the desegregation of Central High School. In August 1957, the Little Rock School District’s superintendent, Virgil Blossom, “announced that the Little Rock schools would begin the plan of integration as approved by the Courts.” Hawkins recommended Jefferson Thomas, Gloria Ray, and Carlotta Walls, three members of the Little Rock Nine, to attend Central from Dunbar, choosing them “from a recommended number on the basis of scholastic achievement, social adjustment, citizenship and…a desire to attend Central High School.”

Two days after the first day of school (September 4, 1957), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents Gilbert W. Strickland and Francis Finley interviewed Hawkins on his knowledge of the events of the first day at Central, during which angry mobs surrounded the school and the Black students were turned away by the Arkansas National Guard. In his statement, Hawkins confirmed that he knew of “no threat or use of force or violence in connection with the integration plan prior to September 3, 1957” and that he saw “no knives or other weapons in possession of any students at [his] school during this school term.”

After Dunbar, Hawkins moved to Horace Mann High School, which later became Horace Mann Middle School. He led as principal from 1959 to 1971, when the school closed as a high school and began busing its former students to different schools in the city.

Hawkins had a catchphrase that he used for his students: “I challenge you.” He offered these words to any student, from the straight-A students to the misbehaving ones who always found themselves in the principal’s office, challenging them to do better on a test, in a general class, or in extracurricular activities.

In 1971, fourteen years after the Little Rock Nine entered Central High School, that same institution recruited Hawkins to be the school’s principal as a “ranking principal in length of service.” He would be the first Black principal at Central. However, Hawkins taught at Central for only three years. On March 27, 1974, while on spring break in Fairfield Bay (Van Buren and Cleburne counties) on Greers Ferry Lake, he died of a heart attack at age fifty-nine. Newspapers covered his death, including the Arkansas Democrat  and the Arkansas Gazette. He is buried at the Little Rock National Cemetery.

Hawkins’s last class at Horace Mann, known as the Horace Mann Senior High School Transitional Class of 1972, met for a school reunion. They sought a way to give back to their community and thus established the Edwin L. Hawkins “I Challenge You Scholarship.” Hawkins’s wife donated the first $100 to the scholarship. The first scholarship recipients were announced on August 31, 2002, at the thirtieth reunion of the Horace Mann Transitional Class. The scholarship of $1,000 is offered to a senior student in the Little Rock School District of African-American descent and is presented to two students each year.

For additional information:
“FBI Interview with Edwin L. Hawkins Regarding Integration of Central High School.” Little Rock Central High Integration Crisis, Federal Bureau of Investigation Records, 1957. MC 1027, Box 1, Series 933. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Jefferson, Emily. “A Revolutionary Foundation.” The Tiger, February 18, 2021. https://tigernewspaper.net/4776/features/a-revolutionary-foundation/ (accessed November 11, 2021).

“LR Educator Dies at 59: Became Principal of Central High.” Arkansas Gazette, March 29, 1974, pp. 1A, 3A.

“Principal at Central Dies: Edwin Hawkins, 59, First Black to Hold Top Position.” Arkansas Democrat, March 28, 1974, pp. 1A, 14A.

“Rites Held Here For Educator; E. L. Hawkins.” Southern Mediator Journal, April 5, 1974.

Kathryn Bryles
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 11/11/2021