Stepping Stones

Little Rock faced a crisis in 1957 at Central High School. This led to the arrival of the National Guard and the 101st Airborne Division’s deployment. On the contrary, St. Bartholomew High School and Catholic High School had less of a crisis and more of a great change. 

The Little Rock Diocese wanted to merge Black and white high schoolers by putting students from St. Bartholomew High school into Catholic High School. Mr. Lee Lindsey, class of ’66, was one of the first students to integrate  Catholic High. Mr. Lindsey also served the country and helped young Black Americans get on the right path. 

“I transferred from St. Bartholomew,” said Mr. Lindsey. “Historically St. Bartholomew had kindergarten through 12th-grade Black students.  Me and Fred Conway came here. We went through Saint Bartholomew in the third through ninth grade.

“It was a community decision,” said Mr. Lindsey. “The priest at the time was Fr. Freedom. Back in those days, although there was a lot of segregation of the races. I think that Catholic High and the Bishop [Albert Fletcher] were looking to integrate this school. I heard prior to me coming there was another [Black student], but he didn’t last. He ended up coming back to St. Bartholomew. One of the reasons St. Bartholomew closed down was the idea of one Catholic school for all races. They asked me if I would try. I said yes, and I wound up here. 

 “Fr. Tribou was a major influence. When I first came here, Fr. Tribou met me, and he welcomed me here. One of the things he told me was, ‘You don’t have to take anything off these peckerwoods.’ I immediately liked him because that’s a term my father used. I never knew what a peckerwood was. In the halls, he would ask, ‘You got any problems?’ or ‘How you doing?’ that sort of thing.  I can’t remember if I was nervous; I knew it would be a different experience. I do not think I felt any trepidation on coming here for some reason. My first interview with Fr. Tribou made me feel comfortable and I knew it was going to be alright.”

In the 1960s racism was still a problem. Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were fighting for Black Americans to have their rights. Lyndon B. Johnson became President and fulfilled some opportunities for Black Americans with the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Most of America was eager to change, but not all of it, especially in the South. Mr. Lindsey said, “I can say I never experienced any direct relation racist problems with any of my classmates. I participated in some sports, and sometimes I was called names and that sort of thing. Somebody hit me once coming down the hall. They sucker-punched me and I couldn’t catch them. They blended in with the crowd, but that is the only incident that sticks out in my mind. I don’t know if that was a racial attack or just kids being kids. That’s my only bad memory that comes to my mind. Most of my classmates treated me fairly. I did not make any what you would call close friends and that sort of thing, where you spend the night and that sort of stuff. I never felt any of my teachers treated me as less than a student. They were fair. [I have] no complaints in the way the people here treated me.”

Our school is still a place where everyone is welcome. The word brotherhood is used often and truly is something found here. Senior Daniel Hamilton said, “Out of my four years at Catholic I’ve never experienced any racism. Everyone treated me the same. I never felt as if I was lesser than anyone because of the way they treated me. I felt like I was the same as everyone else. I never once felt like someone didn’t like me based on the color of my skin. Catholic High has that sense of safety away from the outside.”

“We took a field trip once; we went to Hot Springs”, said Mr. Lindsey. “There was segregation out in most of the public places. We as a class went somewhere and went to [a restaurant named] McCarthy’s. As we got there, the class reacted like ‘Oh are you guys going to be able to go in or not?’ So, what my classmates did was all the bigger guys surrounded us [Mr. Lindsey and Mr. Conway], so they never got to see us two Black kids with the rest of the class. As we sat at the table, I sat in the middle and all my classmates sat around. Then the waitress came up and it was too late then we were already sitting there. That’s the only incident I can remember that occurred.”

Mr. Lindsey had to step out of the gates when he graduated from Catholic High. He would no longer have his fellow students at his side every day.“When I left high school, I did not have a desire for college,” said Mr. Lindsey. “My dad worked at a lumber mill: Bruce Lumber Mill. The summer after my graduation, I went to go work with him at this lumber mill. I worked from three to 11. I would come home at night and hear those machines in my head. I had sawdust all in my clothes and on my body. I remember telling my mom this was not for me. I was on the track team, and I lettered in track both years. I had some track offers. [One was from] Arkansas Polytechnic in Russellville. When I showed my mom the letters, she took me to Russellville and I wound up at Russellville for two years.

“Those two years were probably the hardest times of my life and I really did experience racism there,” said Mr. Lindsey. “I decided I wanted to do something else. I joined VISTA. VISTA is called ‘Volunteers in Service to America.’ You could go and work for them for two years.  After those two years, you could come back and you got your school paid for. I worked in Seattle, Washington, for those two years. I worked with high school dropouts and got them their GEDs. After that, I came home and went to UALR. I finished that and got a degree in Criminal Justice. I joined the military and went to college on a GI bill. I went around the world twice. I was a captain in the Arkansas National Guard. Then I worked in criminal justice with young people. 

“ [The years 1967 and 1968] were terrible times. There was a lot of change going on, social upheaval. I tried to join the Black Panthers, but I had too many white friends, so they wouldn’t let me,” said Mr. Lindsey. “I was the disproportionate minority coordinator for the state of Arkansas. My job was to address the overpopulation of minority youth in the juvenile justice system. I was responsible for trying to divert kids from getting involved with the criminal justice system and trying to find them other alternatives. Instead of sending the young men and women to jail.”

Mr. Lindsey made history and led the way for Black students to graduate from Catholic High. He truly was a leader and someone who put his name on these walls. Mr. Lindsey said, “My best memory of my attendance here was graduation, in that I could feel the pride in my parents and the teachers at St. Bartholomew. At that time, and I think it’s still the same, it was known as a prestigious institution. Catholic High just stood out for its academics. I experienced the pride my family and my parish felt.”

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