A Visit to Central High

April 26th, 2012

During our recent trip to Little Rock, Arkansas, we visited Central High School.

IN 1957, Little Rock’s Central High School was the site of the historic forced integration of African American school kids into an all white school.

Nine kids were chosen by a small group of Little Rock’s black community to attend Central High.

Those nine kids endured a year that began with the Arkansas National Guard forcibly keeping them out of the building, to daily withstanding physical assault, bullying and verbal abuse every day they attended school.

Some of those kids went on to have productive lives, but some of them were deeply scarred by their experiences during that year and their lives were severely diminished as a result.  Elizabeth Eckford was probably the most famous of the kids who became known as the Little Rock Nine.

It is this famous photo of her, that captured the intensity of what these kids went through.  This picture is from the first day that Elizabeth attempted to attend Little Rock High.  An angry crowd surrounded her and followed her as she tried to get into the school.

The other eight students who were also attempting to enter Central High that day had traveled together as a group, but Elizabeth was not informed of the group’s plans and showed up at the school alone.  She then took what must have been the longest walk of her life from one end of the school grounds to the other and finally to a bus stop where she sat down and waited for a ride home.  Then entire way, as she made her journey across the school property, she was followed by an angry mob that hurled insults at her and threatened her, while soldiers blocked her from getting into the school and reporters took photos.

The girl behind her with the grimace and the newspaper is Hazel Bryan Massery.  Her young face came to symbolize the bigotry of those opposed to integration.  She too was only a kid at the time of the photo – a boy crazy underclassmen at Central High.  Hazel would live with the image of herself in this photo for years until eventually she did something remarkable.  She reached out to Elizabeth and apologized.  Over time, the two of them became very good friends.

But sadly, that is not the end of their story.

If you want to know what happened to Elizabeth and Hazel, you should check out Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock written by David Margolick.

I would definitely recommend the book.

Shortly after I finished it, I was talking to my boss at work.  Downtown Abbey had just concluded it’s second season.  We were both at a loss, wondering what to do with our Sunday nights.  She mentioned watching a documentary about Harper Lee the author of To Kill a Mockingbird called Hey Boo.

I went home and watched it.

It was especially interesting to watch it after just visiting Little Rock and just finishing a book about Elizabeth Eckford.

Sometimes it is like there is some kind of unseen hand guiding my life.

Helping me to put all the pieces together.

As if there was a bearded man sitting in the clouds gazing down at me and directing my life like some kind of hillbilly junk band.

Taking me to Arkansas.

Guiding me to Central High.

Forcing me to buy a book at the Central High museum…

Making me get a job at the Garden Center where my boss will one day suggest I watch a documentary about Harper Lee!

I know!

How is this even possible!

The movie is called, Hey Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird

You can watch the entire movie on PBS at this time.  Link to movie

This is Harper Lee smoking a cigarette.

She only wrote one book.

That book was called To Kill a Mockingbird.

It was a very hard act to follow.

But Elizabeth Eckford is even harder.

I keep thinking about the parents of the Little Rock Nine.

How hard it must have been for them… day after day after day to send their children back into Central High.

To face another day of ridicule, mocking, abuse, bullying, from both teachers and students.

What kept them going?  Could I have done it?  Was it worth the psychological damage that occurred to some of the children?

Obviously the Little Rock Nine and especially the photo of Elizabeth being taunted and threatened by an angry white mob played a huge role in the civil rights movement.  But for Elizabeth – a fifteen year old girl enduring that level of anxiety and fear day after day while at Central High, it left a mark on her that she was never really able to overcome.

There is a tremendous cost to human progress.

Comments

  • AmeliaJake:

    I enjoyed reading this post and was prompted to do dig around a little myself. I would have just turned nine at the start of the 1957 school year. And I don’t believe I remember a thing about it. Oddly enough, just three years later, it seemed as my entire area was up in arms about the Nixon/Kennedy election.

  • Carol:

    Very moving post. I was 10 in 1957, living in deepest appalachia. Like the other commenter, I have no recollection of hearing about this at the time. We had a television by 1956 because I remember watching the political conventions that year – my earliest tv memory. If you haven’t read walking with the wind by John Lewis, the Georgia congressman, I recommend you do so. I hope you get lots more book recommendations. I love seeing what others suggest.

    On a lighter note, How is your garden this year?

  • I watched the Harper Lee documentary on PBS and can highly recommend it. My youngest loves “To Kill A Mockingbird” and years after it was required reading for him, still talks about it. And now that you’ve recommended this new book, I will have to get my hands on a copy. Not only would I enjoy reading it, but my son would as well.

    • Rechelle:

      Hey MW – e-mail me your mailing addy and I will send you my copy.

  • Ellen:

    I’ve lived in Little Rock for almost ten years and have never gone to the Central High Museum. Your post has reminded me that I always mean to. I’ve enjoyed all the glimpses of your recent trip to Little Rock, seeing my city through someone else’s eyes. I actually work in the downtown library right behind the Flying Saucer.

  • Clay:

    The world is full of trajedies that people bring upon each other by their smallness, a lesson that is seldom heard these days. It’s always a joy to hear the story again, to see how we were and what we might be and to feel the joy of redemption.

  • Annmarie:

    This is why I love your site and keep coming back. Getting that book as soon as I can. Thanks for the recommendation.