When I was graduated at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville in 1951, the city’s population was 17,071. Today it’s 67,158 and growing. The university had about 5,000 students when I was a freshman, and today there are almost 18,000 in the college.
Because my wife and I worked on the college newspaper, the Arkansas Traveler, we went there last week as the university was honoring the paper that was started exactly 100 years ago this month. At first the paper was called the University Weekly, but it was when Walt Lemke came to teach journalism in 1921 that the paper took the name of the Arkansas Traveler.
G. David Gearhart, vice chancellor of the university, was the major speaker at the reunion. He was ideal for it because for years his grandfather and father ran Fayetteville’s daily newspaper, the Northwest Arkansas Times, which years ago was owned by Senator J. W. Fulbright. As a youngster going to school, Gearhart did a lot of concierge work at the newspaper.
During the Vietnam War he was paid to answer the newspaper’s phones after working hours. Senator Fulbright was in the office of Gearhart’s father one night, and a woman called saying that she was at the White House and needed quickly to talk to the senator. Gearhart said, “Thinking it was my girlfriend (later his wife), I said, ‘Yeah, sure, and I’m Snow White.’ ” Finally, the woman convinced him, and he said he would put the call through. But accidentally, he switched the woman to the phone in the press room, where the workers told her there was nobody there named Fulbright.
“For years,” Gearhart said, “I have worried that my incompetence may have prolonged the Vietnam War.” Anyway, Gearhart said his dad advised him not to be a newspaperman because pay is low. Gearhart got a lot of laughs when he said, “So what did I do but go into education.”
About 60 former Traveler staffers came from all over the country to spend two days at their alma mater and the town. Those coming by air arrived at a new modern airport just a few miles from Fayetteville. Those used to driving to Fayetteville from Alma now find a new interstate highway that cuts the trip at least an hour and furnishes beautiful scenery, avoiding that old, twisting, two-lane road we used to have to travel.
Last week many of us visitors went in every direction to reminisce. We saw apartments and condominiums under construction all over the town. Just north of the city there are shopping malls bigger than any in Little Rock.
Downtown there are some empty stores. But the old county courthouse is being remodeled and an office building and one old hotel are being turned into offices. The most outstanding new building downtown is Fayetteville’s Town Center, a large beautiful building with a porch that visitors can use for a beautiful sight of the Ozark Mountains. The building’s rooms are huge in order to accommodate entertainers, speakers and conventions.
Fayetteville’s town square is interesting, especially on Saturday when dozens of people come to sell produce, crafts and plants and there are musicians who play all kinds of music hoping you will drop a dollar or two in a hat. There were at least a thousand people moving about the square when we were there.
But there seemed to be something wrong. I saw only one black person in the hour I spent at the town square.
The census tells us that there are 418,260 black citizens in Arkansas — 15 percent of the state’s population. Fayetteville now has 67,158 people — only 3,787 are black, just 5.6 percent of the population.
When I saw those figures it took me back to 1948 at the UA. I was living in a fraternity house that had a black man working in the kitchen, and once he told me that he was from one of the nine black families that were in Fayetteville. It startled me because I had grown up in North Little Rock. It had, and still has, a lot of black residents.
Later that year, I took a Arkansas Traveler picture that was sent around the country by the Associated Press showing a brave young black man named Silas Hunt who was admitted to the UA law school. Then the Traveler reported that he was the first black to be enrolled in the university. However, last week Jeff Winkler, writing for the Traveler, came out with a Page 1 story that said that the real first black student at the UA was Geoff Jensen, who enrolled in 1872.
We know that today’s higher price of admission is keeping some people out of the university. But when I asked a couple of prominent people why there were so few black people in Fayetteville and the university, the answer was that they didn’t want to come to Fayetteville because there weren’t many other blacks and no restaurants or entertainment places where they could get together.
I can’t but believe that there have to be other reasons.