70 Years Ago, Little Rock Teacher Pay Suit A Major Civil Rights Advance

Jun 19, 2015

 70 years ago, a federal appeals court in St. Louis ruled that African American teachers in the Little Rock School District should receive pay equal to that of their white counterparts. The case left a lasting impact on black activism in the city.

In 1943 the Little Rock Classroom Teachers Association (CTA), with the help of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and attorney Thurgood Marshall, brought a class action lawsuit against the school district on behalf of 86 black teachers. The case was filed in the courtroom of District Judge Thomas C. Trimble.

Sue Cowan Williams
Credit UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture

The CTA had recently formed a salary adjustment committee. They found that on average, black elementary school teachers received average annual salaries of 331 dollars, compared to 526 dollars earned by white teachers. Black high school teachers earned average salaries of 567 dollars compared to 856 dollars earned by whites.

“We felt that our teachers and principal deserved equal pay because they had equal credentials to the white teachers and principals,” says Faustine Jones-Wilson, who attended Paul Laurence Dunbar High School at the time of the trial and graduated in 1945. “In fact sometimes, our people had more advanced degrees and more experience and still made lower salaries,” she says.

While a student, Jones-Wilson says the grown-ups often did not discuss the lawsuit with the younger generation, but she and her peers understood that inequities persisted throughout the education system.

“We got the hand-me-down books from the white school. Now, we did resent that. I remember that so clearly. Why should we get the hand-me-down books when our parents...paid taxes just like everybody else?”

University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor and Arkansas Civil Rights historian John Kirk says the case for equal pay followed several other similar suits filed by the NAACP around the country, intending to chip away at the notion of “separate but equal.”

“What's specific about the Little Rock case and what makes it interesting and important in terms of the NAACP's wider campaign, is that in Little Rock, they introduced a so-called merit rating sheet,” he says.

Kirk says the school district used the long list of criteria on the rating sheet as a means to to determine salaries.

Paul Laurence Dunbar High School
Credit UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture

“And it just so happens that African American teachers turn[ed] out on this independent criteria to be worse than white teachers.”

In order to prove the teacher rating system was discriminatory, Marshall and the other attorneys chose as their lead plaintiff the chair of the English Department at Dunbar High School, 31-year old Sue Cowan Morris.

In a 1993 interview conducted by Kirk a year before her death, Morris, described her experience at some of the top higher ed institutions open to her as a student. “Everything I had done was from an accredited school,” she said.

Morris had completed academic programs at Talladega College in Alabama, Spelman College in Atlanta and a graduate program in English instruction at the University of Chicago. With credentials exceeding those of many white teachers, along with her respected approach in the classroom, the legal team considered Morris the best candidate to prove that discrimination existed.

“I didn't think we'd win right off, but eventually I thought maybe we'd win. And as some people...decided that I would become the test-case...I knew that I was going to be fired,” she said.

Morris and the other black teachers did not initially win their case in Judge Trimble's court and the Little Rock School District did not renew Morris's contract the following year. Neither did they renew contracts for John Lewis, the principal of Dunbar High or Dunbar teacher and head of the Classroom Teachers Association, John Gipson.

But a couple years after the lawsuit was first filed, on June 19th, 1945, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Judge Trimble's ruling, clearing the way for pay equity in the LRSD. Despite this, Sue Cowan Morris did not immediately regain employment in the district. She did stints at Arkansas AM&N College in Pine Bluff (now UAPB), a Jacksonville munitions factory and later at Arkansas Baptist College.

Morris eventually returned to her old school, after Dunbar's new principal Dr. LeRoy Christophe petitioned the school district every year for her reinstatement. She recalled a conversation with then-Superintendent Harry Little about her rehiring.

“[Little] called me and said, have you learned your lesson? And Mr. Christophe was very upset over that question. He said he didn't know how I was going to answer. And I said yes”

Morris, who remarried later in life and became Sue Cowan-Williams, said she hated to tell the superintendent she was sorry. But the case did leave lasting impressions on the African American community. Treopia Washington's mother Lothaire Green and aunt, Treopia Scott Gravelly were teachers involved in the class action suit. Washington her family called them the “Steel Magnolias” for their quiet resilience.

“I think it's important to realize that during that time and certainly prior to the Little Rock Central High School incident, outward activism was just something that was not even in the minds of people,” she says.

A Letter sent by the Little Rock School District to Cowan Williams upon her retirement.
Credit UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture

Even though the more outspoken civil rights activism of the 1960's was a long way off, Washington says the case required a bravery which eventually extended down a generation to her younger brother, Ernest Green, one of nine black students to integrate Central High School in 1957.

Historian John Kirk says the case also catalyzed the NAACP's work in the state, which before had little influence in Arkansas, a result of strained relations between the local community and the national office.

“But the teacher salary suit really changed that. It got Thurgood Marshall into the city. It got the NAACP connected to local people here in Little Rock. And very soon after an Arkansas state conference of branches was founded in 1945.”

Ten years later, Marshall and the NAACP would go on to win the Supreme Court Case Brown v. Board of Education. Treopia Washington credits the teacher salary suit as contributing a step in that direction.

“The more I think about it, I think people like my mother and aunt and the other teachers who were involved in that, really, really were the heroes [and] heroines of society.”

Today, a public library adjacent to the former Dunbar High School—now a junior high—bears Sue Cowan Williams' name.