ARKADELPHIA — Generations of graduates of Peake High School gathered Wednesday at Town Hall to share stories of their pre-integration era alma mater and ensure that their unique heritage is remembered.
“It was a good place for youngsters to go if they wanted to [get] beyond how the black people were living here in Arkadelphia,” said Annie Helms, 84, who graduated from the school when it was known as Peake Rosenwald School in 1947 and attended the Chamber of Commerce Community Coffee sponsored by the Peake High School Alumni Foundation.
Peake High School was built in 1960 at 1609 Pine St., but the institution’s roots are older. It began as the Sloan School, which was on Main Street but burned down in 1926. Two years later, a new Peake Rosenwald School was built at 16th and Caddo streets. Its enrollment was less than 300, and the grades ranged from first through eighth.
The high school was built for grades seven through 12, and Peake Rosenwald became Peake Elementary School for grades one through six. The Arkadelphia Public School District became fully integrated in 1970, but its alumni said attending Peake High School prepared them for life.
“You had to get that education if you wanted to go further,” Helms said. “I was not the salutatorian or the valedictorian of my graduating class, but I delivered the oration. Its theme was climbing the ladder of success. If you set your aims high and tried your best, you could reach them, regardless of race, creed or color.”
Larry Williams, a lawyer from Washington, D.C., graduated from Peake in 1964.
“I was the salutatorian of my graduating class and president of t he Student Council,” Williams said. His father graduated from Peake in 1946.
“It prepared us to be whatever we wanted to be,” Williams said of the school. “The teachers made absolutely sure that all of the kids were able to acquire an education. They had a love of learning, and they inspired all of us to love it.”
No matter their graduating class, the alumni spoke of dealing with two common factors at Peake: segregation and a lack of sufficient resources.
“Even though we had segregated facilities, we did not allow those kinds of things to get in the way of getting an education,” Williams said.
“It was a part of life for me,” Helms said of segregation. “I never let it interfere, and it never interfered with my family because to my father, we were all equal to everybody else. We were always taught that.”
“It’s just the way things were at that time,” said Ruthie Knox, a 1949 graduate. “We had to go to school, and it was a black school. We accepted it.”
Fannie Lee, a 1952 graduate, said Peake “got leftover books from the white high school. They would have notes written in them, and we didn’t know what they were. Sometimes we didn’t have all the books, but we would get copies. The teachers subsidized what we didn’t have with their salaries.”
Lee said she and her siblings all graduated from Peake and went on to satisfying professional and military careers.
“All five of my brothers served in the military, along with my husband and son-in law,” she said.
Eddie Cranford graduated in 1958.
“It didn’t put a handicap on your getting an education,” he said of segregation. “Teachers instilled in us the importance of an education. We got all the old books, but we still made it because we had great teachers. I always had the desire to do better. If I was making $300 a week, I wanted to make $800. I always had this desire, thanks to Peake.”
He said he had many fond memories of growing up and living in Arkadelphia.
“We had wonderful times, and the people were wonderful,” he said. “I have to give credit where it’s due. I have fun memories of Arkadelphia, and I’ve been coming back for every reunion.”
Gary Hunter graduated in 1969.
“I came to Peake from a rural school,” he said. “All the people that came out of that school — Mount Moriah — excelled at Peake. My older brother was the 1965 valedictorian. We all had the opportunity to go to college. It prepared me very well.”
He said that by 1969, Peake had “some white teachers, but no white students. I had no problem with integration coming up.”
Carrol Forte, a 1955 graduate, said he was inspired to become a band director, thanks to his exposure to the school’s band.
“The band director we had influenced me,” he said. “I decided that was what I wanted to do. I always wanted to work at Peake.”
Forte majored in music at Philander Smith College and became Peake’s beginning band director in 1969. He was also the school’s choir director.
“We had talented kids — good, bright young students,” Forte said. “We played some good music.”
Samuel Blackman, a 1969 graduate, played trumpet.
“We had a good brass section and a good band,” Blackman said. “We used to play at A.U. Williams Field, and we always gave a good show.”
The band program started in 1952 and, in the beginning, used instructors from Henderson State Teachers College. Peake’s athletic program — with the Buffaloes as its mascot — “had to sustain itself,” Blackman said, “and we got most of our equipment from the colleges — hand-me-down equipment. Our parents had to chip in and buy our instruments, and pay part of the salary of the [music teachers] since that was not part of the budget.”
Herman Thomas arrived at Peake in 1968 to teach French.
“That was the last year it was to be a high school,” he said. “We had a visionary principal, W.T. Keaton. Getting the students ready for integration was his primary focus. He had a theme of excellence, and we worked very hard preparing our students and letting them know they were not inferior, that they could make it in an integrated setting, and that we had high expectations for them.”
Thomas said he was one of seven teachers from Peake selected to teach at Arkadelphia High School in 1969-70.
“1969 was the last year you could have [segregated] schools,” he said. “Those who didn’t go to the high school went to the middle school. Those who left did not get replaced. We started losing black teachers that year, so white teachers came over to [Peake].”
The high school, which has been placed on the National Registry of Historic Places, has been renovated over the past few years, with help from the Arkadelphia School District. Thomas said the building is “about 80 percent complete.” It had formerly housed Head Start but fell into disuse for about nine years after that organization moved out.
Patricia Wright, a 1968 graduate and president of the foundation, said maintaining the school’s heritage is vital.
“We have fourth - and fifth-graders next door at Peake Elementary School, and without telling the story and sharing the legacy, the meaning will be lost for those children and their parents,” she said.
Wright said she graduated in the last class before integration.
“I never attended an integrated school in my whole 12 years,” she said. “I never rode a school bus. I always walked to school. The key was the relationships among teachers and families. Being a small community, we all knew one another, and there was a common bond.
“Growing up, we knew and were taught at an early age that education was the ticket to a better life. Peake provided the foundation for my academic growth.”
Staff writer Daniel A. Marsh can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or firstname.lastname@example.org.