In The Steps of Esteban: Tucson's African American Heritage

Go to A Brief HistoryGo to Biographies & Oral Histories
Go to Special Topics & Publications
Go to Photographic Exhibits
To to Lesson Plans & Ideas
Go to Videos
Go to Related Web Pages
Go to In The Steps of Esteban's homepage


Rubin Salter, Jr.

Summary of a 1988 oral history by Baiza Muhammad; 1996

Rubin Salter, Jr. was born in 1936 to Rubin, Sr. and Mattie Oliver Salter in the county of Newton (town of Hickory) Mississippi. He was the oldest of three children. Rubin came to Tucson in 1952 to attend the University of Arizona. He selected the UA because he wanted to attend a university that was not segregated. He graduated in 1956 with a B.S. in Political Science. After serving in the military for several years, he returned to Tucson to enter the UA College of Law, graduating in 1964.

In 1976 he was approached by former NAACP president Grover Banks to act as lead attorney on the largest school segregation case in the history of Arizona. The results of this legal action brought many changes to Tucson-area schools including a better ethnic mix of faculty and students in all schools, greater cultural awareness for teachers and students, and new, innovative programs to encourage diversity.

Rubin Salter has received many honors and awards. In 1968 and 1978 he was honored as Man of the Year; in 1979, he received the Urban League's Citizen of the Year Award; and in 1981, the Arizona Education Association honored him with their Humanitarian Award of the Year. Rubin was also admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961, and was admitted to practice before the Arizona Court of Appeals and the Arizona Supreme Court in 1968.

An Interview with Rubin Salter, Jr.; 1988
by Baiza Muhammad

Attorney Salter was interviewed by Baiza Muhammad, an honor student in the African American History Internship Project. Mrs. Muhammad also wrote this narrative.

Rubin Salter, Jr. was born in 1936 to Rubin, Sr., and Mittie Oliver Salter in the county of Newton (town of Hickory) Mississippi. His parents later moved to Freeport, Illinois. Mr. Salter, who now practices law in Tucson, is the oldest of three children. He has a sister, Yvonne, and a brother, Larry. Rubin is married to Rosetta, and they have three children: Kelly, 12, Kimberley, 9, and Kristian, 7.

In 1952, at the age of 16, Rubin was looking for a place to attend college. His main preference was that it not be segregated. The University of Arizona fit that requirement, and Rubin came to Tucson to enroll. In 1956 he graduated with his B.S. degree in Political Science. Two years later, he was drafted into the army where he attained the rank of E-5 as an electronics specialist. After receiving an honorable discharge and Medal of Good Conduct in 1960, he returned to Tucson to enter the University of Arizona's College of Law. In 1964 Rubin graduated with his Jurist Doctorate degree. And in September of that same year, he took his Bar exam and thereafter was officially sworn in by the Arizona Bar Association, allowing him to practice law. Some of Attorney Salter's other achievements and affiliations will be noted later.

Either due to providence or an ironic of fate, in 1976, twenty-four years after Rubin came to Arizona because he wanted to attend a University that was not segregated, he found himself being approached by former NAACP president, Grover Banks, to act as lead attorney on the largest school segregation case in the history of Arizona. The suit, filed in the Federal District of Arizona, involved five teams of attorneys, three judges (two have since died), four years of preparation, one year for the first judge to reach his decision, approximately three million dollars spent in defense of the suit, and 60 to 70 millions dispersed in Federal and State aid. On Friday, April 8, 1988, this landmark case, known as Fisher vs. Lohr, entered its twelfth year in the Arizona court system.

Attorney Salter describes briefly how and why this case came about and what it has produced.

In the mid-1800's there were very few Blacks living in Tucson, so it didn't seem a major concern where and with whom they went to school. As their numbers rose to nearly 1,000 by the early 1900's, the Territorial Legislature mandated that 'children of African descent' receive segregated schooling from kindergarten through eighth grade. When Arizona became a state in 1912, the newly elected Legislature changed the wording to 'permissible' -- no longer 'mandatory,' but permissible to segregate Black children.

Along with many other schools throughout Arizona, the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) opted to continue the practice of school segregation--creating what they called the first Colored school located at 215 East Sixth Street (where the old Firestone building stands now). The school was later moved to a building on West Second Street and renamed Dunbar.

Thirty-nine years later, in 1951, and to the credit of the superintendent of schools Bob Morrow, Tucson schools voluntarily agreed to dismantle the old Dunbar segregated school system. In 1952 Dunbar was integrated and its name changed to John Spring.

It seemed progress had been made. However, there was another factor of racial segregation based on residence. We could trace where they just put all the Black children's families in a concentrated residential area (aided by realty patterns) and then assigned the majority of Black teachers to schools in those residential areas. Once we dug into school board records, we saw where there were deliberate attempts to gerrymander school districts and assign students based upon race and ethnicity. In other words, we could find where there were pockets of Anglos in the midst of Mexican American and Black neighborhoods. The Mexican Americans and Blacks went to school together, but the Anglos were so gerrymandered (divided into voting districts) that they went to Anglo schools.

In order to break this practice up, we had to bring it to the attention of the TUSD board who had been chartered by the state with the responsibility of educating children in the district. We documented our case of deliberate segregation practices and they steadfastly denied that there was "intentional" segregation. They said that there was segregation, but it was not intentional and therefore, they were not mandated by court order to do anything. We disagreed, filed suit and proved our theory that they never actually dismantled the segregated system of 1951.

We wanted to eliminate assignment patterns and feeder patterns that continued to perpetuate a segregated system. We demonstrated that the effects of this practice had produced what is called an "accumulative" deficit, in regards to the Black and Mexican American students. Attorneys Mendoza and Zevala represented the Mexican Americans and the NAACP represented the Black students. We established that there was a disproportionate number of Black students and Black teachers. This caused over-crowding, which produced lower efficiency, which, in turn, produced higher dropout rates. The building facilities were not as good or as well-equipped as those of the Anglo schools, and the children received inferior education. We wanted this dismantled completely.

In the twelve years we have been involved, we have presented literally rooms of documents and spent thousands of hours in our effort to ensure that segregation practices never function in the Tucson Unified School District again. We believe we have been successful in achieving these goals.

The legal action brought about by the NAACP, with Mr. Salter as the lead attorney, has spun many changes: there is now a Black Studies Department in TUSD, greater cultural awareness for teachers and students, a better mix of faculty assignments, dropout rates have decreased, there is no longer a disproportional number of Black students assigned to Special Education classes, and new, innovative programs are on the drawing board.

There can be no doubt that any attempt, large or small, to achieve justice and equality for those who have been deprived of it will produce fruitful results. Rubin Salter, Jr.'s long involvement in the legal and educational framework of Arizona has not gone unnoticed. In 1968 and 1978 he was honored as Man of the Year; in 1979, he received the Urban League's Citizen of the Year Award; and in 1981, the Arizona Education Association honored him with their Humanitarian Award of the Year. Rubin is a member of the Pima Bar, American Bar, National Bar Associations, and the National District Attorneys Association. In 1961, he was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1968 admitted to practice before the Arizona Court of Appeals and the Arizona Supreme Court. Rubin is a 33rd degree Mason in the United Council ; he holds a lifetime membership in the NAACP and is a member of the Elks Lodge, Tucson Number 30, the El Rio Neighborhood Center, and Tucson Tomorrow.

The Arizona Historical Society and AHIP greatly appreciate the insights Attorney Salter extended to our history program and recognize that this is by no the last account Arizonans will hear of Rubin Salter, Jr., Attorney-at-law.

return to top