Former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater speaks on Silas Hunt’s legacy, transportation issues

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 916 views 

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater speaks on the legacy of Silas Hunt, the first black student admitted to a white Southern university after Reconstruction.

Silas Hunt chose the road less traveled when he enrolled at the University of Arkansas School of Law, said Rodney Slater, former U.S. secretary of transportation and graduate of the UA law school. Hunt was admitted to the law school six years before Brown v. Board of Education, nine years before the Little Rock Central High School crisis, 15 years before Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream,” speech and 60 years before Barack Obama was elected U.S. president.

Slater recently commemorated the 70th anniversary of Hunt’s admission into the law school and spoke on Hunt’s legacy in the E.J. Ball Courtroom at the law school.

“Not only was Silas Hunt enriched by his experience, I believe that the law school itself was enriched by his being here,” he said.

On Monday, Feb. 2, 1948, Hunt became the first black student to enroll in a white Southern university since Reconstruction and the first black student admitted for graduate or professional studies. Hunt traveled to the UA that day along with classmate Wiley Branton, Pine Bluff attorney Harold Flowers and photographer Geleve Grice. Robert Leflar, dean of the law school, interviewed Hunt, and he was admitted. The UA admissions office is named after Hunt.

“Hunt, having embraced a rendezvous with destiny, began his task that day and took the first steps on a journey that literally brings us to this moment, this place, this time,” Slater said. “We call his name today because he answered the call of history, the call of sacrifice, the call of destiny.”

In spring 1948, Hunt attended segregated classes in the basement of the law school. White students weren’t restricted from taking classes with Hunt, and between three and five students took classes with him regularly. Hunt was “always studious” and “intellectually curious,” Slater said.

Hunt’s admission to the UA law school was a catalyst for the admission of Branton, George Haley, George Howard Jr., Christopher Mercer and Jackie Shropshire, who along with Hunt became known as The Six Pioneers. While Hunt regularly shared class with white students, he didn’t have the opportunity to take classes with the other five pioneers as Hunt became ill and his studies were cut short. Hunt was 25 when he was admitted to the law school, and about a year later, on April 22, 1949, he died of tuberculosis, a possible complication from his war injuries.

In 1941, Hunt graduated as class salutatorian from Booker T. Washington High School in Texarkana. He attended the Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College in Pine Bluff until he was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II. He served with construction engineers for almost two years until he was seriously wounded at the Battle of the Bulge. After he recovered, he graduated from the Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College in 1947 with a bachelor’s degree in English.

Silas Hunt

He was accepted by the University of Indiana School of Law, but after classmate Ada Sipuel was denied enrollment into the University of Oklahoma College of Law, Hunt and Branton were inspired to take action and decided to enroll at the UA. While Hunt was admitted Feb. 2, 1948, Branton was denied enrollment into the business school but was later admitted to the UA law school, Slater said.

The Six Pioneers rank among the most accomplished and distinguished alumni.

“A celebrated student, a political power broker, a young researcher for the legal trailblazer Thurgood Marshall in Brown v. Board of Education as well as a marshal collaborator in the Little Rock Nine’s U.S. Supreme Court case Cooper v. Aaron, counselor to the Little Rock Nine, the first African-American federal judge in Arkansas, dean of the Howard University School of Law, college classmate and friend of none other than Martin Luther King Jr., senior official in four presidential administrations, including ambassador to Gambia, the ancestral home of the Haley family as chronicled in the movie ‘Roots: the Saga of an American Family.’”

“This is a rich, rich legacy that began all of it with the admission of Silas Hunt to the law school 70 years ago,” he said. “It includes the accomplishments of The Six Pioneers. It continues today.”

Slater said the law firm for whom he works, Squire Patton Boggs, plans to offer fellowships to students of the UA law school. It will be one of 20 law schools to which the law firm will offer fellowships. Slater said the law firm is expected to offer the fellowships starting this summer — one annually for the next five years.

“We have offices all over the world,” Slater said. “We’ve never done a fellowship in Arkansas.”

Slater, who graduated from the UA law school in 1980, is partner at Squire Patton Boggs in Washington, D.C., and promotes safer, more efficient, environmentally sound and sustainable worldwide transportation infrastructure — a vision he set as transportation secretary. After graduating from law school, Slater became Arkansas’ assistant attorney general, chair of the Arkansas Highway Commission and director of governmental affairs for Arkansas State University before joining President Bill Clinton’s administration, serving as director of the Federal Highway Administration and U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

When asked about President Donald Trump’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan and how to fund it, Slater explained this issue could bring together Democrats and Republicans and favored plans to streamline the infrastructure process.

“I think this is a ripe opportunity,” he said.

Trade organization American Trucking Associations supports increasing the federal gas tax to raise money for transportation infrastructure.

Slater was federal highway administrator the last time the gas tax was increased, but it wasn’t initially allocated for transportation infrastructure. It was originally allocated to pay down the deficit, and when the funding proposal came up for renewal, it was reallocated for infrastructure, more than doubling the DOT’s budget. At the same time, the proposal allowed for public-private partnerships in transportation projects.

“That allows you to leverage your federal dollars to get some state and local dollars and more private sector dollars,” Slater said. “And if you listen carefully to the (Trump) administration, that’s almost how they want to do all of it.”

Another option that might not require as much infrastructure investment would be to use technology to make the existing infrastructure more efficient. Historically, he said, lanes were added to improve traffic flow, but a better plan to do this might be to synchronize traffic with technology.

Slater, who’s a Verizon board member, said the company is interested in telematics, or the merging of technology and the automobile, and communications companies such as Verizon and AT&T are discussing 5G wireless technology, which is expected to impact autonomous driving. It’s technology that would allow for self-driving or autonomous vehicles.