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This Black History Month, we continue to pay tribute to the innumerable African-American men and women who have blazed trails and left an indelible mark on American history, because black history is American history. We’re featuring just a few of the firsts by some incredible Arkansans. You can find more black history firsts by visiting the online home of the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame and The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, a project of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System (CALS) in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Samuel P. Massie, who graduated second in his class from Dunbar High School at age 13, was a groundbreaking researcher in the field of chemistry. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Massie the first African-American professor at the US Naval Academy. During his tenure, he also led the establishment of the Naval Academy’s black studies program. Massie is known for his integral role in the research and development of medicines used in the treatment of mental illness, malaria, meningitis, gonorrhea, herpes and cancer.
Charlotte Andrews Stephens was a native of Little Rock, Arkansas. This legendary educator was the first African American to teach in the Little Rock School District, and the first African American to receive accreditation from the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools Higher Learning Commission. Across her 70-year career in education, she impacted thousands of students and received numerous awards and accolades, including the naming of Little Rock’s Stephens Elementary in her honor.
Fun Fact: First Security Bank is an educational partner with Stephens Elementary, where students learn the basic principles of banking and financial literacy through our in-school banking center.
Ena Hartman began blazing trails for female African-American actors in the 1960s. She was the first African-American female actor to have a programming contract with a major television network and also the first African-American woman to sign a contract with NBC. The Jefferson County native became a consistent figure in roles across a variety of popular television programming, including “Bonanza” (1964), “Profiles in Courage” (1965) and “Our Man Flint” (1966).
Lauren Gerson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Ernest Green is a legendary figure of the Civil Rights Movement who made history as the first African-American to graduate from Little Rock Central High. He was a part of the Little Rock Nine, the nine African-American students whose desegregation of the high school made national headlines in 1957. Green went on to graduate from Michigan State University and had a successful career that included an appointment as Assistant Secretary of Labor during the Jimmy Carter administration. In 1999, Green was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, which Congress awards as the highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions.
Plaza Theater Photo licensed Creative Commons
Eliza Ann Ross Miller was a successful businesswoman and educator who was the first woman to own and operate a movie theater in Arkansas. The Arkadelphia native worked alongside her husband in managing and growing their businesses from 1887 until his death in 1913. Following his death, she continued to grow the family’s business interests. By 1917 had she built and opened the Plaza Theatre in downtown Helena to entertain local audiences. She was involved in operating the theatre until her death in 1938.
Johns Hanks Alexander was a renowned military figure hailing from Helena. Born fourth of seven children, the gifted scholar graduated from the U. S. Military Academy at West Point–the second African American to do so. He went on to become the first African-American officer in the US Armed Forces to hold a regular command post. He also served as the first African American justice of the peace in Arkansas.
In 1948, six courageous men led the integration of the University of Arkansas through its Law School, as the school became the first major public university in the South to voluntarily admit an African American student without a lawsuit. Silas Hunt was the first of “Six Pioneers” who desegregated the university. His brave act encouraged the enrollment of Wiley Branton, George Haley, George Howard, (who later became the first African American appointed to the Arkansas Supreme Court), Christopher C. Mercer, and Jackie Shropshire.
Courtesy Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville
C.C Mercer’s legacy is one full of firsts. After graduating from Arkansas AM&N College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) in 1946, he entered the University of Arkansas School of Law as a part of the ‘Six Pioneers’ who integrated the university. After passing the bar, his legal career included work with the Arkansas Council on Human Relations, field secretary for the NAACP, and an “aide-de-camp” to Daisy Bates during the Central High Desegregation Crisis in Little Rock. In 1967, Mercer was appointed deputy prosecuting attorney in Little Rock, making him the first African American to hold this position in any Southern state.
Kenneth & Mamie Phipps Clark ca. 1945; photographer unknown
Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark was the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in Psychology from Columbia University. The Hot Springs native was the only African-American student in the department while enrolled. After graduating, Clark was hired as a psychologist for the Riverdale Home for Children in New York. But she left to open the Northside Testing and Consultation Center with her husband when she realized the need to provide psychological services to minority children would continue to be overlooked by private agencies.
When Paramount Records was looking for someone to recruit and produce African-American artists, they found Pine Bluff native, J. Mayo “Ink” Williams. Accepting this position made Williams the first African-American producer at a major record label. Throughout his career, he discovered and produced for artists like gospel icon Mahalia Jackson, best-selling artist Mamie Smith, blues legend Peetie Wheatstraw and many more.
Fun Fact: Williams was also one of the first African-American football players in the National Football League (NFL).
Photo Courtesy of the City of Little Rock
Mayor Frank Scott, Jr. made history in 2018 when he became the first African-American person to be elected mayor of Little Rock. Previously, Scott served as director of intergovernmental affairs under Governor Mike Beebe. As mayor, his mission has been to unite Little Rock and improve the quality of life for all residents.
Fun Fact: Mayor Scott was a member of the First Security Bank team when he was elected and has written for this blog.
For more Arkansas Black History Firsts, click here.
Cover photo courtesy of the University of Arkansas
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