Wednesday, June 12, 2013

LBJ and the Stella School

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

Stella, Missouri, is a small farming community in southern Newton County that had an unexpected brush with the national civil rights movement in 1960.  At that time the town had a population of less than two hundred.

The Stella School (grades 6-12) burned to the ground in a flash fire on January 15, 1959.  I was in fifth grade in a small town approximately thirty miles from Stella when the fire occurred, and I remember hearing about it in the local media.  The school encompassed a large farming area, and the student population was approximately twice that of the town when the fire occurred. 

A recently abandoned Army base, Fort Crowder, was located just north of Stella, and military officials offered to loan the school district the fort’s three-story brick officer’s club for a temporary school at a “nominal” fee.   The district accepted the offer, probably assuming that “nominal” meant a dollar.  But when the bill came due the Army wanted just over $1,500 for three months or $6,000 for a year.  District officials were outraged at the greed of the Army, and they petitioned their representative in Congress, Charlie Brown (really!), to write a bill excusing the district from having to pay the debt.

Congressman Brown got his legislation through the House of Representatives, but when it reached the floor of the Senate, Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson chose to attach several amendments to that particular bill dealing with civil rights in the United States.    Johnson couldn’t get his civil rights legislation voted out of committee, so he used the Stella School Bill to bring the debate on civil rights to the floor of the Senate.

Some in the all-white community were less than pleased at that turn of events.  Mayor Orville Pogue suggested that a new bill needed to be written so that their small request would not be held hostage to the bigger debate on civil rights.  Superintendent Don Parsons was quick to point out that there were no “Negroes” in the Stella School District.

The district wound up paying the army $1,500 for the use of its abandoned officer’s club on Fort Crowder.  Three years later, when the building housing Stella’s first and second grades burned, the Army again offered the use of one of its buildings for a “nominal” fee – and offer the district quickly declined until the new congressman, Durward Hall, got the fee eliminated.

Years later I had a professor in college who said that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 came to the floor of the Senate as an amendment to the Stella School Bill.  That does not appear to be the case, but undoubtedly some of the meat of the bill probably first made its way into Senate debate as a result of the citizens of Stella, Missouri, trying to keep from paying their debt to the Army.

Related Trivia: 

Fort Crowder was, during World War II, the largest inland base in America (at least according to my mother).  One of its more famous alums was comedian Dick Van Dyke who often referenced Fort Crowder on his television show in the 1960’s.

The town of Stella used to have a forty-seven bed hospital that was owned by a married couple of doctors who last name was Fountain.  I was a patient there for a few days in the fall of 1965 after a motor scooter accident on a gravel road.   Unfortunately, that hospital stay caused me to miss Homecoming and my senior trip to Tulsa.  One of the get well gifts from my classmates was an issue of Playboy Magazine.  That was risqué back in the day!  The last time I was through Stella, maybe a decade ago, that little hospital had morphed into a nursing home.

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