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Lester Monts

Senior vice provost for academic affairs, professor of music, senior counselor to the president for the arts, diversity and undergraduate affairs

Lester Monts

Lester Monts was seven years old when the principal stepped into his second-grade Little Rock classroom on May 17, 1954, for one of her periodic "current events" announcements. "She explained that we would no longer go to school there, that we would be going to school with white kids. We thought they would come to get us the next day, so there was a great deal of crying in the room," recalls Monts, who is senior vice provost for academic affairs, professor of musicology and the senior counselor to President Coleman for the arts, diversity and undergraduate affairs.

One white elementary school was six blocks south of Monts's home and another five blocks north, but he was not destined to attend either school. Brown "wasn't a change, " Monts said, "it was a news item. The wheels of change turned very slowly in Little Rock."

The Supreme Court's Brown decision led to "some tension," according to Monts. "We had to walk past [all-white] Robert E. Lee Elementary on our way to the store or the bus. The kids would all run to the fence and shout, 'Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!' when we walked by. It was just talk, though, just grade school stuff. There was a wooded area near my high school that everyone referred to as 'the jungle.' We'd meet up with white kids there and play. But there was tension in the air between Black and white after Brown ."

Insults and harassment

Monts recalls, however, that the situation soon became rather more grave. "People would say things to you on the bus. I remember my dad talking about some white woman saying something insulting to him. And off-duty policemen who worked for the gas and electric company in uniform would harass people about paying their bills. Many 'mom and pop' stores in Black neighborhoods started to harangue people about their bills and demand 'yes sir' and 'no sir' of their Black customers. And there was street fighting.

"I remember the adults talking among themselves about the rising tension. My grandfather was a minister. Whites spit on his coat and shot at his house during that time. But he admonished us to be strong against these challenges. There are good white folks and bad, he said, and we should reach in to find the goodness in them."

The difference between the white and Black schools of Little Rock was stark. "Elementary schools for white children were better constructed, and they had various amenities, like new books and field trips to the bank because one of the fathers worked there," Monts says. "We knew there would be some rewards from going to school with whites, rewards that wouldn't be coming to our schools.

"We learned desegregation wouldn't happen right away, though. The Board of Education was working on an integration plan. Then the 1957 crisis at Central High School happened. But the elementary and junior high schools weren't fully integrated until the mid-1960s. So I never thought I'd be forced to go to a white school before completing high school. In fact, I was one of nine siblings, all college educated and many of whom now hold advanced degrees. Five of us went to all-Black schools, then one of my younger brothers went to integrated schools all the way through.

Extracurricular activities were denied to Blacks

"When the high schools were integrated, academically talented Black students were admitted to Central and Hall. But they couldn't do any of the extracurriculars - no sports, no band or social events, no Black homecoming queen, and no Black members of the National Honor Society or Key Club. It was not allowed and it was just too dangerous.

"I grew up in a family of teachers. My mother and all her brothers and sisters were teachers, so they were all very concerned about Black teachers being displaced, that they wouldn't have jobs. So a lot of students were encouraged and chose to stay in the Black schools. I stayed in Black schools all the way through Paul Laurence Dunbar Junior High School and Horace Mann High School. Before Mann was built, Dunbar was the best, and the only accredited, Black high school in Arkansas. The teachers, all of whom were Black, held more masters degrees than the teachers in the white schools, although they were paid less than the white teachers. And many of the principals at Dunbar had PhDs.

"All my friends were there; and, had I gone to a white school, I may not have ever studied music," said Monts, who later earned a BA in music at Arkansas Polytechnic College, a Master of Music in trumpet performance from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and a PhD in musicology from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. "I started studying music in eighth grade. We had one teacher who traveled to six or seven elementary schools to teach band, while each white school had a music teacher assigned to it."

Monts left Arkansas for graduate school and never looked back. Considering his experience, that of his family and scores of his friends, Monts finds that Arkansas is poorer as a result of its past practices. "There was definitely a Black brain drain from Arkansas. They drove a lot of intellectual capital out. I went the classical music route with my training, but many of the country's best jazz musicians hail from Arkansas. Just in my school, alone, my classmates included [tenor saxophonist and composer] John Stubblefield, who moved to New York City; bassist James Leary, who plays with the Count Basie band; and [Chicago flugelhornist and vocalist] Walter Henderson."

Monts recalls the daily drubbing that drove millions of Arkansas' Black citizens away. "I remember playing stick-ball on the street as a boy and watching white women driving in to the neighborhood to pick up Black women to work in their house. One time in particular, I can see it almost in slow motion, when a white woman came to pick up Mrs. Bertrand, a prominent member of our church, a highly regarded member of our community, who raised smart children of her own, was a good grandmother–that white woman made Mrs. Bertrand sit in the back seat of that car because her dog was in the front seat. I can still see Mrs. Bertrand, today, standing there, thinking about it before she got in the car, with her head hanging down."

"And men that we had a lot of respect for, most of whom were World War II veterans, were completely humiliated by the police. One time, when our Scoutmaster was driving six or seven of us somewhere, a cop stopped him for a broken tail light and referred to him as 'Boy,' to which our Scoutmaster was compelled to duck his head and respond, 'Yes suh, yes suh.' At other times, even our dad, in front of us, had to say it.

"Why did this country ever wind up having to deal with those kinds of things?"


Richard Tillinghast | Adye Bel Evans | B.J. Evans
President Mary Sue Coleman |


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