by Max Brantley
The StoryCorps, National Public Radio's huge oral history project, features a story from Arkansas today. A black minister, Rev. James Seawood, remembers the 1950s in Sheridan, when, facing school integration, the town's major employer began forcing black families to move away.
UPDATE: An addition to the record on Sheridan, with some facts at variance with some of the Rev. Seawood's recollection.
I have no interest in defending this town's racial history, only to say that it is much more complicated and much more interesting than Rev. Seawood remembers. (I was on the other side of those lumber stacks then, looking back at him.)
The godawful schoolhouse he attended was in fact torn down to deprive the racists here of an excuse to continue sending the community's black children there instead of to the much better white school nearby. It was part of a bold effort by a white superintendent to force Sheridan into becoming the first community in Arkansas, perhaps the first in the South, to integrate its public schools, less than a year after the Supreme Court's Brown decision. He wanted to integrate the schools only because he knew that the situation as it existed was monumentally unfair to the black children, who were also under his supervision. He didn't succeed -- angry white community leaders foiled him with ponderable threats of violence, and by ingeniously enlisting the help of the lumber company, the town's main employer, to begin moving Sheridan's black families, houses and all, onto company property lying just outside the school district. And with the black school having been razed, an interim plan provided to have the black students bussed daily to a black school near Pine Bluff until the evacuation of the black families from Sheridan was finished.
I don't know where Rev. Seawood got the idea that Sheridan is "still today" an all-white community. We don't have a large black population, but I'd guess it's in the same range as the nearby communities of Malvern, Benton, Fordyce, Redfield; and from observing it daily just down the street from me, I see a pretty impressive racial diversity in the school population. The town once deserved the sundown reputation that Rev.Seawood ascribes to it. It doesn't anymore.