A small-town African American community, forced to accept second-class materials for its schools, refuses to accept a second-class education for its children, giving rise to Black schools that inspired and cultivated success and pride. The 1968 desegregation of the Malvern, AR schools planned to eliminate this separate and unequal system. But in the process it forced the very students it aimed to help to sacrifice their shared experience and identity. These formative years that most American high school students enjoy and recall with fond memories were stripped away, for the greater good of integration. Forty years have passed, and those boys and girls are men and women with careers and families. Yet they continue to grapple with the memory of this decision made for them, a memory that still reverberates throughout their lives.
Located a mere twenty miles from the resort and gambling center of Hot Springs, Arkansas, post civil war Malvern became an industrial oasis in a largely agricultural state. Freedmen and their descendents left behind ploughs and mules for the prospect of economic stability in the bustling community alongside the Ouachita River. Finding work in its many sawmills and brick factories, they also nurtured their aspirations for the success of the next generation, their children, through education. Malvern supported a relatively prosperous African American community, with thriving Black businesses and a high-percentage of property ownership among its Black citizenry. Despite a tentative harmony between the Black and white citizenry of Malvern, all schools, according to the law and customs of the times, were segregated. Parents and teachers formed a firm but loving circle around the town’s African American children, giving rise to schools that inspired and cultivated success and pride. These children of farmers, brick workers, and merchants would become doctors, judges, politicians, journalists and professional athletes, making significant and influential contributions to their various fields nationwide. As the commitment and dedication to these sacred institutions of education grew, so did the pride of being mighty Wilson “Dragons”, the high school’s mascot. Children dreamed of one day marching in the Wilson Band, or perhaps leading school cheers as a Wilson cheerleader. Playing football as a Wilson Dragon became a rite of passage for every young Black male in town.
While African Americans in this small community had long foreseen the coming of integration, few could have envisioned that it would mean a loss of these schools and this identity in which they were so heavily invested. For the teenagers affected, it meant the closure of a facility that held a sacred place in their hearts and imaginations. Forty years after the closure of the A. A. Wilson High School in Malvern, a former student and Wilson “Dragon”, Reverend Henry Mitchell, purchases the property, narrowly saving it from demolition. After decades of silent abandonment, Reverend Mitchell can envision this building’s next role. As the town struggles with the gradual atrophy of its economic base, Reverend Mitchell pushes forward with the project of reconstructing this facility that once represented so many of his and his classmates’ dreams. He has a new dream sustaining him, in which this building that once represented segregation will be transformed into a community center that celebrates the eventual coming together, through integration, of the African American and white community of the town. But, in these times of dwindling economic resources, will dreams be enough for this town where everything has changed?