Little Rock Central High School, 1957.
"There is no courage at the outset: the courage kicks in later."
While in Little Rock we decided to visit the iconic beacon of the civil rights movement, Central High School.
This school was thrust into the spotlight on September 4, 1957 when Governor Orval Faubus used every means at his disposal (including the National Guard) to prevent nine innocent black students from admittance. While he said it was for their own protection, he (along with the surrounding community) wanted to keep the school segregated.
Because of its historical significance, the school is now considered a National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service. It is still an active high school with a population of over 2,500 students.
We have visited many historic sites along our travels and had expected the usual: a walking tour followed by a dry lecture given by someone with a severe iron deficiency..
But, boy, did we get schooled!
And we owe it to an amazing US Park Service tour guide TONI WEBBER. Although she looked like she was barely out of high school, she was knowledgeable, insightful, kind, gentle, respectful and eloquent. She seemingly held no biases. Harbored no anger. Had no agenda.
She walked us through the horrifying experience faced by nine young black students who wanted nothing more than the opportunity for an equal education. She explained what led up to this explosive event, and that we shouldn't judge the past by the lens of the present.
By time it was over, I found myself enlightened, angry and saddened.
As I listened to the stories of these nine brave students, my mind drifted back to the days when my son, and later my daughter, began attending new high schools. They left the comfortable environs of the place where they spent their Pre-K through eighth grade years. It was a safe protective bubble. We had come to know the teachers (of which, I was one), the system, and the other wonderful students along with their families. But then ninth grade came along and all this changed.
On their first day of high school, after packing their backpacks and giving them a hearty breakfast, we laid our hands on them and prayed for God's protection. Protection from fear, from bullies, from harm. We prayed they'd find good friends, make wise decisions (DDSS!), become involved in enriching school activities and --long prayer short-- "fit in".
But after learning about the Little Rock Nine, my heart wept for those poor mothers and fathers. What did they pray that fateful morning? The children they once cradled in their arms, kissed away their boo-boos, and told bed-time stories to, were being freely sent into a cauldron of vitriol and hate. While I had concerns of the unknowns my children might face, these parents had fear of the known. They were acutely aware of the enemy they were facing. And it was not one that would surrender ground without a vicious fight.
A little bit of history, in 1954 the Supreme Court ruling in the Brown vs. Board of Education struck down "separate but equal", paving the way for all public schools to integrate. Sadly, many states and localities were intentionally slow in implementing this new law.
In most communities, tax dollars where being poured into the white schools, leaving little for those serving the black communities. Wanting nothing more than equal access to a quality education, the NAACP decided that enough was enough.
Who were these nine supremely courageous students?
Jefferson Thomas , Daisy Bates (President of the NAACP of Arksansas), Carlotta Walls, Ernest Green, Melba Patillo, Terrence Roberts
Gloria Ray, Elizabeth Eckford, Minnijean Brown ,Thelma Mothershed
Sadly, all of these names were unfamiliar to me. I was completely ignorant of who they were and what they endured. Knew nothing of their personal stories. Their sacrifices. Their hardships. The hatred. Their great courage, great fear, great faith.
As was explained to us, the Little Rock nine were not some random friends that got together and decided to register at an all white high school. There were approximately eighty black students who went through a series of rigorous interviews (organized by the Arkansas NAACP) to determine who was eligible to be admitted. These students had to be mentally prepared for the academics, emotionally prepared for the bullying and physically prepared for the abuse (they also could not be too good looking because it might be a distraction for their white counterparts).
Although I don't want to repeat what can be found in a history book, there is one particular story I found of interest. And that is of 15 year old Elizabeth Eckford. The night before school year was to commence, word spread that hundreds of protestors were going to descend upon the school. So the NAACP decided, for the safety of the nine children, to call off the event. The only problem was the Eckfords did not own a phone, and failed to get the message.
The next morning, Elizabeth arrived for school dressed in her "Sunday best" only to discover that she was the lone black student. She was completely alone. She is the stoic faced young lady in the first picture. She was berated with taunts and jeers. At the school door she was turned away. I can only imagine the vicious and hateful things that poured out of those angry, white students and their parents (Elizabeth's dress was so covered in spit that it had to be destroyed). The actions of Governor Orval Faubus, to pander to hard line white voters, and a press eager to sell newspapers, inflamed an already volatile situation.
Enduring a year of torment and humiliation, these nine students quietly and courageously endured to became icons of the civil rights movement and a catalyst for a much needed change in the American educational system.
By the way, today the school grounds are meticulously maintained and the hallways are spotless! For a school built in 1927, it is an impressive building. I have to give credit to their principal of 16 years, Nancy Rousseau. Although we didn't have the chance to meet her, she seems to be doing an impressive job as the head of this high school.
A display to the Little Rock Nine.
A tribute to the Little Rock Nine in the vestibule of the school.
The Little Rock Nine at the 60th anniversary of entering Central High School.
Jefferson Thomas: Thomas graduated from Central High in May 1960 He served as Treasurer of the NAACP Youth Council and State President of the Progressive Baptist Youth Convention. He also attended Los Angeles State College, joined the Student Government, and was elected President of the Associated Engineers. He obtained a bachelor's degree in Business Administration. Thomas also served in the U.S. Army's 9th Infantry Division as an infantryman during the Vietnam War.
Carlotta Walls: For over 30 years, she has worked as a professional real estate broker and is currently president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation, a scholarship organization dedicated to ensuring equal access to education for African Americans.
Ernest Green: Mr. Green was the first African-American to graduate from the school in 1958. He served as an Assistant Secretary of Labor during Jimmy Carter's administration. From 1981 to 1985 Green was a partner in the firm Green and Herman; from 1985 to 1986 he owned E. Green and Associates. Since 1985, he has been with Lehman Brothers, where he was a Managing Director in the fixed income department of the Washington, D.C. firm.
Gloria Ray: Ms. Ray is a patent attorney who worked for IBM International Patent Operations. From 1976 to 1994, Karlmark founded and was editor-in-chief of Computers in Industry, an international journal of computer applications in industry. In 1994, Karlmark went to work in the Netherlands for Philips Telecommunications in Hilversum and, later, for Philips Lighting in Eindhoven. She and her husband have two children, Mats and Elin.
Terrence Roberts: He received his Master's degree in social welfare from the UCLA School of Social Welfare in 1970, and his Ph.D. in psychology from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, in 1976. From 1975 to 1977, he was a member of the faculty at Pacific Union College, a Seventh-day Adventist liberal arts college in Napa Valley, California. From 1977 - 1985, Roberts was director of mental health services at St. Helena Hospital and Health Center. From 1985 to 1993 he was Assistant Dean in the UCLA School of Social Welfare.
Minnie Brown: She lived in Canada for a number of years in the 1980s and 1990s, getting involved in First Nations activism and studying social work at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, and later completing a Master of Social Work degree at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Melba Patillo: At age seventeen she began writing for major newspapers and magazines. She later earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.
Elizabeth Eckford: She attended Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, where she earned a BA in history. Eckford served in the United States Army for five years, first as a pay clerk, and then as an information specialist. She also wrote for the Fort McClellan (Alabama) and the Fort Benjamin Harrison (Indiana) newspapers. After that, she has worked as a waitress, history teacher, welfare worker, unemployment and employment interviewer, and a military reporter. She is a probation officer in Little Rock.
Thelma Mothershed: She has worked at the St. Clair County Jail, Juvenile Detention Center in St. Clair County, Illinois, and as an Instructor of Survival Skills for Women at the American Red Cross Second Chance Shelter for the Homeless. During the 1989–90 school year she was honored as an Outstanding Role Model by the East St. Louis Chapter of the Top Ladies of Distinction and the Early Childhood-Pre Kindergarten staff of District 189. She also received the National Humanitarian Award, the highest award given at the 2005 National Convention of Top Ladies of Distinction, Inc.
By the way, I found a bit of a Delaware connection in the Little Rock Central High School story.. but more on that in my next post.