July 27, 2011 Edition

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With the unveiled sketch of the proposed monument to the 1955 Hoxie School Desegregation are five of the Hoxie 21 students. They are (from left): Yvonne Barksdale Taylor of Jonesboro, Ethel Tompkins of Hoxie, Don Jean Barksdale Bright of Cleveland, Ohio, Fayth Hill Washington of West Memphis and Rosetta Barksdale of San Jose, Calif.
TD Photo ~ John Bland

1955 Hoxie School
desegregation celebrated

John Bland

The 1955 Hoxie School desegregation was the focus of a 56-year commemorative celebration held Saturday at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock.

The echoing theme of the event was to honor the courage of the students, families and community involved in the Hoxie desegregation and to raise awareness of its historical significance.

The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center is a museum of African-American history with a mission to help educate the public about that history, such as the Hoxie School desegregation.

Historical significance

It was explained that the Hoxie School desegregation is significant because it was the first integration of grades K-12 in the Delta and the first challenged school desegregation in the U.S. upheld after the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954. The ruling declared that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students was unconstitutional.

Schools in Charleston and Fayetteville had previously desegregated some of the grades in their schools, but the desegregation was kept out of the national media and went unchallenged.

Life magazine came to Hoxie and did a pictorial spread on the Hoxie School integration. Intended to be flattering for the school and community, the publicity caused an adverse effect. Groups from outside the area came to Hoxie and stirred up the local residents. Opponents feared that a peaceful desegregation of the Hoxie School would lead other schools around the South to do likewise.

Hill Foundation getting story told

Hosting the celebration with the cultural center was the Hill Foundation, Inc., founded by the late Rosemary Hill and her daughter, Fayth Hill Washington. Fayth and her late brother, Wesley Hill, are two of the Hoxie 21 African-Americans who integrated with the previously all-white Hoxie School.

The Hill Foundation is working to ensure that the story of the Hoxie desegregation has its rightful place in history. Their efforts are now focused on establishing a Hoxie 21 monument on the grounds of the state Capitol.

Artists and sculptors John and Kathy Deering have painted a rendering of the proposed Hoxie School desegregation monument. The Deerings unveiled their monument drawing during Saturday's celebration. It is noteworthy that the Deerings also designed and sculpted the Little Rock Nine monument located on the Capitol grounds.

A fast-moving two-and-a-half hour program Saturday kept attendees riveted with first-hand accounts of the 1955 desegregation.

Fayth Hill Washington served as emcee, and introduced many of the speakers.

"I became quite frankly captivated by the Hoxie 21 story," said Dr. Russ Wigginton, vice president of college relations for Rhodes College in Memphis.

Wigginton helped establish "The Crossroads to Freedom" digital archive at Rhodes. The archive highlights Civil Rights efforts in Memphis and the Mid-South and includes the story of the Hoxie School desegregation. Wigginton also serves as an advisory member of the Hill Foundation Board.

Fayth noted that 16 of the Hoxie 21 students are still living. Five of those 16 were present for the 56th anniversary commemoration.

Secretary of State Mark Martin pledged that his office would do everything it can to help speed up the process of establishing the monument on the Capitol grounds. He noted that the nearly-completed Fallen Firefighters monument has been a 15-year effort.

Gene Vance of Jonesboro spoke on behalf of his father, the late Howard Vance, who was president of the Hoxie School Board when the board unanimously voted to comply with Brown vs. Board of Education.

He said there were two Vances at Hoxie, K.E. Vance, the superintendent, and his father, Howard, but the two were not related. "We must remember these six," said Vance, referring to the superintendent and five board members.

"The thing that stands out to me is courage," Vance said, noting the courage of the black students, their parents, the board, as well as the white students, many of whose parents opposed integration.

He was attending school in Sedgwick, but Vance's older sister was at Hoxie. "My sister was there, and I heard her talk about your courageousness," Vance spoke directly to the Hoxie 21.

He and others noted that the Hoxie School Board voted unanimously to desegregate the school because:

  • the Supreme Court decision mandated desegregation.

  • it was the right thing to do.

  • it would save the school (and thus the taxpayers) money.

Charles Penix of Little Rock spoke as a representative of his grandfather and parents, the late Bill and Marian Penix of Jonesboro, all attorneys who provided legal counsel to the Hoxie School.

"My mother was important as a source of right and wrong in this event and in our family," Penix said. "My parents embraced us being around people who were different from us, and we found out they weren't different."

Penix's sister, Susan Penix Fitzsimmons and her husband, Robert, of Stephenville, Texas, were also present for the event.

Penix noted the importance of emphasizing parts of our history, such as the Hoxie desegregation, where fear was involved.

"My parents were very big liberal Democrats, and Howard Vance's family were big Republicans, but they were the best of friends," he added. Sec. of State Martin next awarded Arkansas Traveler certificates to Vance, Penix, Dr. Wigginton and to Christopher C. Mercer Jr., who also provided legal counsel in the Hoxie case.

Chris Mercer was just a year out of law school and working for the Human Resources Department of the Department of Education when the Hoxie School sought legal counsel. He knew of the Penixes' reputation and went to Jonesboro to enlist their help. They agreed to take the case.

To set the mood of the 1955 event, a clip of the documentary film, "Hoxie: The First Stand," was shown.

Dr. Blanche Hunt, president of the College of Aspiring Artist, noted that "We are all one race - the human race."

Dr. Pam Johnson Watson, education assistant at the Mosaic Templers Cultural Center shared that an educational program has been developed regarding the Hoxie School desegregation story.

Students can come to the center or staff will go to the schools to teach the program.

Reflections of the Hoxie 21

Next, several members of the Hoxie 21 shared their reflections of the desegregation. Ethel Tompkins of Hoxie was the first black to graduate from Hoxie High School. She recalled her first and foremost impression was that the Hoxie School had a library. After learning that, she said, "I didn't hear another word." She noted that she has had a life-long love of reading.

She recalled that Mr. (Jim) Vaughn helped her to pass algebra. "Because of that, I was able to continue on. She told how Maxine Bracy, choral instructor, had her help other students with math so that they could stay in music.

Yvonne Barksdale Taylor of Jonesboro was excited about being a freshman but apprehensive about entering a white school.

"Let no one's opinion define who you are or what you become," taught Yvonne's parents.

Yvonne's older sisters had gone to Booker T. Washington High School in Jonesboro, and she was also somewhat regretful in not sharing that.

The Hoxie 21 students remembered fondly their teacher at the one-room colored school, the late Charlene Trotter. It was noted that the black students would test higher than their age level when they joined the white students.

Yvonne also fondly recalled other teachers in their integrated school, such as Maxine Bracy, Lorene Taylor and O'Neal Kellim.

"I thank God for this day," she concluded.

Don Jean Barksdale Bright of Cleveland recalled that the integration meant plumbing, indoor bathrooms, whole textbooks with pages intact and without answers written in them.

Jim Barksdale of Little Rock graduated from Hoxie High School in 1979. He is the son of Don Jean and was raised by his grandparents, Ruben and Mary Barksdale.

"I'm a big believer in history, and I benefitted from those who came before," he said. "I never, ever felt any different than others. I had good teachers who said you could become anything you wanted to."

He had a number of cousins at the school until his second grade year, when they moved to Pocahontas. Then, he was the only black in the school system.

John Deering, artist for the Hoxie monument sketch, and his wife, Kathy, unveiled his painting. "Fayth (Washington) is a woman of immense patience and kindness, also, a woman you do not say no to."

Lloyd Clark of Powhatan, president of the Lawrence County Historical Society, put the Hoxie desegregation into historical context.

"History is very important to me as a window to the past and a light to the future," Clark said. "We need to honor these men those men could have done nothing," he said of the school board.

The parents of the Hoxie 21 showed real courage, he added.

"The majority thought they were right, when they were wrong," Clark said of the sentiments of those desiring to keep black and white students segregated.

Clark said he did his student teaching a number of years ago at the Hoxie School. "They didn't know anything about it," he said of the 1955 Hoxie School desegregation.

"We need some sort of memorial there (in Hoxie)," he added.

Dr. Wigginton concluded the program by speaking of the future. "It's particularly important to expose this history to our young people," he said.

In her closing remarks, Fayth Washington emphasized the courage of the parents of the Hoxie 21 students. "We (as children) were just being obedient," she concluded.

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