The Yell County Five

***A Research Project – Still collecting artifacts, information, photo, data and information ***

The Yell County Five – Bused some 140-miles round trip… their story of how Central Arkansas AfroAmericans demanded a secondary education is much warranted and a part of history that will Not be forgotten!

L.W. Sullivan High School, Morrillton, AR.

Yes, busing in Yell and Pope County Arkansas was Real. Some 140-miles round trip Monday through Friday to get a high school diploma was Real. This is yet another story of overcoming the harsh realities of white supremacy and segregation in the United States. But this unique instance would impact three generations later. Here is their story:

Erma Henry Booth, tells of how she was picked up at 5:00am in front of her house, in Danville Arkansas during the late 1950s to be bused to Morrilton some 70 miles away. In the winter months; “… it was dark when we left and dark when we got home. Then we had to do chores before going to bed. We tried to get as much chores prepared over the weekends. Homework was done on the bus or weekends. And it was hard to study on the bus. There really wasn’t any heat on the bus. The first on the bus back in Havanna got to sit next to the driver where there was a little bit of heat. I remember how cold my hands and feet were by the time we got to school.”

Erma Henry Booth

The year is 1948 and a father comes home from another heated unofficial school board meeting held in the only institution of education allowed for AfroAmerican students of Danville, Yell County Arkansas. The segregated school stopped teaching at the 8th grade.

Entering through the kitchen door; Torrance Henry’s face tells his wife Jessietene there is still no decision as to how and when their eldest son Bobby will be able to finish his formal education and get a high school diploma. And a harsh reality sets in when the parents begin to realize the only other options is to send their first son away for a secondary education; or hope he can be content with not having the opportunity to achieve a high school diploma.

But Torrence Henry’s eldest son Bobby wanted to go into the U.S. Navy. Being Henry had already served in the army during World War II; he knew the best advance his son had for joining the military was to go a high school graduate. Or otherwise be relegated to menial work in the Navy for lack of a diploma.

And little Bobby Henry wasn’t the only one in the family who wanted to further his education after eighth grade. Torrence Henry reminded his wife Jessietene their oldest daughter Patricia Ann wanted to go to college and become a registered nurse. Henry knew his children could be anything they wanted. He had siblings living in Little Rock who had earned university degrees to become teachers, principals and church leadership. One of Torrence Henry’s relatives served on the board of Philander Smith College. Henry being a long distance truck driver; would travel to much more progressive cities like Denver and Los Angeles where AfroAmericans had built large segregated high schools that produced some the highest performing scholars in the country. In the parents of the Danville Henry children’s minds; there was no reason why their kids shouldn’t be afforded the opportunity to earn high school diplomas that would launch them into the occupations they dreamed of.

Sullivan Cafeteria

But sending their children away from their beloved Danville community wasn’t the solution they were seeking back in 1948. In Yell County; the Henry’s cherished their close network with the Gilkeys, Adams, Torrences, Websters and Fountain families. The AfroAmerican family’s lives centered around their AME church; and the many activities they enjoyed in some of the most wholesome environments of the Ouachita Mountain range. During Thanksgiving, family dinner was a very important family gathering. At Christmas time, there were children’s plays and programs for proud parents. And during the summer, softball ruled the weekends.

Most of the Afro families in Danville were the first to own property; and nice sized homes outside the segregated town insultingly called “Scruff.” But even as the generation of Torrence Henry integrated neighborhoods on the outskirts of town; schools remained segregated. Henry’s closet neighbor Henry Gilkey had a household of children who also wanted to continue their formal educations.

When Torrence Henry finally settled himself at the kitchen table to speak to his wife about the unofficial school board meeting at the primary school; he tried to explain to Jessietene a couple of options for Bobby; both consisting of having students bused some 70-miles to either Morrillton or Ft. Smith. Since the road to Ft. Smith would be treacherous driving through the mountains during the winter months; it was decided to request enrollment for their Yell County high school students at the L.W. Sullivan High School in Morrilton. Mrs. Jessietene probaly frowned at the options. But chose little Bobby’s diploma or her worst fears.

The evening Torrence Henry went home to explain to his wife the Morrillton school board had rejected their request; he knew he had to continue to bring home hope by suggesting the Henry-Gilkey father’s next move would be to make a request for enrollment to the segregated high school in Ft. Smith. But Ft. Smith turned them down as well. However, the fates were with the fathers when they sent a second request to Morrilton. And Sullivan High School agreed to accept a freshman class from Danville in the fall of 1950. During the time spent responding to rejections; little Bobby had to sit out one year of formal schooling. And would join his brother Joe for the 9th grade of high school.

As a condition for allowing the Yell County students admission; the Morrilton school district made it clear they would Not provide any students from Danville transportation to Sullivan High School. And the out of district students would have to pay for their text books. So the fathers purchased a vehicle for the first four students to drive the some 140-miles round trip… a commute the boys would make to get to a high school diploma in central Arkansas.

The first four Yell County long distance commuters included the driver Bobby Henry, his little brother Joe Henry, James Gilkey and his little brother Hazel Gilkey. Leaving from Danville, they would make the early morning trip to school each day in the car their parents purchased for their some 140-mile round trip drive. Months after the first four young men began making the trip; another student from Havanna, William Webster joined them. And the route expanded from just Danville to Morrillton; to Havanna to Danville and then on to Morrilton.

After the Webster kid joined the cohort of commuters; the route to Morrillton began in Havanna instead of Danville. So William became the new driver of the car. Webster would later also become the first bus driver as additional students began to make the trip.

But as segregation does; one identified student had to make other arrangements. Carrie Torrance??? (of ???) lived with her older aunts Ms. Teddie (husband Mr. Icen) and Ms. Addie. And was the same age as the first commuters in the car. But out of appropriateness could not join the boys for the trip. Instead, her aunts sent her to St. Louis to further her education.

After the first year of students shuttling back and forth some 140-miles round trip by car; a bus was purchased so more Yell County students finishing 8th grade could attend high school. The school bus’ inaugural year included Bobby and Joe Henry’s little sister Amy Patricia Ann Henry, James and Hazel’s little brother Roy Gilkey and a member of the Adams’ family, Charles.

At least another year later; the bus began picking up students in Russellville, Arkansas of Pope County. Three particular students were the young Willie J. Marsh, his little brother Arty Marsh Jr. and his little sister Mary Neil Marsh. Mr. Arty Marsh, (my dad by the way), described how before the Yell County bus offered a stop in Pope County; he and his brothers would hitch a ride by one of the local trucking lines his father, Arty Marsh Sr. worked for. The truck line was the only one in the area that hired AfroAmericans. The owner of the truck line claimed the Afros in the community never stole anything from him but they needed for household and family. But his white employees would steal so badly from him it could put him out of business.

Arty Marsh Jr. Class of 1957

My dad would also go on to describe with tears in his eyes how the youth of Russellville wanted to go to the aide of one of their community friends who had agreed to help integrate the Little Rock high school… one of the Little Rock Nine.

For the years of segregated education in Central Arkansas, the bus stop route expanded to Havanna-Danville-Dardanelle Bottoms-Dardanelle-Russellville-Atkins-Morrilton. On the way, for some 70-miles one way; the AfroStudents passed some six or seven segregated white high schools. Years later a Mr. Nathan Wise was hired as the first professional driver of the bus. Former students tell their story how Mr. Wise acted as their parent away from home being they spent more time on the bus with him; than their biological mother and fathers.

Danville Commuter Class of 1960

As with any other high school student; the Yell and Pope county commuters wanted to participate in Sullivan’s many extra curricular activities. The football program was very successful. As was the basketball and baseball teams. But the some 70-mile commuters had to make special arrangements to attend after school practices when the bus left. Either they would have to hitch a ride back to their counties somehow; or find somewhere to stay over the night in Morrillton. Many times the girls would stay with girlfriends who were residents in Morrillton to participate in music and cheerleader activities. And parent supporters would bring students back from weekend games.

Working on this project has opened my eyes to why both my mother and father saw to it that getting a high school education was Not an option for my sisters and I. Only after college and traveling the United States did I realize how many adults don’t have high school diplomas. I remember my parents telling me as a youth that besides everything else I wanted to do; being a high school student was my “full time job.” Yes, they had Real reason to value a high school education because of the many sacrifices they had to make to get one themselves. For that, I thank my grandfather Torrence Henry, Mr. Henry Gilkey, the Torrences, Websters, Adams and other father’s of Yell County for forcing the issue that gave my parents the advantage they needed… so that I now have multiple advanced and college degrees.

Class of 1954

1. Mr. Joe Henry, retired from the US Navy and transitioned in Chesapeake Bay, VA;

2. Mr. Bobby Henry, retired from the US Navy and transitioned in Jacksonville, FL;

3. Mr. Hazel Gilkey transitioned in Lubbock, Texas;

4. Mr. Roy Gilkey in transitioned California;

5. Mr. William C. Webster, as of the writing of this blog lives in Dardanelle, AR.

Mr. Willie J. Marsh, college professor, transitioned in Memphis, TN.

Other Long Distance Bus Students:

Class of 1955

Ms. Patricia Ann Henry, was a nursing student when she passed in Little Rock, AR.

Mr. Charles Adams (???)

Mr. Roy Gilkey, as of the writing of this blog lives in Danville, AR

Class of 1957

Mrs. Mary Neil Marsh Dennis, retired registered nurse. Transitioned in Morrillton, AR.

Mr. Arty Marsh Jr., graduate of Langston University, retired brick mason, living in Oklahoma City, OK.

L.W. Sullivan Class of 1957

Class of 1958

Mr. John C. Jackson, transitioned in Fresno, CA

Mr. Charles Gilkey lives in Danville, AR

Ms. Margaret Jones Bagby, lives in Russellville, AR

Class of 1959

Mr. Jerry Johnson, lives in Dardanelle, AR

Mrs. Betty Gilkey Taylor, professor catering business woman, lives in Dardanelle, AR

Ms. Erma Henry Booth, retired business owner, lives in Russellville, AR

Class of 1962

Ms. Stella Henry Marsh, retired coronary care technican, transitioned in Midwest City, OK

Mrs. Delcia Torrence Webster, retired Tyson Foods Manager, lives in Havanna, AR

Class of 1963

Mr. Henry Gilkey Jr. (???)

Mr. Andy Lewis Johnson, retired US Army Reserves and Firestone, lives in Dardanelle, AR

Mr. Stephen Pearson, lives in Russellville, AR

Class of 1964

Mrs. Brenda Henry Johnson, transitioned in Dardanelle, AR

Mrs. Ivory Gilkey Pearson, lives in Russellville, AR

Mr. Richard Tayor, lives in Dardanelle, AR

Mr. William Kellybrew, lives in Dardanelle, AR

Class of 1966

Mr. Tomas Gilkey, transitioned in Little Rock, AR

Class of 1967

(graduated at integrated high schools in their towns)

-Ms Neita Torrence Kellybrew, lives in Dardanelle, AR

Mr.Jimmy Wayne Marsh, graduated University of Arkansas Pine Bluff, retired radiation technician, lives in Oklahoma City, OK