First student to integrate a Conway school recalls mother’s resilience

By Stefanie Brazile

Deborah Acklin-Blackwell has been fortunate to have several earth angels in her life: her mother and a nun. Both angels watched over her in 1966 when she integrated into Ellen Smith Elementary as a first-grader.

“In 1966, five families were asked to participate in integration, but I believe I am the only child who did that year,” Deborah said. “On my first day of school, I remember walking towards the school with my mother holding my hand and holding a bat in the other. There were people on both sides of the sidewalk and police all around — in front of and behind us. The whole time, I don’t remember being afraid because my mother was with me.”

Deborah Acklin-Blackwell believes that she was the first student to integrate into the Conway School District in 1966. She wears a bracelet as a reminder of her strong mother that reads: “I am resilient.” (Mike Kemp photo)

Holding a bat was not typical behavior for Mary Acklin, who passed away in 2019. She and her husband owned rental properties, she worked for the Conway Human Development Center, and he worked for the Union Pacific Railroad. In 2009, she was awarded the Lloyd Westbrook Good Neighbor Award by the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce. But on that hot morning 55 years ago, she was determined that her youngest daughter would receive the same education afforded other children in the community.

“She was going to be my protector,” Deborah said. Her mother was raised in Syracuse, N.Y., and had not encountered segregation while growing up. She passed that attitude on to her children. “I don’t want to treat someone else differently because of the color of their skin. I wasn’t raised that way,” her daughter said.

Once she arrived in the classroom, Deborah recalls having a “really wonderful” year. “I don’t remember being afraid, mistreated, bullied, or traumatized by all of that. My teacher, Ms. Curtis, never treated me any differently.”

Mary Acklin accompanied her daughter to school for several weeks, but work obligations meant that the little girl would need to ride the bus. At that time, the school was located on Harkrider Street, near St. Joseph Catholic Church, and the bus stop was across the busy road. Her mom taught her how to use the crosswalk, but a woman dressed in black and white was watching from afar.

“One morning when I was getting off the bus, I saw a nun,” Deborah said. “She said It was too dangerous for me to cross the street and I told her that I could do it, but she wasn’t having that so she went with me. When I got out of class, she was waiting to cross back with me and put me on the bus.”

That ritual continued each morning and afternoon all year. Deborah cannot remember the name of her earth angel, but knows that her mother went to the sister and thanked her, and that she later took piano lessons from the nuns.

Over the next two years, the district became fully integrated. In 1977, Deborah graduated with memories that her teachers worked hard to make sure everyone got along and that a lot of her best friends were kids that didn’t share her race but did share interests like band and flag line. Her older sisters integrated in 1968 and, sadly, didn’t have the same positive experiences.

Today, Deborah and her husband, Harold, have a home in Conway, and she has been a flight attendant for Delta Airlines for 24 years and works from Atlanta, Ga. “I’ve been around the world and love it.” She holds a bachelor’s degree in urban studies, is a paralegal, a licensed realtor, and certified tax preparer. She is the president of the Arkansas Chapter of the Eastern Star Jurisdiction and is a member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

When the outgoing lady talks about her mother, she frequently uses the word “resilient” to describe her first earth angel. She even wears a bracelet that says, “I am resilient.” The second earth angel who ensured her safety that year was not only helping a child but was also making a statement to the community as a spiritual leader. “We shouldn’t judge people by their appearance, like the nun who didn’t judge me by the color of my skin, but she saw a child who had a need and her focus was `let me get this child to safety’,” Deborah said.