First African American Students Who Integrated Chandler High Honored at Celebration Plaza


Tyler Irwin

Willie Arbuckle speaks at Celebration Plaza in Tumbleweed Park, Chandler, Arizona on January 28. 2023.

Tyler Irwin and Madeline Moran

On January 28, 2023, Chandler Mayor Kevin Hartke and Mr. Willie Arbuckle spoke at a very special ceremony at Celebration Plaza at Tumbleweed Park, celebrating Arbuckle and seven other African American students who integrated Chandler High School 74 years ago. A brass plaque honoring Arbuckle, Robert Turner, Artie Mae Turner, Joella Arbuckle, Ernestine Jackson, Willie Ruth Payne, J. L. Payne, and Nina Loftan was installed at Celebration Plaza to commemorate these important pioneers in Chandler history. At the dedication ceremony attended by Mr. Arbuckle, family members of the other students, and community members, Arbuckle, a kind and genuine speaker, painted an insightful picture of what those first days were like for him. 

The integration of Chandler High was four years ahead of the 1954 US Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education and a monumental feat in the fight for civil rights. In an interview with ABC15, Arbuckle said about his first day, “It was totally uneventful. It was as if we didn’t exist. We were invisible. Not in a bad way.” 

Although Chandler High School was integrated in 1949, the rest of the city was not. “It was just a time of complete segregation, everywhere but Chandler High School,” Arbuckle stated.

Another student, Ernestine Jackson Johnson, shared her point of view from their first days at Chandler High with 12News, saying, “There were some rough moments that first year… We could never sit in any restaurant or buy ice cream in the corner drug store.” 

The plaque honoring Arbuckle and his classmates is an important step in honoring this history, but it’s critical to keep sharing these stories. As Arbuckle said, “People need to know about it. Not so much because it was me, but because it happened. It’s total history.” 

We learn about public school integration in our United States history classes, but it’s easy to forget that this history happened in our city, not so long ago. While Brown v. Board of Education was a national story covered across the country, Willie Arbuckle, Robert Turner, Artie Mae Turner, Joella Arbuckle, Ernestine Jackson, Willie Ruth Payne, J. L. Payne, and Nina Loftan were trailblazers in the fight for civil rights in Arizona, right here at Chandler High School. Even though they felt “invisible,” these brave students made a visible impact on the city of Chandler and our entire country.