Civil Rights in the Arkansas Delta: The Integration of Hoxie Schools
Before the Little Rock Nine bravely entered Central High School surrounded by soldiers from the National Guard and the 101st Airborne, Hoxie was the first Arkansas school to face resistance to integration.
It’s July 1955. In Hoxie, school is slated to begin on July 11. For younger Black students in the community, there was a decrepit elementary school; those in high school were bused to an all-Black school in nearby Jonesboro. The town’s school board and Superintendent Kunkel Edward Vance did not believe the district had funding to cover separate schools. Therefore, the Hoxie School Board voted unanimously to combine all students into the district. On the morning of July 11, 1955, 21 Black students attended classes at what had been an all-white school system. There were no incidents. Hoxie had just integrated its schools to no fanfare and no problems, joining the ranks of Fayetteville and Charleston schools, both of which had integrated schools in 1954 without issue.
At the time, Superintendent Vance gave three reasons for integration – he believed it was “right in the sight of God;” he believed it met and complied with the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas; and it saved the school district money.
Two weeks later, Life magazine published a photo essay featuring the desegregation of Hoxie schools, meant to showcase a small Southern town’s compliance with the Supreme Court’s ruling. After the magazine hit newsstands, problems began. Segregationists from the community irately protested at Hoxie City Hall, calling for a boycott of the schools. The Hoxie School Board refused to back down. To the dismay of the school board, Gov. Orval Faubus announced that the state government would not intercede.
Segregationists from throughout the South descended on Hoxie. Luckily for Hoxie and its citizens, there was no physical violence like that seen throughout the South during the process of integration. The school board remained stalwart, filing a legal complaint that integration in Hoxie schools worked until the anti-integration groups attempted to foil it.
In November 1955, U.S. District Judge Thomas C. Trimble issued a temporary restraining order against the segregationists, stating that the group “planned and conspired” to prevent integration in Hoxie. In December, the court made the temporary order permanent. The anti-integrationists refused to accept the finding and appealed the decision to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The office of Attorney General Herbert Brownell, through the U.S. Department of Justice, entered the case on the side of the Hoxie School District. It was a historic move … the first instance of an attorney general siding with a school attempting to comply with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Sixteen months later, on Oct. 25, 1956, the court ruled in favor of the Hoxie School.
The story of the integration of Hoxie schools is an important part of the Civil Rights history of Arkansas. A group dedicated to telling the story is working on the Hoxie Civil Rights Museum, including Ethel Tompkins, a student during the 1955 integration. To learn more about the museum and the story of Hoxie’s integration, visit hoxiethefirststand.org.