Hoxie schools' 1955 integration remembered as history-making


By Kenneth Heard

HOXIE -- They didn't realize when walking through the doors of Hoxie's schools 60 years ago Saturday that the students would become part the history of the South's integration.
Twenty-one students entered the school July 11, 1955, after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision on school integration. In the summer of 1954 in Arkansas, Charleston and Fayetteville both integrated schools quietly with little turmoil and no press coverage.
Hoxie's integration went differently.
Fayth Hill-Washington was a fourth-grade student when she first attended Hoxie Elementary School that July day and didn't have the perspective she has now. "I was just being obedient to my parents," said Hill, 68, of West Memphis. "They told me I needed to go.
"I was grown before I realized we made history."
For Ethel Tompkins, the first black student to graduate from the integrated school system, attending the new school after going to Hoxie Colored Elementary School was an adventure.
"We now had indoor bathrooms, water fountains, a library and the [classroom] seats weren't falling apart," said Tompkins, 71, of Hoxie.
About 200 gathered in the Hoxie High School gymnasium Saturday to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the schools' integration and to announce the intent to build a museum honoring the occasion. During the event, promoters showed a documentary about the schools and the current Hoxie School Board voted to support the 1955 board's unanimous decision to integrate.
Former students spoke of their experiences.
"Things that are worth doing aren't necessarily easy," said U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., during the celebration. "It wasn't easy for those parents to say, 'We're going to take our kids to a white school and leave them.'
"The right thing to do is the right thing to do always," he said.
At first, the integration went smoothly. Twenty-one of the 25 black students who were originally enrolled in the school district went to the formerly white-only schools. Four black students withdrew.
"We knew a lot of the students, anyway," Tompkins said. "It was a better environment to learn. There wasn't any animosity.
"At least at first."
But on July 25, 1955, just two weeks after the 21 black students went to their new schools, Life magazine featured an article about the integration. White supremacists from out of town, called "outsiders" by the locals, flocked to Hoxie to protest the move. They called for a boycott of the school.
Students saw angry opponents at the schoolyard. Hill-Washington remembers being yelled at and called names.
Others said people spit at them and threw rocks. Someone once fired a shot through a black family's house, barely missing two children inside.
Howard Vance, a member of the 1955 all-white Hoxie School Board, said in a 2004 interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that he received several threatening telephone calls after the board voted to integrate. Vance died in September 2005.
"I could feel the tension at home," Gene Vance, Howard Vance's son, said Saturday. Vance, 68, was 8 years old when his father served on the Hoxie School Board but attended an elementary school in nearby Sedgwick.
"I'm very proud of this," Vance said of his father's actions. "I always thought of him as an older man, well-seasoned. But he was only 40 years old when this happened. My thoughts have been on that decision lately and what the repercussions were.
"This actually set the tone for integration across the South," Vance said. "It wasn't the first school to integrate, but it was the first fight. Without Hoxie, there would never have been the Little Rock integration."
In 1957, federal troops were called to help integrate Little Rock Central High School as nine black students enrolled. Until then, black students couldn't attend Central High.
Howard Vance and the Hoxie School Board voted to close the schools in August 1955 while board members sought an injunction against those favoring segregation. The injunction was granted after the U.S. Department of Justice became involved, and on Oct. 14, 1955, the schools reopened.
Marlyn Tate, 71, of Hoxie, remembered when the black students showed up at his white school. He was a seventh-grader then and knew some of the students because they played together.
"There were no problems. We knew some of the kids already," he said. "Then the outsiders came and stirred things up."
He recalled being in a music class with one black student.
"He could really sing," Tate said of the student. "The rest of us, we'd start singing and get quieter and quieter so we could hear him sing."
Now, 60 years later, some of the students have returned. Hill-Washington began the Hill Foundation to help promote the group, called the "Hoxie 21" and its historical significance.
"This is our legacy," she said. "We can't let it be forgotten."
Tompkins joined the Navy after graduating in 1961 and lived in California for years before returning to Hoxie.
"This taught me to how to be in different situations," she said of the integration while speaking to the crowd Saturday. "My father taught me that I belong anywhere, anytime. I was not intimidated by different things.
"Thank you, Hoxie High School, for preparing me for life."
Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce director Fran Cavenaugh said Saturday that organizers want to build a replica of the old Hoxie Colored Elementary School and feature exhibits inside. The original school, which sat along U.S. 63, was torn down long ago.
"This is a national story that has to be told," she said.
State Desk on 07/12/2015
Print Headline: Hoxie schools' 1955 integration remembered as history-making



Greta Patterson's epic swim, July 1955


HIDDEN HISTORY: Greta Patterson's epic swim, July 1955 By Mark Graczyk mgraczyk@batavianews.com 

Greta Patterson's famous swim across Lake Erie on Independence Day 1955 is hardly ''hidden history'' to many Batavia residents.
But as we mark the 60th anniversary of the event, it seems an appropriate time to look back at one of the most remarkable individual athletic achievements in Western New York history.
*******
Swimming came naturally to Greta Patterson, the youngest daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Guy W. Patterson, who lived at 41 Ellicott St. in Batavia.
Greta began swimming at age 2 and by her teenage years worked as a lifeguard at the New York State School for the Blind. A strong, well-conditioned athlete, she began training for long-distance swimming in her early teens.
On July 5, 1954, at age 17, Greta swam the length of Lake Canandaigua, covering a distance of 15 miles in 10 hours.
She then set her sights on becoming the first person to swim across Lake Erie. The date was set for July 4, 1955.
Greta trained for her historic feat by swimming six miles a day and three times a week in the waters of Silver Lake under the tutelage of Lawrence Slocum of Attica.
On June 27, 1955, Greta graduated from Batavia High School and immediately began final preparations for the Lake Erie crossing.
The Batavia teenager's attempt drew widespread media attention throughout Western New York and around the country.
Adding to her appeal was Patterson's striking good looks, pleasant personality and photogenic smile.
At 6:35 a.m. on the morning of Monday, July 4, 1955, Patterson slipped into the cool waters of Lake Erie at the Buffalo Municipal Beach in Angola. About 30 spectators were on hand to see her off.
Her destination was Crystal Beach, Ontario, site of a popular amusement park and located some 15 miles away.
The Daily News chronicled Patterson's ordeal in its July 5 edition.
''Heavily greased to ward off cold, Greta donned green goggles and white bathing cap and entered the calm lake early in the morning,'' the newspaper reported. ''As she swam onward, the lake became rougher and waves reached as high as 2 1/2 feet.''
For the next 13 hours, the ''blonde mermaid'' swam about 25 feet behind a small motorboat piloted by Bill Zylinski and occupied by Slocum and his 20-year-old son Dale. A flotilla of other boats also accompanied the swimmer.
For the second half of her swim, the teenager battled rough waters and severe stomach cramps, subsisting on sugar cubes, soda pop and sips of maltose-flavored milk.
''Come on baby doll,'' Slocum and others shouted as Greta neared her destination.
Finally, shortly after 7:30 p.m., Patterson came into view of the Crystal Beach shoreline and she knew she had achieved her goal.
As the Batavia teen arrived at the Crystal Beach pier, she was greeted by her parents and other well-wishers and quickly whisked to the amusement park, where an estimated 18,000 people cheered her arrival. She also received a large trophy and a bouquet of flowers.
Patterson celebrated the occasion by flashing her infectious smile and later munching on a small piece of chicken.
''I thought I'd never make it, but I did,'' she told reporters. ''I feel right now that I don't want to see any more water for quite a while. I never wanted to quit, although there were times when I  thought I might have to. I'm so happy I was able to make it.''
Slocum estimated that Patterson used 14,094 strokes in her crossing and actually traveled 17 miles because of the winds and currents.
It was quite an athletic feat.
The following day, the teenager slept soundly until late morning and in the afternoon received a bouquet and official congratulations from Batavia Mayor Herman D. Gabriel in a City Hall ceremony.
The following month, Patterson was the honored guest at a ''Swimorama'' at Batavia Downs, a fundraising event featuring such nationally known entertainers as the Chordettes and Les Paul and Mary Ford.
The event helped raise money for a new municipal pool for Batavia. Eventually $80,000 was raised and the pool opened in the summer of 1962. It served Batavia for nearly 30 years, finally closing due to structural deterioration in 1991.
Late in the summer of 1955, Greta Patterson enrolled at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. She was also featured in an article in ‘‘Seventeen’’ magazine.
The following year, Patterson tried one more lake crossing.
In August 1956, Greta attempted to swim across Lake Ontario from Youngstown, N.Y., to Toronto. She made a valiant effort, but was pulled from the water after completing 17 1/2 miles of a 32-mile trip.
''Greta did not want to give up, but her trainer pointed out that the lake was becoming so rough that she faced exhaustion before reaching the Canadian shore,'' The Daily News reported.
The attempt was still an impressive achievement, as Patterson actually swam a longer distance than during her 1955 trek across Lake Erie.
After college, Patterson married and settled in southern California. She is now Mrs. Greta Patterson Hansen.
The former swimming star has made occasional trips to her hometown for reunions and other events. In 1997, she visited the city for dedication of the Batavia Youth Center in her honor.
Six decades have passed since Greta Patterson's amazing conquest of Lake Erie, but time cannot diminish the tremendous accomplishment of one of Batavia's favorite daughters.


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