Former students remember segregated high school

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published August 11, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated August 9, 2013 at 12:25 p.m.
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Wayne Bryan

Claubie Beard, left, and Ruben Edmondson, former members of the Peake High School football team, stand before a state-championship school jacket on display in the hallway of the renovated high school building.

ARKADELPHIA — The students of old Peake High School in Arkadelphia went there because they were not allowed in the other schools in town. In the days of segregation, it was the school for the city’s African-American students.

Yet, when listening to former students talk of their old school, their stories say that being set apart only made the community of classmates closer.

“We have a lot of love for the school,” said Ruben Edmondson, a member of the Peake class of 1957. ‘We never think about what we might have lost by the old system. We had great teachers, and many of the students have gone on to great success.”

Edmondson and nearly 100 other Peake alumni gathered Aug. 1 for a ribbon cutting for the new preschool facility housed in the newly restored Peake-Rosenwald building that was part of the high school for years.

It seemed that any conversation about the old school turned to some of the favorite teachers.

“They were our teachers 24 hours a day,” Edmondson said. “If they saw you out on the street and you were not acting right, they would discipline you right there.”

He spoke of his favorite teacher, Mrs. Simpson, who was the typing teacher for the high school but also taught at the elementary school. He and almost every student interviewed that evening at the ceremony also mentioned Mrs. Snowden, the school’s mathematics teacher during those years. Several students said her willingness to help individual students and her obvious love of learning gave then much more than arithmetic skills.

All the boys seemed to have more than respect for their principal, N.B. Cook. Perhaps some of it was fear.

“He could move around the school without a sound,” said Claubie Beard of the class of 1956. “You never heard him, but if you were doing something, he always seemed to be close by.”

Beard and Edmondson played football together for Peake High for several years when the team was very successful. The team was the state champion of Class 2A in the segregated Arkansas State Athletic Association in the 1950s.

Beard, who was quarterback in 1956, said while he believes there should have been only one school system, something was lost in the community after integration.

“We were all family,” he said. “At the time, some of us didn’t want to go to the other school. Our football team played better than the white team, and they would not play us.”

Beard and Edmondson both laughed, then were serious.

“More important than the team, we got a good education here using old secondhand books,” Edmondson said. “But we learned.”

Fanny Cranford Lee, a member of the class of 1952, said her entire family got a good education at Peake.

“There were seven children, and we were all honor graduates,” Lee said. “Not bad for a family that had to walk two miles to school.”

She said her brothers and sisters, like many of Peake’s students, would share they schoolbooks with other children who did not always attend school because they worked in the fields.

“This was a celebration of the past and the future,” said Donnie Whitten, superintendent of the Arkadelphia School District, after the ribbon cutting. “We have restored the building to as close to the way it was in 1929 as we can and still use the building.”

Whitten said the renovation was complicated because the school is on the National Register of Historic Places. He said the building had also been closed since 2001, used only sometimes for storage.

“A lot is original outside the building, including the windows, “Whitten said. “I don’t know how so many of them survived all those years.”

Whitten said the restoration could not have been done without the support of the former Peake students and their interest and pride in their school. He said

Patricia Wright, director of special programs for the school district and a Peake graduate, was invaluable to the project, including the fundraising. The restoration was designed by Twin Rivers Architecture in Arkadelphia.

From a porch at the front of the restored school, Wright pointed out a carved white stone carrying the name “Peake High School.” She said the stone was found broken into several pieces, buried in the ground at the schoolhouse.

After being cleaned and reassembled, the stone has been placed in a small garden edging the porch.

“It will be there for us all to see and remember,” Whitten said.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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