The first African-American class in the United States to fully integrate into an all-white school was in Hoxie, Arkansas. Two years before the Little Rock Nine entered Little Rock Central High School, 21 students left a colored school in Hoxie and went to the Hoxie Schools. That happened July 11th, 1955…one year and two months after the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education that declared segregation was unconstitutional. The school board, led by Superintendent K.E. Vance, declared it was “right in the sight of God” to voluntarily integrate the schools. Pictures of school children playing together appeared in a national publication on July 25th, 1955. Ethel Tompkins was in the 7th grade when Hoxie integrated.
“The white kids and the black kids were arm-in-arm going out to the playground to play and have a good time,” says Tompkins. “When LIFE magazine took that picture to show the world what integration could look like, it set a lot of things in motion. Anti-segregationists and others sent representatives to Hoxie to stop the integration process.”
A large number of protestors came to Hoxie to boycott the decision. Legal challenges were made all the way up the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the integration was upheld. Tompkins says what happened in this case set the stage for what happened in Little Rock.
“This was the first time a United States Attorney General supported integration. Hoxie brought out a number of firsts; the first in the Delta to integrate and the first in the state to have a court get involved and side with the school district.”
A planning meeting was held Wednesday at Arkansas State University. State officials and leaders from Lawrence County came together to start work on a museum in Hoxie that would tell the story about what happened. One of the challenges to trying to build a museum is the get an accurate feel for what it looked like, since the colored school was torn down. Gene Vance is the son of then-President of the Hoxie School Board Howard Vance. He explains some of the challenges:
“We are trying to reconstruct this school based on very few pictures,” says Vance. “It is hard to tell outside architects what the school looked like when there are few pictures from that time available. If anyone has any other pictures of what this looked like, it would be very helpful in the process. We are trying to make this as authentic as possible.”
Intial drawings and plans are being drawn up, but Vance says it would help to have artifacts from that time to place in the museum. He estimates the cost of building a museum to be at least 200-thousand dollars. The first phase in starting the museum is applying to startup grants and putting together a specific plan for the museum. Outside consultants and museum planners will also be brought in to start work on the museum. One of the goals is to educate more people about what happened in Hoxie. State Representative Fran Cavenaugh says she wants to see the museum have an educational room. She says the story of Hoxie is not well known in the state, and she would like to see it taught in Arkansas classrooms.
“I would say to the Arkansas Board of Education that if you want to put the story of Hoxie as part of curriculum, find me. I will run that bill,” stated State Representative Fran Cavenaugh. “I think it is important to educate as any people as possible about what happened in Hoxie because many people don’t know the story about what happened.”
In Jonesboro, I’m Johnathan Reaves reporting.