In September 1957, great steps were made in eliminating the last vestiges of segregation in the nation’s public schools. Two of the people who appeared to be at the forefront of this were from Grand Forks, N.D., one in a direct way and the other in an indirect way.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education that all public schools needed to desegregate. Most of the school districts in the Deep South followed this directive, but some decided to implement this on a gradual basis, like the one in Little Rock, Ark.

In the fall of 1957, nine African American students were registered to attend the all-white Little Rock Central High School, but this was resisted by a group of segregationist parents who threatened disruptive and possibly physical actions if the black students were allowed to attend. Ronald Davies was a U.S. district judge for the District of North Dakota, but in late August, he was temporarily assigned to the Eastern District of Arkansas because “no judge had been sitting there for several months.”

Fearing violence, the chancellor of the Little Rock's Pulaski County Court granted an injunction to keep the school segregated, but on Sept. 3, Judge Davies nullified the injunction and ordered the school board to proceed with integration. To prevent the black students from entering, Gov. Orval Faubus sent the Arkansas National Guard to the school. At this point, many people expected President Dwight D. Eisenhower to intervene, but no federal action was taken.

On the evening of Sept. 17, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong and his jazz group were putting on a concert at Central High School in Grand Forks. Larry Lubenow, a part-time staff reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, went to conduct an interview with Armstrong prior to the concert. When he arrived at Armstrong’s hotel room, the musician had just finished watching the evening news, which showed a black, female student being spit on when she was attempting to attend Little Rock Central High School. Armstong was incensed, and he told Lubenow that the president was basically a coward “for allowing Faubus to run the country.”

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Louis Armstrong being interviewed on Grand Forks, N.D., radio by Jack French in 1957, when Armstrong and his All Stars band performed at Central High School. Armstrong made national news in a Herald interview when he spoke out about the state of race relations in the country. French family photo / Special to The Forum
Louis Armstrong being interviewed on Grand Forks, N.D., radio by Jack French in 1957, when Armstrong and his All Stars band performed at Central High School. Armstrong made national news in a Herald interview when he spoke out about the state of race relations in the country. French family photo / Special to The Forum

Not only did the Herald print the article on the front page the next day, but the Associated Press ran the story nationally. On Sept. 20, Davies ordered the governor to remove the National Guardsmen, and on the 24th , Eisenhower deployed 1,200 troops from the 101st Airborne Division to escort the black students to the school. Armstrong and many others attributed Lubenow’s article for finally getting the president to take action.

Larry Ray Lubenow was born July 10, 1936, in Edinburgh, located in Walsh County, N.D., to Alfred and Helen (Hoist) Lubenow. Alfred ran a grocery store, and the family lived above the store. The Lubenows later moved to Northwood, N.D., where Larry attended high school. Larry loved fishing and baseball and was a devoted fan of the New York Yankees, and he idolized his brother, Wayne, who was 10 years his senior.

Larry was a good student, graduating high school as the salutatorian in 1954. Following in his older brother’s footsteps, Larry enrolled at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, majoring in journalism. To help pay for his education, he also worked part time at the Herald as a reporter, earning $1.75 an hour.

On Sept. 17, 1957, Larry was told by his supervisor at the paper to go to the Dacotah Hotel and get an interview with Armstrong, who was putting on a concert later that evening. Armstrong was the first African American permitted to stay at the hotel. When Lubenow arrived, he was told by Armstrong’s road manager that “he couldn’t see Satchmo until after the concert.” Lubenow knew this would not work because it would be past the deadline to get the article in for the next day’s newspaper.

One of his best friends was the bell captain, whose duty was to supervise the bellhops and porters. The bell captain dressed Lubenow up in a bellhop’s uniform and went with him into Armstrong’s room with the requested lobster dinner. After entering the room, Lubenow revealed his true purpose to Armstrong and said, “If I don’t come back with a story, I will be fired,” and the musician agreed to take part in the interview.

Lubenow said, “I asked one question about music, and then I asked Louis if he knew that he was staying in the hometown of Judge Ronald Davies who made the decision at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Little Rock. He said he didn’t, and then went off.”

This was uncharacteristic for Armstrong, because he rarely talked about political issues, which had irritated a number of African Americans. In fact, Jet magazine had labeled him an “Uncle Tom,” a black man considered to be excessively servile to white people.

Armstrong started out, “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.” He then went on to claim that Eisenhower had “no guts to let Faubus call in the National Guard to prevent black students from integrating the high school” and concluded with, “It’s getting so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country.”

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Lubenow thanked Armstrong, knowing he had a bombshell story, and hurried back to the Herald to write it. The Herald ran the story on the front page the next morning with the headline, “Satchel Blasts School District.” The article was also filed with the Associated Press (AP), but “the AP editor in Minneapolis refused to put the story on the national news wire until Lubenow could prove he hadn’t made it all up.”

To prove it, Lubenow returned to the Dacotah the next morning and showed the article to Armstrong, who said, “Don’t take nothing out of that story. That’s just what I said, and still say.” Armstrong then wrote “solid” on the bottom of the page and signed his name.

Once it was on the AP wire, the story was picked up by all the major newspapers, as well as the radio and television networks, and the fallout was swift. Armstrong was criticized by many, and his sponsors were boycotted.

However, it mainly galvanized and energized many in the African American community and awakened many white Americans to the serious injustice that was occurring in many areas across the country. Less than a week after the story ran, the president ordered federal troops to protect black students for the rest of the school year.

Lubenow graduated from UND in 1958 and went to work at the Bismarck Tribune. When our involvement in Vietnam started to heat up in the 1960s, he enlisted in the Army and served for 10 years. Lubenow served two tours of duty in Vietnam and received a Bronze Star. He then joined Carl Byoir & Associates, a renowned New York public relations firm.

In 1991, he moved to Austin, Texas, and established his own successful public relations firm, Larry Lubenow & Associates. Lubenow died on May 8, 2014.

(Update for the Nov. 24 column about Harrison Allen: Thanks to the sleuthing of readers Bonnie Johnson and Brett Miller, they have discovered that the former Allen mansion in Washington, D.C., has been converted into a boutique hotel and the billboard banner has been removed.)

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.