Every parent faces the question each day of what kind of world they will build for their children. Sometimes a better world can start with work as simple as going to work to provide a stable home or spending time with them. And sometimes brave souls upend the entire system to give everyone an opportunity at a good life. Adolphine Fletcher Terry was a leader in many important social causes in the state throughout her life, causes that greatly improved the lives of many. In 1958, this would all be tested with the closure of Little Rock schools in the midst of the fight over integration.
Adolphine Fletcher was born into a life of privilege. Born in Little Rock in 1882, she was the daughter of John Gould Fletcher, a Confederate veteran and local politician. Her father had served as mayor of Little Rock from 1875 to 1881, and maintained a fortune through his cotton investments and banking activities. Her younger brother, also named John Gould Fletcher, became a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.
She attended the best schools. In 1898, at 15, she graduated from Peabody High School. Afterward, she attended Vassar College in New York, a prestigious women’s college, and graduated in 1902.
Fletcher married Little Rock attorney David Terry in 1910, with whom she had two sons and two daughters and later adopted a fifth child. Her husband’s political aspirations inspired her to work even more with local charities and causes. He went on to serve on the Little Rock School Board from 1929 to 1933 and in Congress from 1933 to 1943.
In 1911, she was asked to chair the Pulaski County juvenile court board to oversee punishments and rehabilitation efforts for young offenders. She took some of these young offenders into her own home, acting as a foster mother. By 1917, through her work with youth, she lobbied for the creation of the Arkansas Boys Industrial School and the Girls Industrial School, both designed to reform juvenile offenders and offer them employable skills. The schools later became part of the Pine Bluff Youth Services Center.
Terry and her sister, Mary Fletcher, were also heavily involved in the women’s suffrage movement. In 1911, Mary Fletcher founded the Political Equality League, and the two tirelessly lobbied legislators to give women the vote. The efforts of the two, along with hundreds of other suffragists across the state in 1917 led to women gaining the right to vote in primaries (which essentially were the elections in the state’s one-party political climate).
By the 1920s, she was serving as a trustee for the Little Rock Public Library. She served on the board for more than 40 years and successfully lobbied for legislation that provided state aid for the creation of local libraries. Her love of books led her to write three of her own throughout her life.
She faced one of her greatest challenges in 1958. Rather than allow Little Rock public schools to proceed with integration after the 1957 Central High crisis, voters chose to shut down the public schools entirely. At the age of 76, she had no children in school. Yet, she believed that she still had a responsibility to the city. She was going to make sure she would leave behind a better world.
The consequences of a long, bitter legacy were bearing down on Little Rock.
Rather than change, rather than face the inevitable future, and rather than give their children the tools they needed to face that future, the majority turned away in disgust with the closure.
Terry stepped into action and formed the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools. A network of community activists formed to reopen the schools, working to change the opinions of voters, business leaders, and local politicians. She worked for months on the issue, releasing a study on the economic damage the school closure was taking on the city. The WEC, in concert with other organizations, successfully petitioned to recall three segregationists on the school board. The three were defeated, and Little Rock schools reopened in the fall of 1959.
Nevertheless, the damage was done. With their educations so disrupted by the lost school year of 1958-1959, many Little Rock children never returned to school. What these young men and women could have been, what skills they could have developed, and what they could have offered the community and the world was lost forever because of the forces of hate at work.
Terry died in Little Rock in 1976. She left behind an immeasurable legacy in the city, including the thousands of students who are able to attend Little Rock public schools today. A library was named in her honor in the years after her passing. In 2015, she was inducted in the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame.