This episode of the show was written and hosted by Jason Epperson with audio from the National Park Service archives.
Before this episode begins, I want to let you know that we began working on it before the current unrest began in our country. We don’t want to come off as taking advantage of the situation, but at the same time, it would be insulting to delay this episode. I have to warn you, the following contains depictions of racism, abusive actions, and the use of a racial epithet.
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that segregation in the public schools of the nation was unconstitutional. One of the first big tests of that decision came in Little Rock, Arkansas. The NAACP had attempted to register black students in previously all-white schools in cities throughout the South after the supreme court decision. In Little Rock, the school board agreed to comply. Virgil Blossom, the Superintendent, submitted a plan of gradual integration to the school board on May 24, 1955, which the board unanimously approved. The plan would be implemented during the fall of the 1957 school year.
That fall, nine Black children attempted to enroll in the all-white Central High School. They would become known as the “Little Rock Nine.” Several segregationist councils threatened to hold protests at Central High and physically block the black students from entering the school. Governor Orval Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to support the segregationists on September 4, 1957. The sight of a line of soldiers blocking out the students made national headlines and polarized the nation. Regarding the crowd, one of the nine students, Elizabeth Eckford, recalled:
They moved closer and closer. … Somebody started yelling. … I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd—someone who maybe could help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.
On September 9, the Little Rock School District issued a statement condemning the governor’s deployment of soldiers to the school, and called for a citywide prayer service. President Eisenhower attempted to de-escalate the situation by summoning Faubus for a meeting, warning him not to defy the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Woodrow Wilson Mann, the mayor of Little Rock, asked President Eisenhower to send federal troops to enforce the supreme court’s order and protect the nine students. On September 24, the President ordered the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army—without its black soldiers, who rejoined the division a month later—to Little Rock and federalized the entire 10,000-member Arkansas National Guard, taking it out of Faubus’s control.
As much as it was a momentous occasion in American history, that had ramifications far and wide forever to come, it’s easy to forget that these nine children had to walk into a building full of people that thought their very existence was going to destroy their version of America. It’s easy to forget that the crisis didn’t end with them walking through the doors. These are their stories, in their own words, from an oral history project conducted from 2007-2009.
Minnijean Brown Trickey
Carlotta Walls LaNier
Gloria Ray Karlmark
Melba Pattillo Beals
Thelma Mothershed Wair
Though the military was on hand to keep the peace, the school still needed to function. These nine students would need to go to class with dozens of other students and teachers that either didn’t want them there, or decided that it was too difficult to stand by the nine, or a select few that fought for their right to be there.
Dr. Terrance Roberts
Those few teachers and students that stood up for the nine were certainly not enough. And when the 101st cleared, these 9 kids had to live through unimaginable challenges every single day.
Among the many other egregious events the nine lived through, Minnijean Brown was taunted by members of a group of white male students in the school cafeteria during lunch. She dropped her lunch, a bowl of chili, which splashed onto the boys. She was suspended for six days. Two months later, after more confrontation, she was suspended for the rest of the school year.
In the summer of 1958, as the school year was drawing to a close, Faubus decided to petition to postpone the continued desegregation of public high schools in Little Rock. He took control of the school district and fought for a two and a half year delay, which would have meant that black students would only be permitted into public high schools in January 1961. The Federal Courts ruled against him, so Faubus called together an Extraordinary Session of the State Legislature on August 26 in order to enact a new segregation bill that enabled him and the Little Rock School District to close all public schools. He ordered the closure of all four public high schools, preventing both black and white students from attending. Despite Faubus’s decree, the city’s population had the chance of refuting the bill since the school-closing law necessitated a referendum. The referendum, which would either condone or condemn Faubus’s law, was to take place within thirty days. A week before the vote Faubus urged the population to vote against integration, telling them that he was planning on leasing the public school buildings to private schools, and, in doing so, would educate the white and black students separately. He won the referendum. But Faubus’s intention to open private schools was denied by courts the same day the referendum took place, which caused some citizens of Little Rock to turn on the black community. They, and especially the nine, became a target for renewed hate crimes, now that they were blamed for the closing of the schools.
Even though Faubus’s idea of private schools never played out, the teachers were still expected to attend school every day and prepare for the possibility of their students’ return. They were completely under the governor’s control and for many months the school stayed empty, in what became known as “the lost year.”
In May 1959, after the firing of forty-four teachers and administrative staff from the four high schools, three segregationist board members were replaced with three moderate ones. The new board members reinstated the staff members and began an attempt to reopen the schools, much to Faubus’s dismay.
Still, when the new year began, the black students had a difficult time getting past mobs to enter, and, once inside, they were still subject to physical and emotional abuse, as the Lost Year would be used as a pretext for new hatred toward them.
Visiting Central High School:
Today, Central High School is an operating public school, and the building itself is no slouch. Built in 1927 as Little Rock Senior High School, Central was named “America’s Most Beautiful High School” by the American Institute of Architects.
Designed as a mix of Art Deco and Collegiate Gothic architectural styles, the building is two city blocks long with more than 36 million pounds of concrete and 370 tons of steel. It cost $1.5 million to construct in ‘27; the most expensive school ever built in the United States up to that time.
In 1953, the school’s name was changed to Little Rock Central High School, in anticipation of the construction of a new high school for white students.
The school is not open for visitors to tour on their own. Ranger-guided tours are limited to groups of 10 or fewer and reservations must be made two weeks in advance. The best place to begin your visit is to go to the park visitor center, across from the school. Exhibits tell the story of those times, and interactive oral history stations give you a chance to hear the people who were there tell the story in their own words.
In 1998, President Clinton signed legislation designating the school and visitor center across the street as a National Historic Site. Central is the only operating high school in the nation to receive such designation—and it is a historic site that includes not only a past, but a present and a future as well—in the form of an ever-evolving student body.
The Visitor Center is located diagonally across the street from the school, and opened in Fall 2006. It contains an interpretive film on the Little Rock Integration Crisis, as well as multimedia exhibits on both that and the larger context of desegregation during the 20th century and the Civil Rights Movement.
Opposite the Visitor Center is the Central High Commemorative Garden, which features nine trees and benches that honor the students. Arches that represent the school’s facade contain embedded photographs of the school in years since the crisis, and showcase students of various backgrounds in activities together.
Opposite the Visitor Center in the other direction is a historic Mobil gas station, which has been preserved in its appearance at the time of the crisis, when it served as the area for the press and radio and television reporters. It later served as a temporary Visitor Center before the new one was built.
This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by me, Jason Epperson. The interviews come from an oral history project, documented on the site’s website. We’ll link to the video interviews in the show notes.
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