Prior to our arrival in Little Rock, Arkansas, I had made a reservation with the National Park Service to visit Little Rock Central High School, which is both a historical landmark and an operating high school. During the school year, tours are only offered twice a day, and only while the school is in session. Reservations are required. Across the street from the school, the Park Service has a visitor center with exhibits, and many audio recordings to listen to from the students, teachers, and residents of Little Rock that give first hand stories about the events that happened in 1957. For us, this was one of the most impressive and informative National Park Service tours we have ever attended.
Little Rock Central High School was built-in 1928 at a cost of $1.2 million (yes, that’s million…in 1928!) It is the most impressive high school we have ever seen. At the time our of tour, there was a group of students from Chicago on a field trip, and they were amazed at the school. Since it is an operating school, the tour is very limited to the main entrance, the auditorium and the cafeteria. We would have loved to roam the halls of the building. You could just feel the history. Other than security cameras and elevators, it seems to have been left in its original state. The staircases had wooden banisters, and the auditorium still had the original wooden seats. It has a current enrollment of 2422 students for grades 9 – 12. The school continues to thrive today, and is considered one of the 16 best schools to prepare students for college with over 177 different courses offered, 30 advanced placement classes, and five foreign languages taught.
The school is so big, I had to do a panoramic shot to get the entire front of the building in the photo. There are over 100 classrooms in the building. There were about 60 people in our tour group, and I think all of us said “wow” when we first saw the school, except for the one student from Chicago who remarked ‘our school is trash compared to this!’
Here is a close-up of the middle section of the school, where the main entrance is.
So why is this the only high school in America designated as a National Park? Time for a brief history lesson.
“We the people” are the first three words of the Constitution as it was written in 1787. But who does “we” represent? White male landowners. Over time, through amendments to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the definition of “we” has expanded. Some of these rights came as a result of protest, and the visitors center has details about how the rights of people have expanded as a result of individuals protesting. Through protest, comes change.
In 1954, the US Supreme Court outlawed segregation in elementary and secondary schools in the Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas case. The schools in the Southern states were slow to begin the process of integrating schools, which would allow students to go to the school in their own neighborhood, instead of getting bused across town.
The Little Rock school board quietly discussed how to integrate students at the high school level, and announced it would accept African-American students at Central High School. But they only wanted a limited number of students, and would only accept those who had straight A’s and perfect attendance. Over 200 students applied, and the school board realized that was too many. So they continued to raise the bar on the standards. No African American student would be allowed to participate in any athletic or club event. No after school activities. The students were only allowed to attend school, and must leave immediately at the end of the school day. Eventually only 10 students were left.
This integration did not sit well with Arkansas Governor Faubus, and he ordered the National Guard to bar the African-American students from school. On September 3, 1957, a mob gathered outside the school, along with the National Guard. One of the parents of the 10 students, after seeing the angry mob, decided against sending their daughter to that school. Nine students were left, but they did not attend the first day of school.
On the second day of school, the Arkansas National Guard barred the students from entering the school. These 9 students were harassed, spit upon, and shoved around as they walked towards school. Not by fellow students, but by the parents and community members that gathered daily around the school. By September 20, a Federal judge rules against the use of the National Guard, and the Little Rock Police were responsible for the students safety. On September 23, the Little Rock Nine (Terrence Roberts, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Minnijean Brown, Jefferson Thomas, Carlotta Walls, Gloria Ray and Melba Pattillo) finally entered the high school. But the local police were overwhelmed by the angry mob and a riot broke out. The police removed the students from the school.
By this time, media from around the country were broadcasting multiple times a day from the school. A local gas station, which had a pay telephone, was set up for the reporters. That gas station, across from the school, has been preserved as part of the history. (gas was 22 cents a gallon, by the way!)
People around the country were both horrified and supportive of what they were seeing coming out of Little Rock. But President Eisenhower had seen enough, and federalized the Arkansas National Guard. In addition, he sent in 1200 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division to restore order and protect the students. The soldiers escorted students into the school, and remained inside the hallways of the school to protect the nine students. The soldiers were not allowed inside the classrooms or bathrooms of the school. As a result, the nine students were physically and verbally abused in the classrooms and bathrooms by fellow students.
In 1957, there were around 2000 students attending the high school. About 200 of the students were constantly harassing the nine students. In listening to the audio recordings of the Little Rock Nine detailing their experiences, it wasn’t the action of the 200 students that bothered them, as much as the inaction of the 1800 students that just stood by and did nothing. They called them the silent majority.
One of the nine students was expelled, after she was physically assaulted by a group of female students. She did not physically retaliate, but called them “white trash.” After her expulsion, students passed out cards stating ‘one down, eight to go.’ By November, the Airborne Division leaves, and the nine students continue to endure verbal and physical assaults for the remainder of the school year.
On May 25, 1958, Ernest Green became the first African-American student to graduate from Central High School. In attendance at his graduation, was a man who wanted to watch this historical event, Dr. Martin Luther King.
But that’s not the end of this fight for integration. Governor Faubus shut down all the schools in Little Rock for the 1958-59 school year, in order to block the integration of the school district. A Federal Court ruled the closing of the schools was unconstitutional, and the schools reopened in August 1959.
All of the Little Rock Nine not only graduated from high school (not all from Central), but went on to college and had very successful careers. Jefferson Thomas passed away in 2010 from cancer, but the other eight are still alive.
If you are ever in the Little Rock, Arkansas area, please try to do this tour. Even if you only have time to look at the exhibits in the visitors center, it is worth the time. What these students had to endure was truly heartbreaking, but their will to persevere is inspirational.
Quote for the day: “Any time it takes 11,500 soldiers to assure nine Negro children their constitutional rights in a democratic society, I can’t be happy.” – Daisy L. Gatson Bates