They were told to keep it quiet, and they did.
Two years before the Supreme Court made integration the law of the land and five years before Central High exploded across the national news — in fact, before any other school in the state, as far as they know — the nuns of Fort Smith's St. Scholastica monastery invited a couple of girls who'd recently graduated from an all-black Catholic grammar school to enroll in their previously all-white girls high school.
At the time, the nuns honored the request of the bishop when he gave them permission to admit the black students, and didn't speak publicly about it. Now, though, the Fort Smith Historical Society is making sure future generations will be able to hear the story of St. Scholastica from the women who were there. Society members are interviewing the surviving nuns from that era — now mostly in their 80s and 90s — and preserving the interviews on DVD.
The project grew out of a similar effort to videotape interviews with local World War II veterans, said Joe Wasson, a historical society member who's interviewed several of the nuns.
St. Scholastica's new director of communications, Maryanne Meyerriecks, “got the bright idea that if World War II vets were valuable, perhaps 100-year-old nuns would also be valuable,” Wasson said. “Of course we were delighted.”
Even after all these years, Wasson said, the sisters were at first hesitant to talk on the record about their experiences.
“There was not everybody jumping up and down going ‘Yay, some strange guy's going to come out here with a camera,' ” he said. “They've lived a very quiet life out of the public eye. But they are warming up now that they see nobody has died from the experience.”
The integration of St. Scholastica didn't happen on someone else's orders: The sisters simply decided, after a long process of studying and talking about social justice issues, that it was the right thing to do. Several of them had taught at St. John, the Fort Smith Catholic grammar school that served black students, and had seen first-hand the despair those students felt when they realized they couldn't continue their educations at a Catholic school because of their race.
(Catholic schools in Little Rock didn't start integrating until the mid-1960s, after all-black St. Bartholemew's High School closed.)
The nuns discussed it at length among themselves, and with St. Scholastica's white students and their parents. If there was much resistance within that community, the nuns from that time who are still living don't remember it.
Finally, in the summer of 1952, the bishop gave the nuns permission to admit black students. Two girls — Helen Weavers, a freshman, and Shirley Williams, a sophomore — enrolled that fall. Williams was elected class treasurer, and went on to become a doctor.
“Everybody said we were going to lose students,” said Sister Norbert Hoelting, 94, who was a teacher at St. Scholastica then and still lives in the monastery. “We didn't lose a student, not one.” (Our efforts to locate the women who integrated the school have been unsuccessful.)
Among the six nuns Wasson has interviewed so far is Sister Consuella Bauer, an elf-sized 92-year-old he describes as “my favorite human being on Earth.” Meeting her today, bent and dependent on a walker, it's hard to imagine Sister Consuella doing something as audacious as informing the bishop, a decade after St. Scholastica began teaching black girls, that she would no longer abide by his dictate — born out of concerns about interracial dating — that the girls not be allowed to attend the school's prom, even though they helped decorate the gym beforehand.
Tiny as she is, though, it's also hard to imagine anyone saying no to her.
Her memories of those days can be a little cloudy, but when she talks about them her voice is precise and her words are unflinching.
“I thought it must be very hard for the black students to be good enough to be part of the work but not civilized enough to be part of the entertainment,” Sister Consuella said of the prom issue. Then the principal of St. Scholastica, she wrote the bishop a letter telling him her plans — and mailed it late enough that he wouldn't have time to intervene. She never heard back from him about it, and from then on, the school's dances were desegregated too.
There were other worries, too: How to break down the social taboos that kept the white girls from inviting the black students to socialize at their homes (eventually, girls on the social activities committee made the bold move). How white parents would react about a black boarding student (there was only one, Sister Consuella said, and nothing happened). There was the time the ticket agent at the “white” counter at the Fort Smith train station refused to sell Sister Consuella — who in those days wore a full ankle-length habit and head covering — a ticket for a black student, telling her she'd have to buy it at the “black” counter. (“That tore me up,” she said. “I was embarrassed and ashamed that we'd treat our young people that way.”) And the time when Sister Consuella and other members of a Catholic interracial council were overtly ignored when they sat down together at a local restaurant. (When they finally got up to leave, Sister Consuella said with a giggle, they made as awful a racket as they could scraping their chair legs on the floor.)
Other than the occasional comment from a city bus driver when he'd let the girls off at the school, though, there was never any fallout from simply opening St. Scholastica's doors to black students, Sister Norbert said.
“I guess you always kept hoping the other shoe wouldn't drop,” she said. “We went through the first two coming in, and nothing happened.”
After the first two, there were others: Carmelita Gilliard, Areletha Miller, Sandra Edwards, more whose names the sisters can't recall now without looking them up.
And the students of St. Scholastica continued to be active in racial justice issues. In 1968, the year the school was to close for good, students joined in a protest with students from Fort Smith's other Catholic high school, the co-ed (and by then integrated) St. Anne's, against the bishop's official prohibition of interracial dating.
Part of a letter Sister Consuella wrote the bishop in support of the students is preserved in an official history of St. Scholastica:
“I feel in conscience bound to tell you how I really and truly feel about this,” she wrote. “I think the time has come, in fact is long past already, when the matter of who dates whom can no longer be legislated. I think those who protest have a just grievance.”