Beginning Jan. 1, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Arkansas began a series called “Our Stories of Race,” where each is a personal narrative about race relations and experiences from CBF of Arkansas friends.
We hope that “Our Stories about Race” will empower our personal values and lifestyles as Christians, and our corporate mission as churches to create mutual understanding, to confront racial prejudice and injustice and to model the “Beloved Community” which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., envisioned and proclaimed.
By Ray Higgins
In February 1948 my father was in his last semester of law school at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville when the University admitted Mr. Silas Hunt as a student in the Law School. As I understand the history, Mr. Hunt was the first African American to be admitted to a graduate or professional program in an all-white university in the South.
Through my growing up years, Dad would tell my brother and me about this significant experience in his life.
He told us how he and a couple of other law students made an intentional decision to befriend Mr. Hunt. He told us that University officials had a wooden cubicle built in the back corner of the classroom. It contained a desk for Mr. Hunt with walls high enough so that he could not see out and the other students could not see in. University officials got word that a major magazine was coming to the campus to write a story and take pictures. They had the cubicle dismantled.
After that development, Mr. Hunt began receiving instruction one-on-one from the law professors in the basement of the law school. White students asked to be included in these class sessions with Mr. Hunt.
Dad had been the president of the Baptist Student Union and was an active member of the Baptist church down the street from the campus. He invited Mr. Hunt to attend the BSU with him, where he was well received by fellow students.
Dad also invited Mr. Hunt to attend the Baptist church with him. One day, a leader at the church told Dad that if he continued to bring his friend with him to church, the deacons would kick him out. To which my Dad said he responded: “I can’t think of a better reason to be kicked out of the church.”
In spite of all of the challenges my Dad faced to get into and graduate from law school, he knew that Mr. Hunt faced not only more and harder obstacles; Mr. Hunt faced personal prejudice, racism and systemic injustice daily.
An Arkansan born in Ashdown, Mr. Hunt had served overseas for almost two years during World War II, suffered serious wounds in the Battle of the Bulge, and was left injured on the battlefield for two days.
He returned to college in Pine Bluff while recovering from his wounds, graduated, and entered the law school in Fayetteville.
Dad graduated in the spring of 1948 and traveled to Washington, Alaska and Oklahoma trying to start a career, before taking a job with the Corps of Engineers in Murfreesboro, Arkansas, and then working as an attorney for oil companies in Tulsa, Dallas, Denver and El Dorado.
By the middle of the summer of 1948, after his first semester, Mr. Hunt had to withdraw from school and died in April 1949 from his war-related disabilities.
My father’s brief friendship with Silas Hunt empowered him to find his own way through the prejudices and racism that he had grown up with in his family, Baptist churches, and communities.
This friendship convicted him to become an active advocate for the Civil Rights Movement.
This friendship inspired him to stand with his pastor and fellow church leaders when Dr. Don Harbuck led First Baptist Church to build relationships with African Americans—their churches and communities—in El Dorado, and to open the church’s doors and membership.
This friendship was in his mind when he wrote a letter to the editor of the Arkansas Gazettemourning the assassination of Dr. King. A few days after Dad’s letter was published, a white adult male called our home to label Dad a “communist” for supporting Dr. King.
I know this friendship was beating in Dad’s heart as he shared this story with our mother and with his two sons during our formative years.
And, it was Mr. Hunt’s young courage and determination in the face of undeserved obstacles and unconscionable injustices that made this brief friendship, and its legacy, possible.
Ray Higgins serves as the Coordinator for CBF of Arkansas.