Student Of Desegregation

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It’s been fifty years since schools in America were legally forced to desegregate. Tiny Charleston, Arkansas was the first system in the South to implement the law. Eleven black students came the first day, to join 480 white students. Sylvia Bell was one of them, and she realized it was an important first step.  Hilly Hicks shares her story.

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(Locator:  Charleston, Arkansas)

The Rev. Sylvia Bell: “Deliver them from the hand of the wicked. Amen.”

There was a time not too long ago when an African-American woman would never have imagined leading an all-white church.  But, United Methodist minister Sylvia Bell is a product of Charleston, Arkansas - a small town that took a big step by being the first school system in the South to end segregation.

(News reel footage)  “We shall overcome…”

Before picket signs and shoe leather became tools of the American civil rights movement, integration was quietly happening in Charleston, Arkansas.

The Rev. Sylvia Bell:  “Desegregation took place in Charleston in '54.

Riding the bus wasn't the big deal…it was stepping off the bus.” 

Once, Sylvia got off the bus and gave chase to a little boy who called her a name – when a school official grabbed her.

The Rev. Sylvia Bell: “’What do you think you're doing?’ she asked, and I said ‘I'm chasing him because he called me a nigger,’ and she said, ‘That's what you are.’”

But many in the community strived to be color-blind and integration soon spread to the local Methodist church…which invited the African-American families to worship with them.

The Rev. Sylvia Bell: “Sometimes others can step in and erase what someone else has done.”

Bell at church door: “See you next week for Sunday school. Have a good week.”

Parishioner:  “I will. You, too.”


Prior to desegregation, the school for black students in Charleston had been a small wood-frame building that did not have indoor plumbing. A single teacher taught students in grades one through eight.  After 8th grade, students had to attend Lincoln School in Fort Smith, a round-trip of nearly 50 miles, to get a high school diploma.