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Historical marker dedicated in Charleston to first Black woman to graduate from high school

Barbara Williams Dotson started the ninth grade at Charleston High School in August of 1954, making it one of the first schools to integrate in the South.

CHARLESTON, Ark. — Many people think Little Rock Central High School was the first school to de-segregate in the south, turns out, that’s not the case. It was actually the Charleston School District.

In August of 1954, 11 Black students went to Charleston schools. This came after the Charleston School Board voted unanimously the month before to integrate all grades. This vote was in response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling making segregation in public schools unconstitutional. 

“A lot of people thought it was Little Rock, but it was Charleston, Arkansas to be the first to integrate,” said Barbara Williams Dotson.

Dotson was the first African American woman to graduate from Charleston High School. She started school in the ninth grade in 1954 and got her diploma in 1961. 

“It makes me feel good and I’m thankful for that,” she said.

On Friday, May 20, the Arkansas Department of Heritage dedicated a historical marker to Dotson. It sits on the farm where she and her nine siblings grew up. Her niece Tamara Wesley says it took a lot of research to get this recognition. 

“In addition to reaching out with executive government who could finalize the story to validate the accomplishments of the Williams family and the other legacy individuals who came together so they could pursue education and have a great quality of life,” Wesley said.

A lot of that research was done through the Belle Museum by historian and former teacher Mary Belle Erving. She says it’s very important that everyone understands history. 

“This monument tells a lot of things that everyone needs to know, and I would encourage everyone who lives anywhere around, or they are out of state, people around here, they need to come out and see this marker,” Erving said.

A marker honoring the woman Wesley and many others consider a trailblazer.

“This family has made the opportunity for many cultures to have access to education and to establish their families and go on and have great careers," Wesley said. "So, it’s a root here which has created a blossoming foundation for many families."

This site at the former Charleston High School was the first in the nation to be designated as a national commemorative site thanks to legislation by Senator Dale Bumpers who was from Charleston.

The historical marker can be found on West Eucal Road in Charleston. 

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