Fayth Hill Washington couldn’t believe her eyes. The 4th-grader rounded the corner at the Hoxie Elementary School, and she saw white people standing everywhere. She’d spent the first three years of school at the Hoxie Colored School. People gawked at her from the sidewalks and from beside their cars.
Little did she know she was witnessing history, and she was part of it, too. It was 1955 and the school district became the first fully integrated school district in Arkansas.
“I wasn’t scared when my parents told me we were going to integrate … but when I came around the corner and saw all those people, it definitely shocked me,” she told Talk Business & Politics.
Rep. Fran Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge, introduced a bill Monday recognizing the Hoxie integration as the first in Arkansas. Hoxie First Stand, a non-profit group, has been formed, and the goal is to build a Civil Rights museum on the Hoxie School District campus. It will cost about $1.5 million to build, Cavenaugh told Talk Business & Politics.
“We’re in the process of raising money … we want to build a first class Civil Rights museum,” she said.
The group is seeking federal and state grants and is searching for money from foundations, she said. A museum could be a boon to the local economy, she said. The plan is to recreate the former Hoxie Colored School building, and build classrooms and other rooms on the back of it. The school district has already agreed to allow the group to build, she said. A timetable has not been established, she said.
Washington remembers her old school far too well. It housed grades 1-8 in the one-room school. A “pot-bellied” stove kept the drafty building warm, she said. When it rained the surrounding yard would flood. Students had to use the leftover or replaced books from the white school, she said. Many didn’t even have covers. High school students had to be bused to Jonesboro.
“All we got was the hand me downs from the white school,” she said.
In 1955, the school district had financial problems. Superintendent Edward Kunkel Vance hatched a plan. He decided to integrate the student body. At the time he said he supported it because it saved the district money, it complied with the recently decided U.S. Supreme Court case Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., and it was “right in the eyes of God.”
“There was no court order, no soldiers escorting students to class. … Hoxie did it because it was right,” Cavenaugh said.
Life Magazine chronicled the Hoxie integration, and it has been hailed as a remarkable success. There were still bitter consequences for the students, their families, and even some of the white administrators who chose to combine the student body, Washington said. She founded Hoxie 21-Hill Foundation Inc. to recount the living history of what happened that summer more than 60 years ago.
“There has been some revisionist history. … It was much harder than what has been portrayed,” she said.
Weeks after the first school bell rang that summer, more than 350 segregationists met at the Hoxie City Hall to call for a boycott of the school. The five school board members who voted to integrate were asked to resign, and then Gov. Orville Faubus said he would not provide any additional state resources to help with the integration. Emotions ran high according to many public reports at the time, but no major violence erupted even as outside segregationist groups descended on the small town.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sent a woman to study how the integration unfolded, Washington said. She was sent at the behest of a young attorney, Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first African-American to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. He sent each family in the black community a letter cautioning them to keep the transition as peaceful as possible.
Eventually, the segregationists took their case to court. Washington’s father, Marshall, testified during the case. He was the only black person to testify, and it cost him dearly, she said. He lost his job, and he eventually had to move to Gary, Ind., to find work, she said. Their phone lines were tapped. One man was told his son could end up like Emmitt Till, a black teen lynched Aug. 28, 1955, in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman.
At school, it wasn’t any better, Washington said. Students sneered, laughed and made jokes about her. Children in the community who knew her and played with her before the integration shunned her. A teacher read the book “Little Black Sambo” and the class erupted in laughter while looking at her. The “N” word was uttered at will, and her older brother wasn’t allowed to play sports because other schools hadn’t integrated, yet.
“We were integrated, but we were still segregated … it wasn’t fun at all,” she said. “Kids can be very cruel.”
Integration did ultimately prevail in court, and the decision was a hallmark in Arkansas used by school districts for decades to integrate their schools.
One aspect of the integration that often gets overlooked is the bus system. Hoxie was the first district to bus black and white students together. The divide on the bus was always along racial lines, she said.
Years after the integration, Washington’s mother, Rosemary Hill was interviewed for a documentary in 2004. She was the only surviving parent of the children who integrated the school district. Washington’s organization is not affiliated with the group hoping to build the museum.
There have been varying accounts of exactly how many children were brought into the Hoxie School District. Washington has long touted the number at 21, but Cavenuagh said there are as many as 30. The school doesn’t have an exact number, and records are hard to find, she said.
The press conference and the resolution at the Capitol on Monday was the first salvo in the fight to save the history of this unique moment in the state’s history, Cavenaugh said. It will probably take several years, but Cavenaugh thinks it’s worth the effort.
“It’s a long-term, lofty goal. This is an important time history to tell this story,” she said.