|THE ROBINSON LIBRARY|
Robinson Library >> American
History >> United States:
Local History and Description
Southwest >> Arkansas
longest serving Governor in Arkansas history
Orval Eugene Faubus was born in a rented log cabin in southern Madison County on January 7, 1910. His father was a self-educated farmer who was such a fervent opponent of capitalism that he named all three of his sons for socialist heroes -- "Eugene" was for Eugene V. Debs.
Although he only had an eighth-grade education, Faubus earned a teaching certificate from Commonwealth College, a left-wing, self-help institution, in 1928. In 1931 he married Alta Haskins, a preacher's daughter, with whom he subsequently had one son.
Despite having grown up in a staunchly Socialist-leaning household, Faubus came to lean much more to the right, especially after President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal took hold. He joined the Democratic Party in the mid-1930's, and soon after decided to enter the world of politics. In 1936 he ran for the State House of Representatives. Although he lost the election, his passion and desire earned him respect, and in 1938 he was elected Circuit Clerk and Recorder of Madison County.
During World War II, Faubus served as an Army intelligence officer in five major European campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge, and attained the rank of Major.
After the war, Faubus returned to the Madison County seat of Huntsville as Postmaster. He and his wife subsequently bought the town's weekly newspaper, the Madison County Record. His editorials on education, healthcare, and highways caught the attention of Sidney S. McMath, another war hero and leader of Arkansas's "GI Revolt," which swept many old-line politicians out of office. Faubus campaigned for McMath for Governor in 1948, and was rewarded with an appointment to the State Highway Commission.
In 1954, Faubus challenged incumbent Governor Francis A. Cherry, who had defeated McMath in 1952. During the primary campaign he attacked electric utility interests and Cherry's political awkwardness, and stood up for elderly on welfare by throwing Cherry's remarks about "welfare chiselers" and "deadheads" in his face. The two men campaigned themselves into a run-off election. During the subsequent "new" campaign, Cherry tried to make an issue out of Faubus' time at Commonwealth College, but the tactic failed. Faubus defeated Cherry by almost 7,000 votes, and then went on to defeat Little Rock's Republican Mayor, Pratt Remmel, in the general election, by a landslide.
Faubus had the fortune of being Governor during a period of major industrialization in Arkansas' economy, allowing him to implement major improvements in the state's infrastructure and social policies. He oversaw numerous improvements in public education, including a large increase in teachers' pay; initiated an overhaul of the State Hospital for the Mentally Ill; built the state's first institution for underdeveloped children, the Arkansas Children's Colony; expanded state parks; forced the Army Corps of Engineers to abandon plans to dam the Buffalo River; and saw hundreds of miles of highways paved. He also desegregated public transportation and began working on a program to integrate public schools.
But Faubus also had the misfortune of being Governor when it came time to actually integrate Arkansas' schools. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in 1954 that segregated schools were unconstitutional, a position that Faubus did not necessarily disagree with. However, when the federal government determined in 1957 that nine black students had the right to attend then all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Governor Faubus rebelled, calling it "enforced integration" and a violation of a state's right to determine its own educational policies. On September 2, 1957, Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the black students' admission to the school. A federal judge ordered the guardsmen removed, but when the students returned to the school they were met by a mob of enraged segregationists. Fighting broke out, and the "Little Rock Nine," as they had come to be called, had to be escorted out of the building by local police. In response, President Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and sent Army troops to restore order. The "Little Rock Nine" finally gained admission to the high school, and the rest of the school year progressed with little interruption.
Faubus's willingness to stand up against the federal government won him many supporters, even within the black community, and he would go on to serve a total of six two-year terms, making him the longest-serving Governor in Arkansas history. Despite his being seen as a racist during the Little Rock incident, Faubus's administration actually favored the black minority on many occasions. He hired many blacks for state government positions, made sure historically black colleges and other institutions received adequate funding, and fought to abolish the discriminatory poll tax and replace it with a more modern and equitable voter registration system.
Although he had chosen not to run for another term in 1968, Faubus tried to regain the Governor's office three times over the subsequent years -- in 1970, 1974, and 1986. None of his attempts came close to success. Aside from serving as State Director of Veterans' Affairs from 1981 to 1983, he never held another political office.
In 1969, Faubus brought the wrath of Arkansas down upon him by divorcing his wife, Alta, who had been widely loved and admired by the citizenry. His marriage to Elizabeth Westmoreland made those same citizens even more unhappy.
Tragedy struck in 1976, when his only son, Farrell, was found dead of a drug overdose. By 1983 he had separated from Elizabeth, who that year was murdered in her home in Houston, Texas, where she had moved while awaiting the couple's divorce. He married Jan Hines Wittenberg in 1986, and the two lived in Conway until his death from prostate cancer on December 14, 1996. He is buried in Combs Cemetery, near his birthplace in Madison County.
Governor Orval Faubus's memoirs, Down from the Hills, were published in 1980.
This page was last updated on February 10, 2017.