Senior vice provost for academic affairs, professor
of music, senior counselor to the president for the arts, diversity and
Lester Monts was seven years old when the principal stepped into his
second-grade Little Rock classroom on May 17, 1954, for one of her periodic "current
"She explained that we would no longer go to school there, that we would
be going to school with white kids. We thought they would come to get
us the next day, so there was a great deal of crying in the room," recalls
Monts, who is senior vice provost for academic affairs, professor of
musicology and the senior counselor to President Coleman for the arts,
diversity and undergraduate affairs.
One white elementary school was six blocks south of Monts's home and
another five blocks north, but he was not destined to attend either school. Brown "wasn't
a change, " Monts said, "it was a news item. The wheels of change turned
very slowly in Little Rock."
The Supreme Court's Brown
decision led to "some tension," according to Monts. "We had to walk
past [all-white] Robert E. Lee Elementary on our way to the store or the
bus. The kids would all run to the fence and shout, 'Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!'
when we walked by. It was just talk, though, just grade school stuff.
There was a wooded area near my high school that everyone referred to
as 'the jungle.' We'd meet up with white kids there and play. But there
was tension in the air between Black and white after Brown ."
Insults and harassment
Monts recalls, however, that
the situation soon became rather more grave. "People would say things
to you on the bus. I remember my dad talking about some white woman saying
something insulting to him. And off-duty policemen who worked for the
gas and electric company in uniform would harass people about paying their
bills. Many 'mom and pop' stores in Black neighborhoods started to harangue
people about their bills and demand 'yes sir' and 'no sir' of their Black
customers. And there was street fighting.
"I remember the adults talking among themselves about the rising tension.
My grandfather was a minister. Whites spit on his coat and shot at his
house during that time. But he admonished us to be strong against these
challenges. There are good white folks and bad, he said, and we should
reach in to find the goodness in them."
The difference between the white and Black schools of Little Rock was
stark. "Elementary schools for white children were better constructed,
and they had various amenities, like new books and field trips to the
bank because one of the fathers worked there," Monts says. "We knew there
would be some rewards from going to school with whites, rewards that
wouldn't be coming to our schools.
"We learned desegregation wouldn't happen right away, though. The Board
of Education was working on an integration plan. Then the 1957 crisis
at Central High School happened. But the elementary and junior high schools
weren't fully integrated until the mid-1960s. So I never thought I'd
be forced to go to a white school before completing high school. In fact,
I was one of nine siblings, all college educated and many of whom now
hold advanced degrees. Five of us went to all-Black schools, then one
of my younger brothers went to integrated schools all the way through.
were denied to Blacks
"When the high schools were
integrated, academically talented Black students were admitted to Central
and Hall. But they couldn't do any of the extracurriculars - no sports,
no band or social events, no Black homecoming queen, and no Black members
of the National Honor Society or Key Club. It was not allowed and it was
just too dangerous.
"I grew up in a family of teachers. My mother and all her brothers and
sisters were teachers, so they were all very concerned about Black teachers
being displaced, that they wouldn't have jobs. So a lot of students were
encouraged and chose to stay in the Black schools. I stayed in Black
schools all the way through Paul Laurence Dunbar Junior High School and
Horace Mann High School. Before Mann was built, Dunbar was the best,
and the only accredited, Black high school in Arkansas. The teachers,
all of whom were Black, held more masters degrees than the teachers in
the white schools, although they were paid less than the white teachers.
And many of the principals at Dunbar had PhDs.
"All my friends were there; and, had I gone to a white school, I may
not have ever studied music," said Monts, who later earned a BA in music
at Arkansas Polytechnic College, a Master of Music in trumpet performance
from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and a PhD in musicology from
the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. "I started studying music in
eighth grade. We had one teacher who traveled to six or seven elementary
schools to teach band, while each white school had a music teacher assigned
Monts left Arkansas for graduate school and never looked back. Considering
his experience, that of his family and scores of his friends, Monts finds
that Arkansas is poorer as a result of its past practices. "There was
definitely a Black brain drain from Arkansas. They drove a lot of intellectual
capital out. I went the classical music route with my training, but many
of the country's best jazz musicians hail from Arkansas. Just in my school,
alone, my classmates included [tenor saxophonist and composer] John Stubblefield,
who moved to New York City; bassist James Leary, who plays with the Count
Basie band; and [Chicago flugelhornist and vocalist] Walter Henderson."
Monts recalls the daily drubbing that drove millions of Arkansas' Black
citizens away. "I remember playing stick-ball on the street as a boy
and watching white women driving in to the neighborhood to pick up Black
women to work in their house. One time in particular, I can see it almost
in slow motion, when a white woman came to pick up Mrs. Bertrand, a prominent
member of our church, a highly regarded member of our community, who
raised smart children of her own, was a good grandmother–that white woman
made Mrs. Bertrand sit in the back seat of that car because her dog was
in the front seat. I can still see Mrs. Bertrand, today, standing there,
thinking about it before she got in the car, with her head hanging down."
"And men that we had a lot of
respect for, most of whom were World War II veterans, were completely
humiliated by the police. One time, when our Scoutmaster was driving six
or seven of us somewhere, a cop stopped him for a broken tail light and
referred to him as 'Boy,' to which our Scoutmaster was compelled to duck
his head and respond, 'Yes suh, yes suh.' At other times, even our dad,
in front of us, had to say it.
"Why did this country ever wind up having to deal with those kinds of
Tillinghast | Adye Bel Evans | B.J.
Mary Sue Coleman | Lester