Jess Walton Matthews (1900–1976)

Jess Matthews had a forty-four-year career in Little Rock (Pulaski County) with the Little Rock School District as teacher, coach, and administrator. For nearly two decades, he was principal of Little Rock High School, which was renamed Little Rock Central High School in 1953. He guided that school through the troubled years of desegregation, including the mob protest and military intervention in 1957 and the 1958–59 school closure.

Jess Walton Matthews was born on June 7, 1900, in Blue Mound, Kansas, to Jesse W. Matthews and Lutie Woods Matthews. He graduated from high school in La Harpe, Kansas, and was in the U.S. Army during World War I. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Kansas State Teachers College of Pittsburg (now Pittsburg State University), he received a master’s degree at the University of Missouri in Columbia. He married Marian Cantrell, and they had one child, Joseph W. Matthews, who became a physician.

Matthews came to Little Rock in 1922 as coach and industrial arts teacher at Little Rock High School at 14th and Scott streets. The curriculum included junior and senior high school classes. When the high school grades were moved in 1927 to the new building at 14th and Park streets, he remained as a teacher and coach at the old building, which then became East Side Junior High School. He left there in 1939 to serve as principal at Lee Elementary School, before returning the next year to be principal of East Side. In 1946, he was appointed principal of Little Rock High School, where he served until retiring in 1965.

As the new principal, he made two changes affecting student activities. First, there were three fraternities and two sororities in the school at that time, and he thought that every student should be able to participate in any activity and mingle with any group they wished. To discourage these exclusive organizations, he instituted the rule that those members could not participate in any extracurricular activities such as band, choir, clubs, or athletics. (Fraternities and sororities were banned in 1952 by action of the Arkansas General Assembly.) Second, to add to existing options for student activities, he formed a chapter of Beta Club, a service organization.

Matthews was a popular principal of Central High for many years and took great pride in his school’s outstanding academic and athletic records. Described by several former students as a “gentle giant,” he focused upon education and academic achievement.

In 1957, Superintendent Virgil Blossom arranged for nine Black students to enter Central High that fall. This resulted in protest demonstrations, with a mob of segregationists attempting to prevent the students from entering the building. The Arkansas National Guard was eventually federalized, and U.S. Army soldiers were sent to Little Rock to restore order and protect the Black students, although harassment and confrontations continued throughout the school year.

White parents complained that Matthews was too lenient with Black students and too harsh in discipling white students when there were confrontations. The Capital Citizens’ Council, a segregationist organization, circulated a petition calling for his ouster. The petition was to be submitted to the state legislature at its next regular session or any special session. Meanwhile, the Black community and others criticized him for not more aggressively protecting the Black students.

In 1958, Governor Orval Faubus signed a law permitting the closing of Little Rock’s high schools. For the 1958–59 school year, students were forced to enroll in other local private schools or out-of-town schools to continue their education.

In May 1959, three of the six school board members who were moderate walked out of a meeting. The three remaining segregationist members adopted a resolution to refuse to renew the contracts of forty-four teachers and administrators who, they felt, had supported desegregation. This group included Jess Matthews. This action prompted a successful campaign to recall the three segregationist school board members. In the fall of 1959, the newly constituted school board reopened the high schools under the existing desegregation plan. Thereafter, the integration of schools progressed, and Matthews continued to guide Central High.

In 1980, Elizabeth Huckaby, who was the dean of girls at Central High and later assistant principal, published a book, Crisis at Central High. A television movie was made from the book with veteran actor Charles Durning playing Matthews and famous actress Joanne Woodward as Huckaby.

After he retired in 1965, Matthews was active in the national Beta Club organization and served a term as president. In 1969, a new, free-standing library building was built on the Central High campus and named in his honor.

Matthews died on January 22, 1976.

For additional information:
Blossom, Virgil T. It Has Happened Here. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959.

“Ex-Principal Dies at Age 75.” Arkansas Gazette, January 23, 1976, p. 1.

“Jess Matthews, 75, Ex-Principal, Is Dead.” Arkansas Democrat, January 22, 1976, pp. 1A, 2A.

Huckaby, Elizabeth. Crisis at Central High, Little Rock, 1957–58. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

Jacoway, Elizabeth. Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, the Crisis That Shocked the Nation. New York: Free Press, 2007.

“Jess Matthews.” New York Times, January 24, 1976, p. 30.

Roy, Beth. Bitters in the Honey: Tales of Hope and Disappointment across Divides of Race and Time. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999.

W. W. Satterfield
Little Rock, Arkansas


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