LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — LITTLE ROCK, Ark.-- --It was in September 1957 that Little Rock's Central High School was ordered to abide by federal law and integrate.
The result was turmoil on the school's campus and an ugly time for nine black students who tried to enter the school. They endured daily harassment and even death threats.
While Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) outlawed the concept of segregated schools, many still resisted change. Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus insisted Central High School would never be integrated.
He ordered Arkansas National Guard troops to block the black students from setting foot inside the school.
In response, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered in the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles, to the Arkansas capital to protect the kids who became known as the Little Rock Nine. That was Sept. 23, 1957.
Last summer, I visited the setting, Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, which continues to operate as a secondary school. This month and in September, the National Park Service will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the racial upheaval that captured the attention of and helped to change a nation.
The site is "a testimony to the progress that has been made in this country. When we step back and look at the events of 1957, they are something that seems unimaginable today," says National Park Service ranger Spirit Trickey, who led the walking tour.
A gas station -- a Spanish-tiled Magnolia Mobil -- sits across the street from the high school and has been refurbished to look as it did in 1957. It currently serves as the visitors center. However, it will be converted to an education center because a new visitors center, being constructed across the street, opens in September.
In the meantime, the building is filled with posted commentary and historic news clips shown on period television sets. On one vintage, wood-cased, black-and-white television, Eisenhower speaks to the nation: "Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of the courts."
A timeline details the school year, 1957-1958, from the first day the Little Rock Nine were refused entry by the Arkansas National Guard to May 25, 1958, when student Ernest Green became the first black student to graduate from Central High School.
There is a panel that displays the disparities between Central High and all-black Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, underscoring the concept of separate but not equal. For instance, at Dunbar: "library books: 5,000"; at Central: "library books: 11,000."
While touring the site, I met Harold W. Bussabarger, a veteran of the 101st Airborne Division that protected the Little Rock Nine on that heated day.
The exhibit includes television coverage of the integration crisis.
"I'm in there somewhere," Bussabarger says, as the camera panned a line of soldiers.
He gave me an account of how the military arrived in Little Rock.
"We were loaded on a plane and landed at the Air Force base [Camp Robinson] at night, then driven to the school after dark," he says. "We circled the school and we formed a spearhead formation to break up the mobs. It was a big ordeal.
"It was scary. We heard all kinds of chants, 'Two, four, six, eight, we're not going to integrate,'" Bussabarger says. "You wouldn't believe some of the chants we heard."
Trickey has her own connection to the school. Her mother, Minnijean Brown, was one of the Little Rock Nine.
"I really make an effort to tell young people who my mother is because I think it gives the story more of a human connection," Trickey says. "It also gives them an understanding of how recent in our history it took place.
"Sometimes kids get really excited when I tell them who my mother is, but the reaction varies from group to group," she says.
"I want all children to learn about the Little Rock Nine so that they can be inspired by the story of regular kids, like themselves, who made such great change in the world," Trickey says.
During the tour, Trickey explains that the gas station sits on Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive. (It was known as 14th Street until 2001, when it was renamed.)
Daisy Bates was the leader of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and instrumental in helping the students weather the abuse. Trickey also points out landmarks seen in the 1957 videos in the visitors center that are still there. A tree in front of a Park Street house where an African-American figure was burned in effigy stands by the road.
Ponder's Drug Store, where one of the nine, Elizabeth Eckford, tried to use a pay phone to escape a mob, is there, abandoned and boarded up. Eckford was rescued by Grace Lorch, a white woman who asked the harassers, "Would you do this to your own child?"
Depending on the school schedule, walking tours may include the Central High building. The sturdy structure's tangible nods to its place in civil rights history are photographs and commentaries of the Little Rock Nine in the foyer.
Our tour took us down hallways into a spacious auditorium. It is benign and empty, but to one of the Nine, Melba Pattillo Beals, the auditorium was the scariest room in the school.
Beals wrote in her book Warriors Don't Cry that at assemblies and pep rallies, "I was surrounded by a sea of hostile faces and a chorus of hurtful words. There weren't enough teachers or guards on earth to corral the out-of-control students. We came to refer to the auditorium as the torture chamber."
Close by is the Central High Commemorative Garden. Dedicated in 2001, the garden is highlighted by nine trees and benches symbolizing the Little Rock Nine, and two arches whose brick and concrete exteriors are evocative of the high school's facade.
The arches' interiors are covered with mirrored photo collages that would fit perfectly in any high school yearbook; in this case they tell the story of Central High School from its construction in 1927 to the 1957 integration crisis and beyond.
Etched onto the concrete walking path is a passage titled, "The Spirit of Central High." It reads, in part, "This commemorative garden is to celebrate the ability of people to overcome adversity and to recognize and honor the triumph of the collective good over the betterment of only a few."
The garden isn't Little Rock's only tribute to the students. Several blocks away, on the grounds of the state Capitol, nine bronze statues representing each of the students face the governor's office windows. The statues, in a cluster, are attired in clothes of the day; each carries books.
Postscript: Eight of the nine students finished the 1957-1958 school year at Central. After enduring a series of racially motivated incidents and egged on by a number of white students, Minnijean Brown dumped a bowl of chili on the shoulders of a white youth in January 1958. She was suspended for nine days; after other incidents, she was expelled.
The 1958-1959 school year at Central High School was canceled due to inability to successfully implement a feasible integration system.
All the Little Rock Nine went on to college; eight earned bachelor's degrees; four earned master's degrees.
Today, the student body of Central High School is 53 percent black.
The Little Rock Nine
Minnijean Brown Trickey -- attended Southern Illinois University. She then received a bachelor of social work in native human resources from Laurentian University and a master of social work from Carleton University, both in Canada. She is a social activist.
Elizabeth Eckford --who joined the Army and later attended Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, has worked a variety of jobs, including military reporter, history teacher and welfare worker.
Ernest Green --earned a bachelor's degree in 1962 and a master's degree in sociology in 1964, both from Michigan State University. He was appointed assistant secretary of housing and urban affairs in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter. Green works today as an investment firm executive in Washington, D.C.
Thelma Mothershed Weir --graduated from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale in 1964 before earning a master's degree in guidance and counseling from Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. She taught home economics in East St. Louis, Ill., for 28 years before retiring in 1994.
Melba Pattillo Beals --graduated from San Francisco State University, then earned an advanced degree in communications from Columbia University. She has worked as a reporter for NBC and as a communications consultant. Her book Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High chronicles her experiences during the integration crisis.
Carlotta Walls LaNier --received a bachelor of science degree from Colorado State College (now the University of Northern Colorado). She founded LaNier and Co., a real estate brokerage firm, in 1977. LaNier is currently the president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation, a scholarship organization dedicated to ensuring equal access to education for African-Americans.
Terrence Roberts --left Little Rock and moved to California, graduating from Los Angeles High School in 1959. He received a bachelor's degree in sociology from California State University in 1967 and a master's degree in social welfare from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1970. He earned a doctorate in psychology from Southern Illinois University in 1976. Roberts became the department chairman of the psychology program at Antioch University in Los Angeles in 1994. He is on the Antioch faculty and works as a speaker and consultant.
Jefferson Thomas --became an accountant for the U.S. Department of Defense and is now retired.
Gloria Ray Karlmark --moved from Little Rock and she and her family settled in Missouri, where she graduated from Kansas City Central High School. Karlmark earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry and mathematics from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. She has worked as a systems analyst, teacher and technical writer.
Source: National Park Service
If You Go
Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
2125 Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive, Little Rock, Ark.
9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sundays; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day
free; walking tours given periodically
501-374-1957 or nps.gov/chsc
Black History Events
Daisy Bates Day. To commemorate the life achievements and legacy of NAACP leader Daisy L. Gatson Bates, Central High School National Historic Site will present the program The Life of Daisy Bates, featuring storyteller Sheila Arnold in character as Bates, at 1 p.m. at the visitors center. Free. The National Park Service rangers from the historic site will also provide tours at the Daisy Bates house. Call 501-374-1957.
The historic site, in partnership with Market Street Cinema and the Ozark Foothills Film Fest, presents The Reel Civil Rights Film Festival at Market Street Cinema, 1521 Merrill Drive, West Little Rock. Free. Featured films include The Ernest Green Story, Journey to Little Rock: The Untold Story of Minnijean Brown Trickey, The Lost Year, A Girl Like Me and Turning Points of History: The Little Rock Nine. Call 501-374-1957 for times.
Other events are planned in September to commemorate the 50th anniversary. Go to centralhigh57.org and nps.gov/state/ar.
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