The Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock

Fort Smith girls' school was integrated in 1952

Letter to the Editor

Published: September 29, 2007   

I commend you on the excellent article "50 years after crisis, Church reflects on silence" in your Sept. 22 issue (of Arkansas Catholic).

For the sake of the record though, there was at least one bright spot on the Catholic racial scene in the diocese even before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. It was the integration in the fall of 1952 of St. Scholastica Academy in Fort Smith, a four-year high school for girls, both boarders and day students.

Benedictine sisters of St. Scholastica Monastery had taught at the all-black elementary school of St. John's in Fort Smith since 1927 and had become aware of the frustration and sense of futility so many of their students experienced because of racial discrimination. At their Jan. 7, 1951, meeting, the faculty of St. Scholastica Academy discussed at length the question of admitting graduates from St. John's into the academy the following school term and decided to do so. Mother Jane Frances Brockman, prioress, and Sister Germaine Rachaner, principal, contacted Bishop Fletcher about this decision.

Because he wanted to consult his lawyer about state law, he did not give his consent until the summer of 1952. He specified the sisters could admit only girls from St. John's and said they should do so quietly without publicity, which was the procedure the faculty had intended to follow.

Two black girls, Shirley Williams and Helen Weaver, registered on Sept. 9, 1952, and were admitted. A small but steady stream of graduates of St. John's continued to be enrolled thereafter.

Some of the local people were opposed and a few were quite angry, but the integration took place smoothly. To my knowledge, St. Scholastica Academy was the first school in Arkansas to integrate in the mid-century civil rights movement.

The faculty of St. Scholastica Academy had long recognized their responsibility of giving their students a religious education that was not only intellectual knowledge of the truths of their faith but a way of life. This included an appreciation of the Church's worship and its social doctrine. Several of the faculty were actively involved in the Catholic Interracial Council and/or the NAACP.

In religion classes they studied the encyclicals, notably "The Sacred Liturgy" (Mediator Dei) and "The Mystical Body of Christ" (Mystici Corporis Christi), both by Pope Pius XII. Under the leadership of Sister Benedict Marie Borgerding, a faculty member, students who wished met weekly for several years in groups of 12 to 15 to study Scripture, especially the New Testament, with a view of letting it shape their lives.

A very active interracial committee of the Blessed Virgin Sodality worked actively to free themselves and the student body from prejudice by reading, holding discussions and presenting forums on the issue at the school's general assemblies.

Despite their firm conviction of the rightness of what they were doing, and their confidence in the readiness of the student body for integration, the sisters were not without apprehension, well aware of the possible consequences of the step they were taking. On the eve of the registration, Mother Jane Frances asked the bishop's prayer. In all probability, God was being bombarded with prayer from all involved. The smooth integration showed that once again God came through.

-- Sister Louise Sharum, OSB, New Blaine

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