About the Lost Year

School Closure

The "Lost Year" of 1958-59, is less known than the story that preceded it. But the Lost Year is a separate, equally significant historical episode.

During that year, Governor Orval Faubus closed all high schools in Little Rock, locking out 3,665 black and white students from a public education, and locking in almost 200 teachers and administrators to contracts to serve empty classrooms.

Students and citizens were held in limbo. The 10th, 11th and 12th grades were closed. Faubus' school closing occurred at the beginning of the 1958-59 school year. Several weeks later a referendum was held and Little Rock voters, by a three-to-one margin, supported segregation over complete integration of all schools—the only two options on the ballot.

Faubus and segregationist state legislators created new state laws to further forestall court ordered racial integration of schools decreed in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.

For the second time in two years, many in Arkansas tried to assert state's rights over the authority of federal courts and the power of President Eisenhower. During the Lost Year, Little Rock was further torn by racial conflict, societal disruptions, and political machinations.

Denying an education to all Little Rock high school youth profoundly affected thousands of families as the city ruptured into an even more divided community.

The Students

The students' stories are compelling. White students from Central High, Hall High, and Little Rock Technical High and black students from Horace Mann High scrambled to find an education.

Fifteen and sixteen year old children had no access to local public education for an entire year. Many were forced to leave the state. Some studied to enter college early. Others boarded busses daily to travel miles for classes in other cities. Parents and siblings coped with separations from their teenage students who moved in with relatives or with friends around the state. Students, themselves, coped with life-changing disruptions from friends, family, and classes.

It was a period unmatched in its peculiarities. Students had no schools to attend, but football continued at all campuses by suggestion of the Governor. The School District briefly experimented with live television teaching on local stations.

A Private School Corporation for whites attempted to rent public school buildings and hire public school teachers, but federal courts restrained their efforts.

Several private schools opened in alternative locations with alternative teachers and enrolled 44% of all the white high school students in Little Rock.

Predictably, class and race were factors in who found schooling and who did not. Ninety three per cent of white students found some form of education that year. White families were better able to find transportation, pay tuition, or make more elaborate arrangements for alternative schooling.

No private education emerged for blacks and fifty percent did no academic work that year. Many found jobs and hoped that schools would open, or joined the military to finish their education. Many of these students never returned to school.

Ironically, the remaining members of the Little Rock Nine, having suffered through the previous year at Central, were also affected. Some left the state for alternative schooling or enrolled in correspondence courses from universities.

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The Community

Beyond the students, the community was in chaos. The Little Rock School District Superintendent and members of the School Board changed three times in one calendar year through resignations, appointments, and elections.

State legislators expanded the troubles beyond Little Rock when they passed laws that targeted NAACP members and jeopardized the civil liberties of all teachers and professors.

State employees were intimidated with requirements to list all organizations to which they belonged or to whom they paid dues. For months, the ever changing political upheaval of the community was measured by rising tensions and falling morale in every home of students, parents and teachers.

A Turning Point

Opposing sides worked publicly and behind the scenes to jockey for control of their community. The Capital Citizens Council and the Mothers' League of Central High represented the segregationist groups.

Few public voices stood for the moderates, but Harry Ashmore, Editor of the Arkansas Gazette, and The Women's Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools were among the first to have the courage to speak out.

Finally in late spring a turning point came in the Lost Year crisis. At a session of the Little Rock School Board, which had gathered to consider renewing the teachers' contracts, three of the six member board walked out. These moderates considered this an end to the official business of the meeting, believing that no further action could be taken by the remaining segregationists.

However, the three remaining segregationists on the Board continued the session, and fired forty-four teachers and administrators who were believed to support racial integration. This purge served as a wake-up call to the city.

Moderates formed STOP (Stop This Outrageous Purge) to recall the segregationist school board members to try to regain control of their community and their public schools.

Segregationist opponents formed CROSS (Committee to Retain our Segregated Schools) and attempted to recall the moderates on the school board. In a twenty day campaign, the opposing sides battled for the hearts of the community.

People of Little Rock had to choose between keeping their beloved teachers and administrators, or bowing to the segregationists' purge. After a year of closed schools and the firing of teachers of both races, the voters of Little Rock narrowly recalled three segregationist School Board members, and the new Board opened schools early for the 1959-60 school year.

Lessons of the Lost Year

The disruptions of the Lost Year have had life-long consequences for former students and teachers, their families and the community of Little Rock. Their stories must be told.

The lessons of the Lost Year, often unknown or little regarded, have much to teach us about public education and a community spirit that challenged segregation. The views of displaced students on race and desegregation were shaped by these events and have become life-longs beliefs.

Perhaps most importantly, the Lost Year illuminates how the community took their schools back on an integrated basis and informs the world that all of Little Rock was not represented by screaming mobs of segregationists at Central High in 1957.

The Lost Year
In the documentary film The Lost Year, the recollections of students and teachers who lived through this tumultuous time are interspersed with narration explaining the history and politics of the year to bring this previously untold story to vivid life.
Sondra Gordy's Finding the Lost Year
Finding the Lost Year: What Happened When Little Rock Closed its Public Schools was published in 2009 and expands the topic of this website and the documentary film. Written by historian Dr Sondra Gordy, this oral history extensively details events from May 1958 through August 1959 through the perspective of displaced students and teachers.
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