Desegregating the University of Arkansas School of Law: L. Clifford Davis and the Six Pioneers

Article excerpt

THE FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN STUDENT ADMITTED to the University of Arkansas after Reconstruction was Silas H. Hunt, who enrolled at the School of Law in January 1948. That simple fact, and the university's story of how this early instance of desegregation was achieved, have been related in prior articles and books.1 Less well-known to students of civil rights or Arkansas history are the stories of some other African-American pioneers-one who preceded Silas Hunt in challenging segregation at the law school and the five who quickly followed in Hunt's footsteps.

By admitting Silas Hunt, the University of Arkansas intended to forestall a suit. Robert A. Leflar, the dean who admitted Hunt, was concerned that the university's reputation and relations between African-American and white Arkansans would be harmed by such a suit.2 The United States Supreme Court had decided in 1938 that, in the absence of a state-supported black law school, the University of Missouri must admit an African American, Lloyd Gaines, to its School of Law.3 Two other suits, against the University of Oklahoma School of Law and the University of Texas School of Law, were in progress. Leflar's concerns were valid, then, since Arkansas, too, lacked a black law school.4 All three cases had been brought by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as part of its attack on the "separate but equal" doctrine established in 1896 by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson.5

Leflar had to convince the university's board of trustees, its incoming president, and Arkansas governor Ben Laney that desegregation, at least at the graduate level, was inevitable. His argument succeeded, but it depended on the school maintaining a form of internal segregation. African- American students would be taught in a separate classroom, work in a separate study room, and not have direct access to the library or use of the school's student bathrooms. As much as possible, the rituals of segregation would apply.6

On January 30, 1948, the University of Arkansas announced it would admit "qualified Negro graduate students."7 But it was not Silas Hunt as much as L. Clifford Davis who prompted this action. The announcement stated that Davis, a young man who had repeatedly attempted to enroll at the school, would be admitted if he appeared on the first day of classes.

L. Clifford Davis had been born in Wilton, Arkansas, on October 12, 1924, the youngest of seven children born to Augustus and Dora Duckett Davis. The Davises were farmers, owning their own land and renting additional acreage from other landowners. Despite the fact that neither parent had been able to obtain much education, they strongly encouraged their children to continue in school. Wilton, in Little River County in southwestern Arkansas, provided public schooling only through the eighth grade for African Americans, but the Davises sent all their children to Little Rock to attend Dunbar High School. With the help of a relative, the oldest son, L. G., lived with friends while he attended Dunbar. A similar arrangement was made for the next child, Geneva. By the time Clifford was ready for high school in 1939, the family had rented a house (which they later purchased) in Little Rock, where the siblings lived together, in turn, while attending high school and college or a training school. Their upbringing allowed the children to live without a parental presence and without getting into trouble. The older children watched over the younger ones. They all were serious about getting as much education as they could handle.8

In 1942, after high school, Clifford Davis enrolled at Philander Smith College, a private school in Little Rock. Davis worked to pay his college expenses and continued to live in the family's house. He graduated in 1945. While at Philander, Davis began to think of a career in law, inspired by Little Rock lawyers Scipio A. Jones and J. R. Booker.9 Since the University of Arkansas did not admit African-American students, he took advantage of a 1943 state law that provided tuition grants to African Americans who wished to attend graduate school in fields not taught at Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College (AM&N) in Pine Bluff, the only state-supported institution of higher education open to black Arkansans. …