Columns » Ernest Dumas

Women’s work



It could have been only the sunlit brilliance of the days or the unusually careful tidying of the building and grounds for the occasion, but the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House on East Seventh Street seemed almost ebullient last week as if, given the privilege of speech, it would have an important point to make for our time.

Last week, Sept. 16 to be exact, marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Women's Emergency Committee to Save Our Schools in the parlor of the old mansion, built in 1840 in the Greek Revival style so popular with Southern grandees of the period.

About a hundred people or so, nearly all women, passed through the white columns on Saturday or Tuesday for short commemorations, some on walkers or in wheelchairs to summon again the feelings that impelled them to take the greatest risks of their lives; daughters, sons and grandchildren to see and photograph the names, etched into the sunroom windows, of the women who gathered there that day in 1958 to save the schools and, as it would turn out, the city, the state and perhaps the South, and a few others to take new inspiration from their story.

Gov. Orval E. Faubus, riding the crest of popularity for trying to thwart integration of Little Rock schools a year earlier, was closing all the city's high schools to prevent black children from attending classes with white kids, and few had dared to raise a voice in protest. Men lose their senses in herds, someone said, and regain them slowly, one by one. But, ah, not so much the women.

Adolphine Terry, who was 75 and had dwelled in the old house almost since birth, went to see Harry Ashmore, the executive editor of the Arkansas Gazette, a few days before the 16th and told him, by his account, “The men have failed. It's time to call out the women.” And she did.

Fifty-eight women gathered in Terry's living room on the 16th under a stern portrait of her father in his Confederate epaulets. At the second meeting there a week later, the members had swelled to 170, though the number included a plant or two from the segregationists.

The women set up phone trees and a voter identification system unlike anything seen in Arkansas, and they went to work on the men, the cowed business and civic leaders. The women failed in the election that Faubus had called for a few days later on whether people favored integration or segregation, his ruse for closing the schools, but eight months later in a bigger election they would oust segregationist school board members who had purged “integrationist” teachers from the schools, and elect men committed to opening the schools and integrating them as the law required. The front page of the New York Post the next morning read only “FAUBUS LOSES” in boxcar letters, and the war was over.

During that period, the women were threatened, state troopers trailed them and tapped their telephones, and the city fathers repeatedly sent policemen to their doors demanding their membership rolls. Mayor Stodola came to the second assembly last week with letters he had exhumed from the City Hall basement written by city director Letcher Langford demanding the information from the WEC on pain of arrest. A state law, one of the infamous laws put through by Attorney General Bruce Bennett to torment the NAACP and any group suspected of racial tolerance, gave him that authority.

The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld that and every other unconstitutional act passed during that frightful era, requiring loyalty oaths of teachers, giving the governor dictatorial power over education, turning public schools and taxes over to the operators of a private segregated school. Arkansas judges, men every one, never broke rank. The federal courts tossed the laws out.

Stodola read the elegant and slightly saucy replies to Letcher from Vivion Brewer, the WEC chairwoman, the last letter notifying him of the existence of the U. S. postal service, which could transmit future futile requests under the Bennett law so that the city's finest could be out fighting crime.

Terry patterned the WEC after the Association of Southern Women to Prevent Lynching, a coalition of churchwomen in the 1930s of which she was a leader and that had led the way in halting lynching.

She may have taken inspiration, too, from the walls of the old house, where as a child she sometimes saw the reputed ghost of its original dweller, the unhappy, star-crossed wife of Albert Pike, Confederate general, poet, freemason, lawyer and aristocratic weirdo. While Pike was off leading Indian scalpings of Yankee soldiers and the like, Mary Hamilton Pike tried to raise his six children, only to see them die one by one. It was said that when Gen. Pike sent word that he would be bringing some of his Confederate bigwigs home for “a light supper” that he expected her to prepare, she planted candles on the dining table and retired for the night.

Both being classically educated — Terry at Vassar — Mary and Adolphine may have found a lesson in uppityness in Lysistrata, the heroine of the Aristophanes play. She rallies women from Corinth and Sparta to take an oath, over wine imbibed from a phallic-shaped urn, to withhold sex from their husbands until they end the Peloponnesian War.

The spirit of the WEC, Mary Pike and Lysistrata seems to be moving in the land again and may save us yet. The polls show that men, particularly in the South, have loved the misbegotten war, George W. Bush, the abrogation of the Bill of Rights and John McCain.

But the women, not so much.

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