Fifty years ago, a group of white women in Little Rock banded together to save public education in their city.
Their efforts will be remembered in a three-day series of events this weekend at the historic downtown home where the Women’s Emergency Committee began.
In September 1957, Gov. Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to keep nine teen-agers from desegregating Little Rock Central High School. Three weeks later, President Eisenhower upheld the Constitution and the nine children entered the school with an escort from the Army’s 101st Airborne.
Over the summer of 1958 both Governor Faubus and the Little Rock school district attempted different means to re-segregate Central High School. However, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the school district’s motion to delay desegregation until 1961, Faubus decided to close the city’s high schools rather than follow the court’s order to proceed with desegregation.
The governor’s actions exasperated a group of women who were ready to start fighting back. The day after the high schools closed, on Sept. 16, 1958, Little Rock matriarch and philanthropist Adolphine Fletcher Terry, 76, called a group of white women to her house to discuss options for fixing the education situation. In her invitation to what became known as the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools she said, “…we are calling together a group of women who are concerned about the matter of race relations to see if we can organize an agency through which our kind of people can express themselves… [i]t is high time for the moderates to be heard from.”
For Terry and many of the 48 women who gathered in the dining room of her antebellum home, the previous school year had been immensely frustrating. People they thought they knew and had associated with for years suddenly became eerily quiet and reluctant to talk about Central High School because segregationist rhetoric and successful economic boycotts had silenced them. But as Orval Faubus attempted to ruin another school year in Little Rock, these women were ready to come together to defeat the referendum on school closing. As Mrs. Terry said, “The men have failed; it’s time to call out the women.”
The first order of business for the newly-formed WEC was to generate support for the late September election to integrate the schools and keep them open. After much introspection and discussion, the WEC decided they could be more effective (and less controversial) if they remained an all-white organization dedicated to education, and not segregation or integration. While this decision was tactically necessary, it upset many African Americans but it kept the WEC out of trouble with the general population.
The WEC did not rally enough votes on Sept. 27 to open desegregated schools and the high schools remained closed all year. WEC members, however, continued their fight for public education. When a tumultuous school board meeting in the spring of 1959 ended with the segregationist board members firing school faculty and staff they believe supported desegregation, the WEC provided almost all of the administrative and tactical support to the successful STOP (Stop This Outrageous Purge) campaign to recall the segregationist school board members and replace them with moderates.
The WEC continued its work on educational issues until 1963, finally disbanding after inspiring the creation of other noteworthy organizations such as the Panel of American Women.
The work will be recalled Sept. 13-16 at the Terry House at Seventh and Rock, beginning with a symposium Saturday, “From Pedestal to Pillar to Power: Women as Forces of Change.” Reservations are required for the event, which will run from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The keynote speaker will be Lorraine Gates Schuyler, a Little Rock native, historian and author who’s written on the WEC. A panel will feature women working for change in Little Rock today. An open house and tours of the Terry House will be offered from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday.
For more information, call either of the co-chairs of the event — Cindy Pugh at. 663-3138 or Laura Miller at 396-000.