Little Rock's 'Lost Class' of 1959 recalls turbulent year

David Scruggs was a sports writer for the Central High School Tiger in the fall of 1958. Because he was a senior, he got to cover the football games every Friday night.

On Saturday mornings he typed his stories, walked up the big front steps of Central, showed his pass to the armed guards at the door and dropped off his copy in the journalism department.

But the building was empty that fall. He was one of only a few students to walk through Central's doors that year, and his stories were just a few more sheets in a stack of articles, the material for a newspaper that would never be.

Forty years ago today, Little Rock residents voted 19,470 to 7,561 to close the city's high schools instead of immediately integrating all schools in the district. The high schools stayed closed the entire year.

The political passions sparked by the forced desegregation of Central High School the year before had not begun to calm. Adults, from parents to city leaders, nightly held hushed discussions and frantic meetings, trying to determine what balance would be struck between federal orders and local wishes.

It was not the 1960s.

The 1958 Hall High yearbook from the previous spring had three pages about sock hops and a letter from Pat Boone, who chose Donna Sue Martin as the prettiest girl of '58 from the photos of five contestants.

"It was the '50s, and we lived in a very happy little bubble until all of this came along," said Cathie Matthews, who was a senior at Hall that year.

Members of Little Rock's "Lost Class" of 1959 say that political activism could not have been further from their minds.

"We were not politically active in state and federal affairs. Our politics were running for student council," said Betty Meyer, who is now helping organize Hall's 40th reunion.

Today, class members recall being caught in the middle, victimized by a situation out of their control. And, like Scruggs, they tried as hard as they could to manufacture what they always wanted and would never get: a senior year of high school.

Lost Class members use words such as "traumatic" and "horrible" to describe the school closings, and many recall a sense of disbelief that extended well into the fall. School had to open any day, they thought.

Don Smith, who was to become president of the Hall High student council that fall, said the closest he and others came to activism was trying to convince the adults to open the schools, integrated or not. Smith helped conduct a poll in September 1959 that showed 71 percent of Hall students wanted the schools to open regardless of integration.

"I wasn't extraordinarily active in terms of being the one standing on the parapet," he said. "The student leaders weren't trying to do much of anything except get the information out that people wanted the schools open."

Some students left home immediately, either for private schools or to live with relatives in other parts of the state and nation where they could attend public school. But many others hung on as long as they could.

The football teams from the three high schools continued to practice and play for the entire season, using whatever players remained in the area. Students who had scattered across the state came home on Fridays and filled the stands.

It was homecoming every week.

"On weekends the football team played, and we did all the stuff for the team, rah, rah, rah, and we would all cry and be sad at what we were missing," Matthews said.

For a while, a false normalcy existed. Students held dances and socialized, but gradually they and their parents realized the schools were not going to open that year.

Of Central's 535 seniors, 326 attended school in other districts or private schools in Arkansas, 20 went out of state and 64 went to college early. Hall sent 132 of its 260 seniors to other Arkansas schools, 63 went out-of-state and 52 went to college.

About 85 percent of seniors from the all-white schools continued their educations that year. The closure took a heavier toll on the all-black Horace Mann High School, where 45 percent of the seniors did not go to school at all.

Catherine Mitchell, now a member of the Little Rock School Board, was in 10th grade at Horace Mann in 1958. She said she "was blessed" with the chance to move in with her aunt and attend tiny Lincoln High School near Hope. She went on to finish high school, attend college and eventually earn graduate degrees.

Many of her classmates were not so lucky. About 10 years after graduating from Horace Mann, Mitchell came back to Little Rock and taught adult education classes.

"When I moved back home, some of my former classmates were in my adult education class," she said. "Some students didn't even go back to school, and this was 10 years later, more than 10 years later, and some students were just going to school to get their GEDs [General Educational Development certificates]."

Picking up and going to a new school was not easy, though.

Judy Ritgerod Rhodes woke up one morning that fall to her mother telling her to pack her things; her father would be home in three hours to take her to live with her grandparents in Missouri.

"I cried all the way and it rained," she said.

Those who transferred to faraway schools recall the difficulties of adjusting to new academics, new friends and new climates.

A heavy snowfall wasn't the only thing Richard Steinkamp had trouble with when he transferred from Hall to a small, public high school in western Pennsylvania. His father sent him to live with his college roommate, and Steinkamp said being dropped into a new environment was a challenge.

"I was some kind of curiosity," he said. "The issue had been well-known to people in the remotest parts of the country, including that one. I wouldn't say I was anything close to a celebrity but rather just a person to ask about this thing from a personal standpoint."

Virtually all of those interviewed said that their public educations from Little Rock stood them in good stead when they transferred to other schools.

Mitchell said the only problem she had when she transferred to Lincoln High School was that she did too well in classes. Accustomed to Horace Mann, which was much larger and offered more advanced courses, she was resented by some of her new classmates for her academic success.

"The teachers just constantly bragged on my ability to do my work, and that even caused some resentment between me and my first cousin, who was my good friend," she said.

Many Hall High students reported similar experiences. Bill Sigler transferred to Jacksonville High School along with many of his classmates. They missed the first weeks of school, but it didn't take them long to catch up, he said.

"Some of us had not been to school for two weeks. We walked in the first day and had to take an English test," he said. "Most of us did quite well."

Leaving friends behind was hard, but many students who transferred to schools in other parts of Arkansas or out of the state said they managed to make friends and participate in sports and activities in their new schools.

Robert Brown, now a justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court, transferred from Hall High to St. Stephen's, an Episcopal school in Austin, Texas. He said he was lucky to have his friend Howard Cockrill, now a local radiologist, go with him, but many friends from junior year were never to be seen again. What's worse, Brown had to leave his girlfriend behind in Little Rock.

"Now, that's always traumatic," he said. "Fortunately, there were others in Austin, and we found that out quickly."

Staying behind brought with it other difficult decisions. Some students attended local private schools, some transferred to other public schools in the county, and others took correspondence courses.

Josh McHughes, now a Little Rock lawyer, stayed in town through the football season to play for Central. Arkansas rules allowed Little Rock students to play football as long as they were taking correspondence courses from the University of Arkansas. If they enrolled in another school district, they became ineligible.

Eventually, McHughes, like many of his teammates and competitors, had to decide whether education was more important than football.

"I wasn't a great star and fought like heck just to dress out, and dressing out at Central High was an honor," he said. "I had just gained the starting kickoff position, and to give that up after three years on the B team in the trenches getting beat up by the big boys, that was a traumatic decision at the time."

By the time Hall and Central played each other on Thanksgiving Day, both squads were down to third-string players for some positions.

Schools such as Jacksonville High School and J.C. Cook High School in Wrightsville took on large numbers of Little Rock's displaced, swelling their own classes to almost unmanageable sizes.

Goforth Coleman, who was to enter his sophomore year at Horace Mann that fall, said he considered himself lucky to get into J.C. Cook. There was no public transportation to take him and other black students to Wrightsville for most of the year, and he said he hitchhiked about 20 miles to and from school every day.

"After a while, the classes were so full they had about 40 students per class," he said. "It was not a very conducive place for learning, yet the teachers worked real hard with us."

Two private schools in Little Rock took on some of the white students. T.J. Raney High School enrolled 219 seniors; and Baptist High, a program sponsored by Ouachita Baptist College, taught 29 of them.

Raney's volunteer teachers made a strong effort to help their students through a difficult year, said Parker Dozhier, who transferred there from Central. Raney's students also banded together and tried to make the experience as normal as possible -- they put out a newspaper and a yearbook, had a prom and fielded a basketball team, he said.

"There was a lot of esprit de corps, as one might imagine," Dozhier said. "Having been through public schools in Little Rock my whole life, you just assumed you would graduate from Central High. I'm not going to say it didn't strike us as something we were disappointed about ... but we made the best of a bad situation."

Forming private schools was difficult, though. When the schools were first closed, the school board tried to lease its buildings to a corporation that would run them as private, segregated schools. Within hours of the plan's formation, a panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued an injunction blocking it.

The teachers were caught in a difficult position. By virtue of their contracts, they had to be at school every day between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., but there was no one to teach, said Nancy Popperfuss, who taught English at Hall.

Eventually the district started using the high school teachers as substitutes in the lower grades. But for the first two months, they reported every day to their empty classrooms.

"We would lecture among ourselves," Popperfuss said. "I would give a lecture on English or something, and of course the media was calling us all the time."

At Horace Mann, many teachers were young and inexperienced, and the principal, LeRoy Cristophe, used the opportunity to instruct his faculty, said Jerome Muldrew, who was then one of the young teachers. Cristophe organized in-service workshops, drawing on area educators, particularly from Philander Smith College, to teach his teachers, Muldrew said.

"Dr. Cristophe certainly kept us busy, as far as that was concerned," he said.

Other teachers found ways to continue tutoring informally. Matthews and about nine other students met in a basement room in the house of a classmate's grandmother. The floor and walls were bare, and the room was empty except for their desks and a blackboard, she said.

Meyer and the man she eventually married, Richard Meyer, were also in that class, which was tutored by English teacher Aileen Henderson and math teacher Jim Fulmer from Hall. The teachers were forbidden by court order to instruct students during school hours, so they would wait until precisely 3:30 to begin the lesson, she said.

She, like others in that private class, completed enough correspondence courses to get into college and transferred to Hendrix College that spring. She managed to persuade Hall to give her credit for a college English course, so she has one of the few 1959 Hall High School diplomas. Her husband was not so lucky, she said.

He went to Hendrix, too, and from there transferred to the University of Arkansas, where he enrolled in dental school before graduating from college. The couple married in 1964 while he was in dental school and moved back to Little Rock in 1972, when he started an orthodontics practice.

"When we moved back, he got a telephone call from the school district offering for him to enroll in a GED course," she said. "When we were married, he only had a junior high diploma. We laughed about that."

Many students from Hall and Central said that in the end, missing the year of school didn't hurt them. The majority of them found another place to go to school, and most colleges were very understanding about their slightly unusual applications.

"Most anyone you talk to would say it was a traumatic experience. But when you are 17, you are pretty resilient, and you bounce off pretty easily and find your way," Scruggs said. "I think most of us did."

Students from Horace Mann said that many of their classmates did very well, graduating from high school and going on to college, but there were others for whom the school closing ended education.

"Some got in trouble and went to jail. Some never got back," Coleman said.

Black and white former students alike said they keep in close contact with their lost classmates. All three schools have held regular reunions over the years, even though they didn't graduate together. Scruggs and Meyer said they are organizing a joint Hall and Central reunion for next June.

A group of former Central classmates communicates daily on an e-mail list, and many of those scattered across the country have come back to Little Rock.

"Many of us have kept in close touch, and maybe the displacement formed some greater bond that brought us back together and is still something we feel," Steinkamp said. "You don't take it for granted and seek it out, and you just kind of hold onto each other in a stronger way, perhaps."

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