William Field (Billy) Rector Sr. (1912–1975)
William Field Rector was a Little Rock (Pulaski County) businessman and civic leader who founded the real estate firm Rector-Phillips-Morse, Inc. (now RPM Group) and the nonprofit group 50 for the Future. He played a dominant role in shaping the development of Little Rock from the 1950s into the 1970s, especially in his attempt to serve what he believed to be the business community’s interests during the Desegregation of Central High School in the mid-1950s and busing efforts in the decades following.
William Field (Billy) Rector was born on June 28, 1912, on a farm near Palarm in Faulkner County to Henry M. Rector and Nancy Rector. He was the great-grandson of Henry Massie Rector, the Confederate governor of Arkansas during the Civil War. Billy Rector lived in Hot Springs (Garland County) for a few years as a child, before the family moved to Little Rock when he was nine. He attended Little Rock public schools and Little Rock Junior College (now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock).
Rector entered the insurance business, working for Aetna Casualty and Surety Co. during the Great Depression. In 1937, he started Rector Insurance Agency and incorporated with his partners, Preston Means and Sam C. Rowland, to form Rector, Means & Rowland in 1954.
He married Eleanor Townsend in 1938, and the couple had three children: Eleanor, William, and Nancy.
During World War II, Rector was too old to be drafted, but he took flying lessons so that he could volunteer as part of the Air Army Corps, where he flew transport missions in India and China. After the war, Rector served two terms in the Arkansas House of Representatives, from 1947 to 1950. In 1953, Rector was profiled by Life magazine as part of a feature on the postwar economic boom. The profile details Rector’s finances as an insurance man in Little Rock, showing him buying a car with his family, duck hunting with $1,000 worth of gear, golfing with Eleanor, and appearing on site with his newly formed construction company.
By 1955, Rector’s interests had turned from insurance to real estate development. He partnered with Byron Morse (who would later serve as mayor of Little Rock) and Ernest “Fe” Phillips to form Rector-Phillips-Morse Realtors, and later the Phillips-Morse Construction Company. The firm took an active role in Little Rock’s westward development and, in 1959, handled the sale of 1,100 acres of farmland west of Little Rock that would become Pleasant Valley, generally regarded to have been the largest real estate transaction in Pulaski County history at the time.
Rector-Phillips-Morse procured fifty-five acres on North University for a new Baptist Medical Center campus, but when the hospital decided to move even farther west, the firm developed the Prospect Building and Forest Place apartments on the parcel instead. In 1959, Rector was appointed (along with Arthur Phillips and Somers Matthews) to a committee to help the city acquire the right-of-way for University Avenue, which was becoming the retail center of Little Rock.
More Little Rock developments by Rector-Phillips-Morse began to appear throughout the 1960s, including Brookfield, Treasure Hills, Sturbridge, and Marlowe Manor. Developments like Sturbridge and Marlowe Manor were outside Little Rock city limits when they were built but were both eventually annexed by the city upon petition of Rector-Phillips-Morse. Rector served as chairman of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce in 1960, during which he helped secure the site for a Jacuzzi plant.
On December 5, 1963, Rector sent a letter to fourteen of his colleagues in the Little Rock business community, urging them to clear their schedules for a meeting to take place the following Tuesday, during which “we will bring into being ‘Little Rock’s First 50’, or whatever we decide to name our new organization that is going to take the lead building Little Rock economically.” The organization became 50 for the Future, conceived by Rector as a group of fifty businessmen, each contributing $2,500 a year toward the economic development of Little Rock. In the first year of the organization’s life, Rector put $40,000 of the organization’s funds toward a private study on Little Rock from the Fantus Company, an economic development consulting firm specializing in locating sites for factories and plants.
In August 1957, facing the impending integration of Little Rock Public Schools, Rector filed a suit in the Little Rock Chancery Court, questioning the validity of the decision to integrate Little Rock Central High School and seeking a declaratory judgment on the legality of four state segregation laws that had recently been passed. It is debated whether Rector did this at the behest of Superintendent Virgil Blossom or of Governor Orval Faubus’s fixer, Bill Smith, but the suit was a legal play to delay integration.
Rector ran for a position on the Little Rock School Board in December 1958 after the resignation of the entire board. Rector made common cause with the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC) and Adolphine Fletcher Terry to put together what came to be called the “businessman’s slate” of school board candidates running with the goal of reopening Little Rock’s public schools. Rector agreed to run against Ed McKinley and soon recruited Everett Tucker to run as well. Ted Lamb reportedly joined the slate of his own volition, and Terry asked Russell Matson to run. The WEC’s own Margaret Stevens rounded out the slate. Though the slate was largely organized by Terry and WEC, it was not officially endorsed by them.
Governor Faubus had already accused Rector and the businessman’s slate of being closet integrationists, which Rector vehemently denied by announcing that he had donated $100 to the segregationist Capital Citizens Council (CCC) for a lawsuit in 1957. A newspaper advertisement that ran for Rector and the others read: “We Believe In Segregation… For their sake… and yours,” adding, “We will not voluntarily integrate the Little Rock Public Schools. We will never initiate any action to implement or expedite integration. However, our purpose in seeking election is to preserve the integrity of our public schools. We are pledged to protect the best interests of our children, our teachers, and our communiy [sic].”
Rector did not win his school board seat that year, but his slate was well represented, as Lamb, Tucker, and Matson won seats; the slate joined hardline segregationists Ed McKinley, R. W. Laster, and Ben D. Rowland. While Rector never officially sat on the school board, he remained interested in the business aspects of the Little Rock School District (LRSD). Rector was present at a closed meeting of the Little Rock School District Board of Directors on December 19, 1963, where the possible sale of East Side Junior High School was discussed, with the possibility of RPM obtaining an exclusive listing. Rector’s continued interest in the business of the Little Rock School District became apparent through the 1960s and early 1970s as he publicly endorsed and contributed financially to the campaigns of a number of conservative candidates for the school board.
By 1970, the issue of busing students to achieve racial balance in Little Rock public schools had become a divisive one. The minimum-compliance approach to integration favored by administrators, combined with the amount of suburban sprawl and so-called white flight that occurred between 1957 and 1970 made the new public schools in west Little Rock all-white by default. Rector took an active role that year raising funds to defeat a progressive incumbent, Winslow Drummond, as well as Tishialu White, who hoped to become the second African American on the school board. This action attracted the ire of Adolphine Fletcher Terry, who wrote letters to her friends about her previous alliance with Rector and the nature of his agenda. The contents of these letters made the pages of the Arkansas Gazette in March 1970. In one letter, dated March 10, 1970, she observed, “When new people come to town and are looking for homes, the real estate agents take them to see the additions in the far west and assure them that ‘there will never be a negro in the schools your children will attend.’ This is no rumor; I know several women who have had this experience. It is standard procedure.”
In June 1971, Rector held a meeting at St. James Methodist Church in Pleasant Valley, where he announced that he had obtained a 120-acre lot on Hinson Road on which he planned to begin construction of a private school to accommodate 300 students, first through tenth grade, to be open by the fall. The school was named Pulaski Academy, and it grew quickly, along with a number of private schools (and white students attending them) in Little Rock over the next forty years.
Rector died at his home on May 11, 1975, of an apparent heart attack. He is buried at Roselawn Memorial Park. The city directors of Little Rock passed a resolution in memoriam of Rector, which mentioned “his never ending interest in government and in the quality of its leaders at all levels.” Rector was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in 2006.
For additional information:
“13 ‘Segregationists’ Seeking School Posts.” Arkansas Democrat, November 30, 1958, p. 6.
“600 Enthusiastic Whites Cheer as Rector Tells Extensive Planning for Proposed Private School.” Arkansas Gazette, June 30, 1971, p. 6B.
Brewer, Vivion Lenon. The Embattled Ladies of Little Rock: 1958–1963: The Struggle to Save Public Education at Central High. Fort Bragg, CA: Lost Coast Press, 1999.
Elizabeth Jacoway Little Rock Crisis Collection (BC.MSS.10.48). Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. Central Arkansas Library System, Little Rock, Arkansas. Finding aid online at https://arstudies.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/findingaids/id/5519/ (accessed February 28, 2020).
Fletcher-Terry Family Papers, 1826–1976 (UALR.MS.0018). Center for Arkansas History and Culture. University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Little Rock, Arkansas. Finding aid online at https://arstudies.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/findingaids/id/9351/ (accessed February 28, 2020).
Ginocchio, Janie. “Many Shades of Green in Pleasant Valley.” Arkansas Times, December 28, 2011. https://arktimes.com/news/cover-stories/2011/12/28/many-shades-of-green-in-pleasant-valley (accessed February 28, 2020).
Jacoway, Elizabeth. Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, the Crisis That Shocked the Nation. New York: Free Press, 2007.
“Rector, Tucker Give $1 Each To Drummond.” Arkansas Gazette, March 3, 1970, p. 3A.
“W. F. Rector, Civic Leader, Dies at 62.” Arkansas Democrat, May 12, 1975, pp. 1A, 10A.
UA Little Rock Center for Arkansas History and Culture
Last Updated: 02/28/2020