The Hoxie 21: when integration came to Arkansas - KAIT Jonesboro, AR - Region 8 News, weather, sports

The Hoxie 21: when integration came to Arkansas

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - Many small towns in Region 8 may often be referred to as ‘'little hick towns.” But during the civil rights movement, Hoxie made history.

Before the ‘'Little Rock 9,'' came the ‘'Hoxie 21.”

In celebration of Black History Month, the ASU Museum hosted a guest speaker who was part of something much bigger than a small school in Lawrence County.

Even though Ethel Tompkins didn't realize it at the time, she made history 60 years ago.

“My father always told me that you are as good as the next person,” Tompkins said.  “You walk into a room with your head held high, your back straight and know that you belong.”

Sixty years ago, she took her father's advice. Tompkins was among 21 black students to be integrated into the Hoxie School District in 1955.

“None of us considered it a history making event, it was just something we were told to do,” Tompkins recalled.

She was only 12 at the time and doesn't remember it as a key moment in history that would spark progress in America. She remembers it as a chance to attend a better school with her friends and neighbors.

Tompkins said her first school wasn't fit for learning. “Our school, we had no playgrounds, the windows were broken out, it leaked, no indoor plumbing,” Tompkins said.

The integration at Hoxie started as positive. The Hoxie School Board's decision in 1955 meant Tompkins and black friends - later dubbed the “Hoxie 21”- would join their white peers in the classroom.  

Most importantly to Tompkins, it gave her access to a good library. “After I discovered they had national geographic magazines, that was it for me,” Tompkins said.

When LIFE Magazine came to town to cover Hoxie's integration, out-of-town and out-of-state segregationists tried to spark violence.

Tompkins said that was mostly in vain. “It's not easy to be violent to someone you know,” Tompkins said. “All of the white parents knew us.”

Although Tompkins tells her story through the eyes of a 12 year old, as she got older, she realized it was a part of history in Northeast Arkansas that needed to be shared.

So she does, any chance she gets, like on Tuesday night at the ASU Museum.

“Before Little Rock, there was us. There were the ones at Hoxie,” Tompkins told a small crowd at ASU. “Not to replace Little Rock, because they did a fantastic thing, but we deserve a place along with them.”

After leaving Hoxie, Tompkins joined the military and moved to California. 

She later moved back to Hoxie, where she has lived for years.

Her love of books landed her at the Lawrence County Library, where she worked as a reference librarian. For a list of other Black History Month events at ASU, click here.

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