Virgil Tracy Blossom was a professional educator who served as superintendent of Little Rock (Pulaski County) public schools during the Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis that began in 1957. Although he was generally a progressive and effective school administrator, his leadership during the crisis proved to be ineffectual, and historians remain harsh in their assessments of his actions.
Virgil T. Blossom was born on October 31, 1906, in Brookfield, Missouri, the son of George N. Blossom and Fannie M. Blossom; he had one sister. His father ran a construction business and served as the local tax collector. His mother was apparently a homemaker. Tall and broad-shouldered with a booming voice, Blossom attended public schools, excelling in athletics. He was also on the school’s forensics team, being defeated only once in two years of competition.
Blossom graduated from Brookfield High School in 1924, but his financial situation prevented him from attending college. Instead, he went to Jefferson City, Missouri, where he became a clerk in the state legislature. In 1926, he was offered an athletic scholarship to Missouri Valley College at Marshall. An education major, he graduated in 1930. Throughout his life, he was active in the Methodist Church and community organizations.
In fall 1930, Blossom was employed by Fayetteville High School in Washington County as athletic director and social sciences teacher. He married Clarrene Tribble, the daughter of the Fayetteville (Washington County) mayor, in 1934; they had two daughters. The Blossoms remained in Fayetteville until 1935, when he accepted the job of athletic director for Okmulgee High School in east-central Oklahoma. In 1938, he returned to Fayetteville to serve as the high school principal.
In 1939, he completed an MS in education at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville. In 1942, he became superintendent of Fayetteville’s public schools. He implemented school improvements and expansion, annexing adjacent school districts that did not have high schools. He spent $2 million on a new high school and improvements on elementary schools, and built a $200,000 athletic field and community recreation area. Also, as Fayetteville had no high school for African-American students, Blossom made arrangements for them to attend segregated schools in Fort Smith (Sebastian County). Blossom’s reputation as a leader in education resulted in his being hired as superintendent of public schools of Little Rock in February 1953. In May 1953, Fayetteville celebrated Virgil Blossom Day.
Blossom continued his record of school reform in his new position, and he was honored as Greater Little Rock’s Man of the Year in 1955. However, the May 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas against segregated schools displaced his agenda.
Given the strong segregationist sentiment among white southerners, Blossom believed that the Court’s decision should have been “delayed until a later date.” Immediately, however, Blossom and the Little Rock school board began making plans to integrate Little Rock schools; he hoped the resulting plan, which became known as the “Blossom Plan,” would serve as a model for the desegregation of schools throughout the South. He held meetings with various groups, both black and white, to determine how best to comply with the ruling. Initially, he hoped to integrate starting with six-year-old elementary school students (whether this was to involve one or more schools remained unspecified) and to continue each year until all of the grades were integrated. But objections by white parents killed this plan; they especially feared that if black and white children became acquainted at an early age without learning “proper” social norms first, they would be more likely to become romantically involved as teenagers and adults. To assuage fears of miscegenation (intimate relationships between blacks and whites), Blossom suggested that integration be done at the high school level.
At a meeting between the executive board of the Little Rock chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the city school board in September 1954, Blossom proposed the integration of four high schools, including Little Rock Central, Technical, Hall, and Horace Mann high schools.
But continued white resistance to integration resulted in the school board adopting a different plan. As announced in May 1955, the plan incorporated the U.S. Supreme Court’s suggestion to proceed “with all deliberate speed.” Only Little Rock Central was to be integrated. Integration would be achieved in phases, with high school students integrated first in fall 1957, followed by junior high school students, and finally elementary school students. No dates were specified for the latter two phases.
In January 1956, the parents of twenty-seven black students attempted to enroll their children in four white elementary, junior, and senior high schools. Blossom rebuffed their efforts, leading the NAACP to file a lawsuit, Aaron v. Cooper. An initial ruling and an initial appeal resulted in a victory for Blossom. However, hearing the case as Cooper v. Aaron, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in September 1958. The decision established that federal court rulings had to be enforced by local officials regardless of their local popularity.
As Aaron v. Cooper was being adjudicated, Blossom continued his efforts to implement his revised plan. The number of black children involved dropped from an original number of 200 eligible students to thirty-seven remaining after an initial screening. Of these, Blossom accepted only seventeen. When several students withdrew their applications, only nine remained, becoming what became known as the Little Rock Nine, who integrated Little Rock Central in fall 1957—the only desegregated school in the city; the two new high schools were segregated, with Hall remaining all-white and Horace Mann remaining all-black. Blossom blamed both black and white extremists for the ensuing tensions during the crisis at Central High. He also charged that Governor Orval Faubus, who had initially supported him, failed to back him up during the crisis, thus leading to the failure of the Blossom Plan.
Chroniclers of the crisis reveal Blossom as overwhelmed by a chaotic situation. As a result, he ignored the input of African Americans, preventing them from having access to important meetings, and he treated black students unfairly. He approached the affair with a paternal, autocratic attitude; refused to accept advice from others; and sought to shelter wealthier whites from the effects of desegregation. He may even have deliberately sought to prevent desegregation; failing that, he tried to delay and minimize it.
Governor Faubus closed Little Rock’s public schools for the 1958–59 school year, and all of the school board except segregationist Dale Alford resigned in November 1958. One of the board’s final actions was to terminate Blossom’s contract, and he spent the next year writing about the crisis. Blossom chronicled his experiences in a series of articles titled “The Untold Story of Little Rock,” published in the Saturday Evening Post in May–June 1959; the articles served as the basis of his book, It Has Happened Here (1959).
In July 1959, he became superintendent of the North East Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas. He continued his record as an effective administrator. On January 15, 1965, he suffered a fatal heart attack. He is buried at Sunset Memorial Park in San Antonio.
For additional information:
Blossom, Virgil. It Has Happened Here. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959.
Huckaby, Elizabeth. Crisis at Central High: Little Rock, 1957–58. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
Jacoway, Elizabeth. Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, the Crisis that Shocked the Nation. New York: Free Press, 2007.
Kirk, John A. Beyond Little Rock: The Origins and Legacies of the Central High Crisis. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2007.
Obituary of Virgil Blossom. Arkansas Gazette, January 16, 1965, p. 6B.
Obituary of Virgil Blossom. San Antonio Express, January 16, 1965, p. 5A.
Virgil T. Blossom Papers. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Todd E. Lewis
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville