“No Struggle, No Fight, No Court Battle”: The 1948 Desegregation of the University of Arkansas School of Medicine

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Abstract

In 1948, over 30 percent of the approved medical schools in the United States excluded black students. However, on September 10, 1948, the University of Arkansas School of Medicine became the first Southern medical school to desegregate when Edith Mae Irby matriculated. Her admission occurred without incident. There were no jeering white mob, no court action, and no federal troops. Irby's admission had its roots in a successful legal campaign launched by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to eradicate racial inequalities in professional and graduate education. A confluence of factors led the University of Arkansas to desegregate. These included the state's lack of the financial resources necessary to comply with U.S. Supreme Court decisions, a climate of racial moderation in Arkansas, shrewd political maneuvering by officials at the University of Arkansas, and Irby's academic accomplishments. Irby's historic admission is frequently overlooked as a historical milestone. Its invisibility is due in part to its sharp contrast to the dominant narratives of school desegregation in the South. Yet, the story of Irby's entrance into medical school is critical for a more complete understanding of the history of medical education and the civil rights movement.

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