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Arkansas is home to the first desegregated southern schools

Former Charleston students remember integrating in 1954—the first to do so in the south.

CHARLESTON, Arkansas — To learn about desegregation in the South, you don't even have to leave Arkansas.

"Little Rock always kind of was the fan favorite, and we're not taking anything away from them," said Etholia McCurry, a former student of Charleston Schools.

But Little Rock Central High wasn't the first school district in all of the South to desegregate. That distinction belongs to Charleston Schools.

"We were the first in Arkansas to integrate," said Myrtle Garrett, a former student.

Myrtle and Etholia are cousins who've experienced a lot together while breaking barriers. The two were in elementary school when they integrated.

"I was in the first grade," said McCurry.

"You were just a baby," Garret said. At the time, she was in the 3rd grade. 

Garret and McCurry were part of a small group that made a huge mark as they were among the first Black students to attend Charleston Schools. While the district became the first in the former confederacy to desegregate. 

At the time, the two said they had no idea they were making history.

"No, I don't think we knew, we were just going to school," said McCurry.

"In July of 1954, our school board voted to follow what we were supposed to do and what was right," Mary belle Ervin said.

She has kept track of Charleston's history for more than two decades.

She and her husband opened the Belle Museum, becoming the go-to for all things Charleston history.

"I guess because I'm the oldest one," Ervin said.

She witnessed the desegregation of Charleston Schools, two months after Brown vs Board of Education.

"We were doing what was morally the right thing and should've happened many long years before," Ervin said.

"It makes me so proud to be able to be the leader of the school who absolutely did the right thing at the right time," said current Charleston Superintendent Mellissa Moore. 

Moore is now leading a path to greatness at Charleston Schools. A path created by students like Garret, McCurry, and Moore's own dad, who was also in the first grade when the district integrated.

"I saw some courageous families that sent their children to integrate here," Moore said.

However, at the time, students like Myrtle and Edie did not see what they did as courageous, because they were just going to school.

"We didn't have a problem coming to Charleston schools because we knew that our parents always taught us that we were somebody," Garret said.

They were also already familiar with the kids they were now going to go to school with. So, there was little to no issue when they did integrate.

"They were members of this community before they became members of this school," Moore said.

When they did come to school, they were all in. Participating in extracurricular activities.

Although, they weren't always welcome at games and events in other districts, leading to exclusion.

McCurry recalls a time her band director made her stay on the bus while the other kids got out to march.

"It was more of a form of protection for us kids," McCurry said.

By 1961, the district had its first black graduates, Barbara Williams—Dotson and Joe Ferguson.


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