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'The story needs to be told': First Black students to integrate Chandler High to be honored

Seventy-four years ago, they walked into Chandler High School for the first time, leading to the school’s desegregation back in 1949.

CHANDLER, Ariz. — Decades have passed since Willie Arbuckle walked through Chandler High School for the first time.

“Looking back, I guess it was a momentous occasion,” Arbuckle said.

Now, Arbuckle sees the history he was a part of in 1949.

“It was totally historical changing, you know, and I had nothing to do with it except I was there and I was a student,” Arbuckle said.

Arbuckle, who’s 90 years old, wasn’t just a junior student at the 35-year-old high school but one of the first eight Black students the City of Chandler is honoring for integrating the school.

“At the beginning of the year, there were four of us, Robert Turner, Artie Mae Turner, Willie Arbuckle - me - and my sister Joella (Arbuckle),” Arbuckle said.

Ernestine Jackson, Willie Ruth Payne, J. L. Payne, and Nina Loftan will also be recognized as part of the City of Chandler’s 2022 Celebration Plaza honorees for integrating Chandler High School.

Arbuckle and Robert Turner are recognized as the first Black students to graduate from Chandler High in 1951.

“Coming to an integrated environment was totally different,” Arbuckle said. “I didn’t know what to expect, really, how to react.”

The school was integrated five years before the Supreme Court of the United States decided in 1954 to integrate schools across the US in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

While it was a moment in history to have Chandler High School desegregated, Arbuckle remembers the first day of school differently.

“It was totally uneventful. It was as if we didn't exist. We were invisible. Not in a bad way,” Arbuckle said.

In class, Arbuckle said the students of different races didn’t talk to one another and didn’t outside of school either.

“No one made trouble. Didn’t have any racial slurs that I can remember. Which was a good thing. And we just went through each day like that,” Arbuckle said.

Arbuckle’s cousin, Ernestine Jackson Johnson, is also being recognized by the city as being among the first eight Black Chandler High students.

Johnson, who’s 87 years old now, came to the school her sophomore year after attending an integrated school in California her freshman year. Before that, Johnson said she went to Chandler’s Goodyear School in eighth grade.

“There were some rough moments that first year, but a lot of the kids said, ‘We like it,’’ Johnson said.

Johnson remembers her Chandler High School home economics teacher saying that Black female students couldn’t eat at a nice restaurant on a field trip to Phoenix.

“We said, ‘We're not going if we can't go eat with them.’ There were people in that class that said, ‘If you can't go and eat with us, I'm not going,’” Johnson said.

Both Arbuckle and Johnson recall how, while the campus itself changed, the city itself hadn’t.

“It was just a time of complete segregation, everywhere but Chandler High School,” Arbuckle said.

“We could never it in any restaurants or buy ice cream on the corner drug store,” Johnson said.

Now, they want people to know the reality of what 74 years ago was like.

“The story needs to be told; people need to know about it. Not so much because it was me, but because it happened. It’s total history,” Arbuckle said.

The eight Black students who integrated Chandler High will be honored on Saturday, January 28, at 9 a.m. at the Celebration Plaza inside Tumbleweed Park in Chandler.

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