Editor's Note: This is the final installment in series of stories regarding African-American History in Brown County.
Sixty-three years ago this fall, 18 African-American students entered Brownwood High School and attended classes with white students for the first time.
The integration happened just one year after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that would reverberate throughout the country, causing famous scenes of strife and triumph. The Little Rock Nine were greeted with riots and assisted by the military in 1957, while the Texas Rangers were called in to deal with an attempted integration in Mansfield in 1956.
But in Brownwood, integration was a peaceful if tense affair that forever changed the young men and women who experienced it. The Bulletin spoke with two members of the “Brownwood 18” — Carol Hester Spratt and Allen Reed — this week.
Spratt was born and raised in Brownwood and attended the Hardin School until integration. “We had very good teachers that were very set on making us learn,” Spratt said of the Hardin School. “Even though we had secondhand books to learn from … they were very set on teaching us the basics and it was a wonderful experience.”
But in 1955, she learned that everything was about to change. “My mother and father sat me down and told us, my brother and I, that Brownwood was going to be integrated,” she said. Spratt said she wasn’t worried so much about the students. “It wasn’t something that was really … fearful. Growing up where I lived on Tannehill, we played with white kids all the time. But going into the classroom with teachers, that was kind of scary. It really was. Just not knowing — walking into something and not knowing what was going to happen when you got there.”
Spratt was a sophomore in that first year, and remembers the first day of class as tense but ultimately uneventful. “It was nothing like, say, the Little Rock Nine or anything like that. You could feel, the day we entered school, a lot of tension. There was tension among both races.”
But during her three years at BHS, Spratt said she became good friends with many white students. “We’re still friends today,” she said.
Looking around today, Spratt says race relations have certainly improved in Brown County and the rest of the country. “But they’re still not where they need to be, even after 50 years,” Spratt said. “It’s really not. I have seen changes, but like I said, just not enough changes.”
Reed spent only his senior year at BHS, winning third place at a state track meet in 1956. He also played on that year’s Lions football team. Reed agreed with Spratt, saying that his experience at Brownwood High was mostly positive, and that he got along with his fellow athletes. “As a senior, I didn’t see very much,” Reed said, “but I didn’t have any trouble with the boys.”
Local historian Carl Bodiford said Brownwood was one of only 28 school districts that began desegregation so quickly. “Brownwood began the process quietly, without violence or irresponsible rhetoric,” he said via email. “Those that I have interviewed have suggested that they were generally treated well — maybe not with enthusiasm, but not with overt acts of racism.”
Today, that legacy lives on in the multicultural hallways of Brownwood ISD and throughout Brown County. In this divided time, it is worth remembering the bravery of children of all races, and how they peacefully resolved once-intractable differences in the fall of 1955.