I grew up hearing a sentence or two about Little Rock Central High School in history class. Some textbooks even contained the iconic image of Hazel Brown, a teenaged white girl, and the hatred she expressed toward her African-American counterpart, Elizabeth Eckford, as she approached the school. But, that’s all I really knew until I visited the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Little Rock Central High School

Little Rock Central High School. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Touring Little Rock Central High School Site

Although it’s a National Historic Site, Central High still educates roughly 2,500 students every year, which means you’ll spend very little, if any time, in the school itself during your visit. That’s okay, though, because much of the story takes place on the streets surrounding it.

My visit began at the visitor center, located kitty-corner from Central High at the intersection of Park Street and Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive. There, our group met with Jodi Morris, a park ranger and acting chief of interpretation at the time.

After directing us outside, Morris gave some background on the high school, the largest and most expensive ever built when it opened its doors in 1927. To this day, Central High is considered one of the nation’s most beautiful high schools.

Setting the Stage

We moved to the street corner and paused. Morris reminded us Arkansas had been part of the Confederacy. Following the Civil War, the state adopted a policy of “separate but equal” in all things, allowing for segregated schools.

In May 1954, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka that separate was not equal and all schools must integrate. Soon after, the school board adopted a plan for gradual integration beginning with Central High in the fall of 1957 and asked for volunteers to attend.

Nearly 200 African-American students signed up even though they wouldn’t be able to participate in school sports or activities or take advanced classes such as trigonometry or physics. Based on grades and attendance, the list was pared to 38 students, whose names were published. The number quickly dropped to 17. When families learned transportation would not be provided, eight more dropped out. Only nine remained.

Little Rock Central High School

“Testament,” a statue depicting the Little Rock Nine. Photo courtesy Little Rock Convention & Visitor Bureau

Tensions Escalate at Little Rock Central High School

Even though the Little Rock School Board agreed to comply, Governor Orval Faubus and the state legislature passed new laws outlawing school integration. On September 2, the day before classes were to begin for the new school year, Governor Faubus summoned the Arkansas National Guard to Central High to prevent the students from entering.

Morris pointed to the preserved historic Magnolia Gas Station directly across Bates Drives from where we stood. The media gathered there on September 3 in anticipation of thousands of protesters, she said. It’s from the telephone there that her father, one of the National Guardsmen, called her mom.

Magnolia Gas Station - Little Rock Central High School

Magnolia Gas Station. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Because the governor had warned of violence if the students tried to attend school, the school board advised students not to attend that day. Ironically, only 150 protestors took to the streets and the first day of the standoff was mostly peaceful.

Little Rock Central High School

Park ranger Jodi Morris shares what happened at Little Rock Central High School. Photo by Teresa Bitler

A Long Walk Down Park Street

However, the next day more protestors—this time carrying bats, bricks, and even ropes—arrived. Hoping to dispel some of the ugliness, the school board called the students and told them to wait and walk to school with the police chief and a group of interracial ministers. Elizabeth Eckford didn’t get that call.

“Elizabeth arrives on Park Street,” Morris said, motioning to her starting point. “She doesn’t answer any of the reporters’ questions as she heads towards the school. She looks calm, stoic, dignified, such a contrast to the crowd.”

I could envision the streets teeming with angry men, women, and students but couldn’t imagine what it would have been like for a teen younger than my own daughters to walk that gauntlet of insults.

Morris continued. As Eckford approached the front of the school, National Guardsmen stopped her, telling her by order of the governor she would not be allowed to enter. Unable to return the way she came, she headed south. By the time she arrived at the bus station, her dress was soaked with spittle.

Three Weeks Later at Little Rock Central High School

The Little Rock Nine, as the students became known, stayed home for nearly three weeks until federal courts ordered Governor Faubus to remove the National Guardsmen from the school. On September 23, the police tried to bring students in the back door, but white students rushed out and wouldn’t let them in. The crowd that day numbered approximately 1,000.

Little Rock Central High School

Army escorts the Little Rock Nine inside Central High on September 25. Photo courtesy of the National Archives

As she led us to the front of the school, Morris recounted how President Eisenhower had had enough. He ordered 1,200 federal troops to Central High, and on September 25, they escorted the African-American students into the school. Once inside, they were on their own, though, enduring shoving, name-calling and other humiliations.

We climbed the steps to the front door and stepped inside. Here, in the foyer, a display case honors the Little Rock Nine. One would be expelled for defending herself against the taunts; the rest would complete the school year, including the school’s first African-American graduate, Ernest Green. (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. attended his graduation.)

Little Rock Central High School Visitors Center

Inside the visitor center. Photo courtesy Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau

Little Rock’s Lost Year

Morris told us the fight didn’t end there. In June 1958, citing the students’ harassment, the school board asked the court’s permission to delay implementing integration for two years. The appeal made its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled on September 12 that Little Rock School Board must continue with integration.

On September 15, Governor Faubus responded by closing all four Little Rock high schools pending a public vote on integration. Meanwhile, white students were able to attend tuition-free segregationist high schools during the Lost Year; African-American students either took the year off, were homeschooled or joined the military.

In May 1959, another vote replaced three segregationists on the school board with more moderate members, and the board reopened the public high schools that August, a month early. Today, 53 percent of Central High’s students are African-American, 35 percent Western European, 7 percent Asian, and 5 percent Latin American.

Little Rock Central High School Tour Details

Our tour ended there. We returned to the visitor center where displays recount the stories Morris had shared. Robin White, the park’s superintendent, points out that there’s “no blaming” on the tour or in the exhibits: “My job is to provide a safe place for people to tell their own narratives.”

Little Rock Central High School

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site Visitor Center. Photo courtesy Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau

The visitor center is open daily, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free guided tours are given Monday through Friday at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. and must be scheduled at least 24 hours in advance, although the park recommends making reservations two weeks in advance. The exact route of the tour depends on school activities that day.

For more information on the exhibits at the visitor center or the tours, visit the Little Rock Central High School National Historical Site webpage or call (501) 374-1957. For more information on visiting Little Rock, Arkansas see the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau website.

Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with a complimentary tour for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

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