Black Pioneers: Silas H. Hunt

Silas Herbert Hunt was a World War II veteran and pioneer in the integration of higher education. On this date in 1948, Hunt arrived at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville to apply for admission to the law school. Hunt became the first African American student admitted to the university since Reconstruction and the first Black student to be admitted for graduate or professional studies at any all-white university in the former Confederacy, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Silas Hunt was born on March 1, 1922, in Ashdown, Ark. In 1936, his family moved to Texarkana. After graduating from Booker T. Washington High School in 1941 as salutatorian, he attended the Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College at Pine Bluff (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff).

Hunt put his education on hold when he was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II. He was stationed in Europe, where he served with construction engineers for 23 months before being seriously wounded at the Battle of the Bulge. After his recovery, Hunt returned to AM&N and graduated in 1947 with a Bachelor of Arts in English. He worked briefly in the dean’s office after graduation while applying to numerous law schools.

Hunt was accepted by the University of Indiana School of Law and planned to enter the school when he learned of former AM&N classmate Ada Sipuel’s legal battle to overturn the University of Oklahoma College of Law’s policies against admitting Black students. While Sipuel was unsuccessful, she inspired Hunt and classmate Wiley Branton to take action. 

Southern colleges and universities were so segregated at the time that Southern states would pay the tuition for Black students to attend a Black colleges rather than admit them to white universities. With the support of Branton and Lawrence Davis, president of AM&N, Hunt applied to the University of Arkansas School of Law with the hopes of breaking the color barrier and obtaining a law degree.

In the spring of 1948, Hunt attended segregated classes in the basement of the law school. White students were not restricted from taking these classes, and between three and five students attended each of these classes regularly. 

Illness cut Hunt’s studies short. He was hospitalized at the Veteran’s Hospital in Springfield, Mo., where he died on April 22, 1949, from tuberculosis, a possible complication from his war injuries. He is buried in the Stateline Cemetery in Texarkana.

In 2007, the state legislature made Feb. 2, the day Hunt enrolled in classes, a memorial day in his name. In 2008, the University of Arkansas School of Law awarded Hunt a posthumous degree. In 2012, a sculpture by University of Central Arkansas professor Bryan Massey Sr. honoring Hunt was dedicated on the Fayetteville campus.