I recently wrote a series of columns on National Park Service facilities in Arkansas, and received a call from old friend and Charleston native Archie Schaffer III. He urged me not to forget the Charleston National Commemorative Site. A national commemorative site is, in essence, an honorary designation that recognizes the significance of a place without elevating it to the status of a full-fledged NPS unit.
Charleston received the first such designation in 1998. The designation was the only one of its kind for almost 20 years until Congress designated the Landmark for Peace Memorial in downtown Indianapolis as the Kennedy-King National Commemorative Site in April 2018.
The Charleston story is indeed one Arkansans should know. Three years before the Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis became the biggest media story in the world, the Charleston School District quietly integrated. It became the first school district in the former Confederate states to integrate all 12 grades.
"Following the May 17, 1954, U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that deemed state laws mandating public school segregation unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, the Charleston School Board made a historic decision," Mary Belle Ervin writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "In the spirit of civic obedience, on July 27, 1954, the five-member board -- consisting of board president Howard Madison Orsburn, George Ferrell Hairston, Archibald R. Schaffer, Herbert E. Shumate and Homer Keith -- voted unanimously to 'disband the Colored School and admit the Colored children into the grade and high school when classes open for the fall semester.'"
The semester began Aug. 23, 1954. Eleven Black students attended classes with about 480 white students. There were eight Black students in the elementary grades, and three in the ninth grade. There was no media attention.
"Following the May Supreme Court ruling, the Charleston School Board and Woodrow W. Haynes, superintendent of the public schools, spent the early part of the summer persuading civic and business leaders, including the local newspaper, not to discuss the integration plans with any out-of-town news source," Ervin writes. "The story wasn't reported until Sept. 13, by which time Black students had been admitted to Fayetteville High School.
"On the same day, Orsburn revealed to reporters that Charleston schools had integrated peacefully three weeks earlier. The secrecy surrounding the event may have saved Charleston from the problems that plagued other school districts during the early years of integration."
The Charleston School District had been paying about $4,500 a year to transport Black high school students to the all-Black high school in nearby Fort Smith. The school for Blacks at Charleston provided education from the first through eighth grades.
"The 1954 integration decision closed Charleston's Rosenwald school, which needed repairs the district couldn't afford, and removed the necessity of transporting high school students to Fort Smith," Ervin writes. "Early on the first day of classes, Haynes found a racial slur written on an outside school wall. Determined to achieve a successful merger, he and the janitor cleaned it off prior to the arrival of students, and no one else saw it. There were, however, a few repercussions. Some schools refused to play Charleston in football because Black students were on the team. Also, Charleston was excluded from band competitions."
With the situation in Little Rock still making national news, Haynes announced in June 1958 that he was leaving his hometown of Charleston for a college administrative job. At a July 5, 1958, school board meeting, Schaffer and Orsburn announced their resignations from the board. Dale Bumpers and Gene VanMeter were appointed to fill the unexpired positions. Bumpers, who was Archie Schaffer's uncle, went on to serve as governor and U.S. senator.
In his 2003 book "The Best Lawyer in a One-Lawyer Town," Bumpers wrote: "Shortly after the 1954 Brown decision, the Charleston School Board sought my advice on what course of action or inaction they should pursue. It was heady stuff for the only lawyer in a one-horse town, three years out of law school and operating out of a cubicle in the back of the bank. I hadn't even read the Brown decision. My advice was made easy by the fact that both the board and the superintendent were inclined to comply with the decision immediately.
"It was also made easy by the fact that I knew the decision had to be honored sooner or later, and I knew sooner would be easier. Obviously, the decision for Charleston could be delayed, but the day of reckoning would come. Better to do it voluntarily than under a court order. Charleston had about 40 Blacks. ... Most of a once-larger population had long since departed for Kansas City, Detroit and Chicago. They had always lived two miles east of town in the 'settlement' in shotgun hovels, trying to scratch out an existence on sorry land. A few worked at the Acme Brick plant in Fort Smith, hauling bricks in wheelbarrows to and from the kilns. They were the lucky ones."
Bumpers wrote that "nobody on the board or in the city dreamed we were taking a historic step that would land the little town in the history books."
The first two Black graduates of Charleston High School were Barbara Williams Dotson and Joe Ferguson in 1961.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.