Making Mayberry A Better Place

I grew up in Bentonville, AR, at a time when there were fewer than 20 African-Americans living in the county, all of them in Bentonville.  According to the 1860 census, there were 384 slaves in Benton Co.   After the Civil War and Reconstruction, the decline of the black population coincided with the decline of tobacco as a cash crop.  The "Bentonville Colored School", which offered classes through 8th grade, was closed in the 1940's, as most black citizens had left for better economic opportunity.  Black students wanting to attend high school were forced to move away to cities with high schools that admitted African-Americans. This further diminished the town's dwindling black population.  In 1954, the last teacher of the all black school was still teaching one young boy in her home, when the US Supreme Court handed down its decision on the Brown v. Board of Education case. Bentonville Public Schools soon quietly integrated with the admission of this 3rd grade boy.  

As a Bentonville student who graduated from high school in 1970, I was only vaguely aware of a handful of students of color in our school system.  Most of them were several years younger than I.  I knew that a black man, a graduate of Bentonville High School, hung out at the DX station with a group of white counterparts.  (Not until a few years ago did I learn this was the same 3rd grader who was the first black student in our previously all-white schools.)  I also knew that Rabbit Dickerson operated a shoe shine shop just off the town square and Mr. Dickerson's wife, Cinco, was the teacher of the black 3rd grader admitted to our schools.  But my interaction with all of the aforementioned was extremely limited.   My contact with any type of diversity in Bentonville was fairly limited to classmates Danny, a Jehovah's Witness, and Imogene, a Cherokee Indian. That is to say, my contact with racial diversity was nearly non-existent.   It is also true I was fully unaware of the particulars of race and segregation throughout the first century, or so, of my hometown's existence.  In my young mind, things in "Mayberry" were, and had always been, upright and good.    

After graduating from the University of Arkansas, where my contact with racial diversity was similar to my slight Bentonville experience, I took a job in Houston, working for a department store chain.  Primarily through work related relationships, I got to know many African-Americans and Hispanics persons.  These experiences were enjoyable ones and they served to open my young adult eyes to a realization that a "we-they" attitude on race came from a subhuman corner of the world.   

After several years in Houston, I moved back to Bentonville and eventually made the acquaintance of Elizabeth and Chris Robertson, a black couple who retired in Bentonville, after many years of living and raising family in California.  The Robertsons and I were active in the same community organization, so we routinely interacted with one another. The Robertsons were a welcoming, pleasant, conversant, charming couple who readily volunteered time, effort, and resources.   As it turned out, Elizabeth was one of the last African-Americans who grew up in Bentonville but was forced to live elsewhere to earn a high school diploma. This was my first contact with someone who was denied education in our Bentonville "Public" Schools. 

In time, Elizabeth was presented with an honorary diploma from Bentonville High at spring graduation ceremonies.  My emotions are still all over the place as I think about that event, ranging from appreciation of the acknowledgment of Elizabeth's unjust struggle, to despair that anyone would ever be forced to endure it.   Elizabeth was always full of grace for those around her and never expressed bitterness with the community that prevented her from attending our local high school because of the color of her skin.  That Elizabeth and her husband were willing to make Bentonville their retirement home is a thought and example worth contemplation. There were, and still are, valuable lessons to learn from them.  My life was made richer by knowing Elizabeth and Chris, and my understanding of the injustice some of God's people in America have faced and overcome was greatly enhanced. 

Today, racial and ethnic minority groups make up 26% of the rapidly growing Bentonville School District.  There are a little over 500 African-American students, with even more Asian and Hispanic students enrolled. While their experiences with access to secondary education are markedly better than was Elizabeth Robertson's, anyone who is fully aware of 21st Century life in America knows we still have much work to do to insure racial justice prevails in all segments of our society.  All of us should make it a matter for prayer......including those of us in Mayberry.   

Jim Russell
Retired retail background
Former Moderator, CBF Arkansas
First Baptist Church, Bentonville
Resides in Bentonville