Irene Gaston Samuel (1915–1999)
Irene Gaston Samuel is best known for her work with the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC) that arose in the fall of 1958 during the Little Rock desegregation crisis. Samuel served as the organization’s executive secretary until it disbanded in 1963. Later in her life, she worked as an administrative assistant for Governor (and later U.S. Senator) Dale Bumpers until she retired in 1981.
Irene Gaston was born on March 21, 1915, in Van Buren (Crawford County) to Martin Luther and Grace Whitley Gaston. She grew up in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and graduated in 1931 from Little Rock Senior High School (now Central High School). After working for the state Department of Labor and in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Arkansas Division Headquarters, Samuel’s search for a job in the midst of the Great Depression ultimately led her to Washington DC, where she worked for the U.S. Housing Authority, a New Deal program created in 1937 to eliminate substandard housing and provide dwellings for low income families. There, Gaston developed a strong belief in the role of government programs to create positive economic and social change in the lives if its citizens.
Gaston married John Samuel of Little Rock on December 28, 1939, but returned to Washington from Arkansas when he was called up for active duty in the U.S. Army. During World War II, she recruited clerical workers for the U.S. Housing Authority, including African-American workers, in keeping with the Roosevelt administration’s Fair Employment Practices Act. After the war, she rejoined her husband, and they settled in Little Rock, where he began his family medical practice. They adopted their son, Lou, in 1951.
In 1957, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus called out the National Guard and prevented nine black students from entering Central High School. Samuel was outraged by the governor’s actions and the community’s response. Although she had grown up in a segregated society, her work experiences outside of Arkansas reinforced her belief in equal opportunity. The following year, Little Rock’s citizens voted to close all of the city’s high schools rather than desegregate them. Although she was not Jewish (her husband was), Samuel was active in the Council of Jewish Women and she was invited to attend the first meeting of the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools in September 1958.
Samuel served as WEC’s executive secretary and helped create the group’s organizational strategy. The members worked to educate voters and build public support for reopening the city’s high schools under the district’s desegregation plan. Samuel kept a record of voter contacts, and this information was instrumental in securing a victory to remove segregationist school board members in a May 25, 1959, recall election; this led to the reopening of the high schools in August 1959, with token desegregation in the two white high schools. Samuel said of her involvement with the WEC, “[We] had to stand up and fight because if we didn’t, where would we [as a society] be?” After the schools reopened, Samuel and other WEC members continued their work to educate voters and keep watch on the state legislature for any threat to public education.
Because of her extensive political contacts, gained during the school crisis and its aftermath, Dale Bumpers, a candidate for governor, asked Samuel to help in his campaign in 1970. After the election, she served as an administrative assistant in his office in charge of the governor’s correspondence. In that capacity, she continued to encourage the governor, and later U.S. senator, to support minority and women’s issues. She retired in 1981.
Irene Gaston Samuel died on April 3, 1999, and is buried in Jewish Oakland Cemetery in Little Rock.
For additional information:
Brewer, Vivion. The Embattled Ladies of Little Rock, 1958–1963: The Struggle to Save Public Education at Central High. Fort Bragg, CA: Lost Coast Press, 1998.
Miller, Laura A. Fearless: Irene Gaston Samuel and the Life of a Southern Liberal. Little Rock: Center for Arkansas Studies, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, 2002.
Murphy, Sara. Breaking the Silence: Little Rock’s Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools, 1958–1963. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1997.
National Park Service
Central High School National Historic Site
Last Updated: 03/10/2021