The study of Arkansas history traditionally has centered on the accomplishments of male politicians and business leaders. But one of the most significant 20th century figures in Arkansas was a women, Adolphine Fletcher Terry.
She was born at Little Rock in November 1882, spent most of her life in the grand Pike-Fletcher-Terry House and died in July 1976 at age 93. She is buried at Mount Holly Cemetery, the final resting place for many of the state's prominent figures.
Last Saturday, this column focused on attempts by preservationists to save the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House from continued deterioration. If that happens, perhaps interpretive signage can go up to honor the contributions of this remarkable woman. Her father, John Fletcher, was among the leading cotton brokers and bankers in the South. Her younger brother, John Gould Fletcher, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.
Adolphine Fletcher headed east at age 15 to enroll at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
"Her East Coast education and schoolmates broadened her views on race relations," Peggy Harris writes in the book "Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives." "She graduated in 1902, at a time when few men and even fewer women had college degrees. Fletcher's father died in 1906, and her mother died three years later.
"After college, Fletcher and another Vassar graduate from Arkansas, Blanche Martin, were asked to serve on a national committee to investigate the state's educational needs. They discovered a system of mostly one-room schoolhouses among 5,000 school districts, inadequate supervision and no consistent policies. The two made school consolidation their cause, writing articles for newspapers, making speeches and lobbying. In 1908, Fletcher was leading efforts to consolidate school districts, appoint professional county superintendents and provide school transportation."
Fletcher founded what became the Little Rock branch of the American Association of University Women and formed an organization known as the School Improvement Association. In 1910, she organized the state's first juvenile court and later headed the Pulaski County Juvenile Court board for two decades. Fletcher also helped start the Girls Industrial School near Alexander for girls detained by the court.
In July 1910, Fletcher married Little Rock lawyer David Terry, who went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1933-43. The couple had four children and later adopted a fifth child, an orphan that a daughter befriended while in Boston for medical treatment.
"Mary Terry was born in 1914 with a rare condition, called osteogenesis imperfecta, that caused her bones to break for no apparent reason," Harris writes. "The condition crippled Mary for life and had a significant impact on her mother. Despite doctors' predictions, Mary lived a long life, earned a college degree, traveled and had a career in psychological testing. Adolphine Terry said caring for Mary led to an awakening in which she found 'in some measure the spiritual meaning of life, a sense of real achievement and peace.'
"Her daughter's illness and her own coming to terms with Mary's condition formed the basis for Terry's first book, 'Courage!' The 1938 book was written under the pseudonym Mary Lindsey. Her other books include 'Cordelia, Member of the Household' in 1967, which was about a young African American girl who lived with the Fletcher family when Terry was a child, and 'Charlotte Stephens, Little Rock's First Black Teacher,' which was published in 1973."
Soon after the end of World War I, Terry became one of three white women who advised the newly established YWCA for Black girls. Terry also marched for women's voting rights in 1920, noting that the vote "represents more than just saying how a person feels about an issue or candidate. It represents human dignity and the fact that a citizen can express his or her opinion on any subject without fear of reprisal. That, I think, is what real human dignity consists of."
During her husband's time in Washington, Terry stayed behind in Little Rock to raise the children. She also helped collect books and establish libraries throughout the state. Terry served on a committee that convinced the Legislature to create a state library program.
"In Little Rock, Terry was a trustee of the city's public library for about 40 years, retiring in 1966," Harris writes. "She recalled, in an interview a few years before her death, that she worked quietly to open the library to Black adults in the 1950s and then to Black children."
When Gov. Orval Faubus used the National Guard in 1957 to prevent nine Black students from entering Little Rock Central High School, Terry wrote: "For days, I walked about unable to concentrate on anything, except the fact that we had been disgraced by a group of poor whites and a portion of the lunatic fringe. ... Where had the better class been while this was being concocted? Shame on us."
Terry will be most remembered for joining forces with two friends--Velma Powell of Little Rock and Vivion Brewer of Scott--to form the Women's Emergency Committee after a ballot measure passed to close Little Rock high schools during the 1958-59 school year.
"They became the first organized group of white moderates to oppose the governor and demand the reopening of the city's public high schools," Harris writes. "In the months following its formation, WEC worked to persuade the public to reopen the schools."
Those schools did indeed reopen in 1959.
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.