Written by: Walter Strong
I came up in an environment that would be as close to slavery without being so-called as I can imagine. . . . After high school I entered the military and spent two years, returned, started to work for Frank Angelo [Jonesboro businessman], and after two years of working in a factory, I decided that there had to be a better life than that. So, I told Frank that I was going to leave him, and I never will forget. . . . He says, “Where are you going? Chicago or Detroit?” And I told him no, I was going to college. And he said, “Well, why don’t you go to Arkansas State in light of the recent Supreme Court’s ruling?” And my statement to him was that I hadn’t thought about it, “I don’t want to create any ruckus or anything of the kind; I want an education.” From that point, he told me that he knew Dr. Reng and he’d talk to Dr. Reng.
At the same time I was working full-time with him, I was working part-time as a janitor for Porter’s Typewriter®, and on weekends I’d go out and clean up Mrs. Porter’s house for her. And I told her that I was thinking about going to school . . . and she said, “Well, I know Dean Hazelbaker personally.” And she called Dean [N. D.] Hazelbaker on a Saturday afternoon and made that appointment for me the following Saturday.
I came on time; [Dean Robert Moore] intercepted me and told me that Dean Hazelbaker and Dr. [Carl] Reng were going to have a few moments of conference before I go in, so he and I sat down and had a talk. . . . I love him and admire him for what he told me that day because it told me what kind of man he was. After we introduced ourselves he said, “Well, I’m going to tell you about me.” He says, “I’m from Mississippi. I don’t like it, but it’s inevitable. I don’t like the idea of blacks and whites and Negroes and whites going to school together. But it is inevitable, and it’s going to happen, and everybody ought to accept it, and I do.”
Now, he said that to me the very first time I met him. I had not even said a word other than telling him who I was. And he has proven himself to be that kind of a man; whether you like what he does or not, he tells you where he’s standing and where he is. And from that point, when he said that to me, I knew I was there with what I call a “real person.”
The administration suggested, in the beginning, that we cooperate with them; they’d work with us, minimize adverse publicity and what have you. So it was three of us that started school at the same time: Fred Turner, Larry Williams, and myself. . . . [Dr. Reng] asked that we not come at the regular enrollment date, come pre-register and wait until they give us the call when they figure things were pretty well, so they’d give us a call to attend out here.
And so we came and reported to class on September 12, 1955. It wasn’t a bad experience, except when I walked in the room, it was the old educational building . . . I sat on the front row, and someone had started discussing colors . . . and everyone got to chuckling and then that was pretty well over with. That was the first class. In the second class I attended — I never will forget the day I don’t believe — it was a history class. . . . I walked into the room, and all of a sudden everybody got quiet. And a fellow named Joel Breeding was sitting at the back, and he looked around. . . . He broke the silence and said, “Well, hello there! Come on in and sit down.” So that broke that, and then later on the next class was a biology class, and a similar thing happened. . . . From that time on we had very little or no trouble.
The administration had done a tremendous job preparing the staff and the students and everybody. As I understand, Carl Reng had put it to them that “this is the way it is, and it will be accepted.”
Looking back on all of this . . . we did the best we could with our knowledge dealing with the situations at that time, because everybody involved was under pressure.