While Central High’s Little Rock Nine are remembered for their courage in 1957, the tiny northeast Arkansas town of Hoxie was first in the nation, peacefully integrating two years earlier. A ceremony over the weekend marked the 60th anniversary.
On July 11, 1955, 21 students left the colored school in Hoxie and went to the Hoxie Schools, two years before the Little Rock Nine entered Little Rock Central High School.
Ethel Tompkins is a member of the class of the Hoxie 21 and remembers that day and says the differences in the schools were stark.
“Our school was run down. The windows were broken, the roof leaked, no indoor plumbing, no playground, things like that. So, to go to the Hoxie schools was like going to New York City. There were water fountains in the hallway, indoor bathrooms, beautiful library…to me it was beautiful. I looked forward to getting a better education.”
Melina Lacefield-Smith was attending the Hoxie Schools and was in elementary school on that day. She says there were no problems when the Hoxie 21 entered the schools:
“We didn’t have any problems when they came into the school. We lived in the same community. We played together, we rode bicycles together. They were my friends then and they are still my friends today.”
The Hoxie School Board decided to voluntarily abide by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision regarding school integration.
Hoxie Superintendent Howard Vance and the school board at that time said they would integrate the schools because “it was right in the sight of God,” it complied with the Supreme Court ruling, and it would save money for the system.
While there were no initial problems with integration, white supremacist outsiders came to Hoxie two weeks later and start protesting the decision. The protestors would stay in Hoxie for several weeks.
In February of 1956, the Arkansas Supreme Court and the Federal Justice Department upheld the Hoxie School Board’s decision to allow integration, which would set the stage for future school integrations, such as the 1957 integration of the Little Rock Nine into Little Rock Central High School.
Hoxie 21 member Ethel Tompkins says this story is important to tell.
“If you ask anyone other than Hoxie and Walnut Ridge about school integration, they will say the Little Rock Nine. That is still in everyone’s mind. We don’t want to replace them, we just want our place beside them.”
Fran Cavenaugh is the president of the Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce.
“It is now the time for the Hoxie 21 to get its rightful place in America. When you hear Hoxie 21, it was a courageous move by the community to integrate which set the standard for America. We can’t let this story die.”
Cavenaugh told the 200 people in attendance on Saturday there are plans to rebuild the colored school in Hoxie and to make it a national museum for American Civil Rights.
That announcement also received approval and a proclamation from the current Hoxie School Board, Hoxie Mayor Lanny Tinker, U.S. Senator John Boozman, and U.S. Representative Rick Crawford.
Listen to the full story from KASU at this link.