The Hoxie School Board had a historic decision to make.

The Hoxie School Board had a historic decision to make.

A year before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that schools would have to integrate, and the decision was met with staunch opposition in the south. Two other Arkansas's school districts, Fayetteville and Charleston, had already voted to integrate their schools.

But neither did it publicly. Local media were asked not to cover the events, and outside media were not allowed in those towns. Hoxie's Superintendent Howard Vance met with the his school board June 25, 1955.

The board voted unanimously to integrate the school, the first to do so publicly. The rationale was simple. It would save the school district money because it wouldn't have to operate separate schools, it complied with the new federal law and it was right in the eyes of God.

A month later 21 black students peacefully entered the previously white only Hoxie schools, The Jonesboro Sun reported ( ).

"It's a big piece of American history," Hoxie 21 member Fayth Hill Washington said. "When this happened it was like a dream coming true."

Washington and other Hoxie 21 members spoke recently to students at Black River Technical College.

For many in the black and white community it quickly turned into a nightmare. Life Magazine published an article shortly after the integration.

Segregationists descended on the small Lawrence County town. Hate-filled public rallies were held and school board members were threatened.

Board members were pressured to resign and several lost re-election bids. One board member, Howard Vance, was physically assaulted during a meeting, his son, Gene Vance said. The assailant's penalty?

"He got fined $1," Gene Vance said.

Threats were made toward the African-American community, too.

A picture of Emmett Till, a black teen who was brutally murdered in Mississippi was sent to one family. The caption underneath read, "This could be your son," Hoxie 21 member Ethel Tompkins said.

Washington's father lost his job and threats were made against his family, too, she said. Their phone lines were tapped and the hate mail was never ending, she said.

Eventually the school district sought an injunction in federal court to stop the threats and violence.

A federal judge agreed and on Feb. 23, 1956, the U.S. Justice Department entered the dispute and supported the integrationists. It was the first such move by the department since the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, Tompkins said.

The Hoxie case paved the way for future civil rights litigation in the 1960s and beyond, she said. It's been cited in more than 40 other federal court decisions, she added.

Washington remembers the night when she learned she would no longer attend the school for black children located near Hoxie on U.S. 63. The dank, one-room schoolhouse had rotted wooden floors, and there was an open sewage line in the yard, she said.

When it rained the little school house flooded. The text books were outdated, crumbling relics, Washington said. Despite these contingencies, teacher Charlene Trotter did her best to educate students through the eighth grade. High school students had to be bused to other communities.

School members contacted black families in the area and told them about the decision before it hit the newspapers, she said. White students were friendly for the most part, but entering the school was like entering a different world, Washington said.

The fury eventually subsided, and the 21 students got to the business of going to school. Jim Barksdale, the son of one of the Hoxie 21, attended Hoxie Schools from pre-school on. He graduated in 1979.

At the time he was the only black student at the school, he said. But he was accepted by the other students and didn't have to struggle like the others did, he said.

Washington and others hope to erect a monument to honor the Hoxie 21 at the school, she said. Although PBS did a documentary about the Hoxie integration several years ago, many don't associate it with the more famous events of the civil rights era.

She hopes that will change.

"I'm proud of our history," she said.