The Point Of Crisis

The Point Of Crisis

Central High remembered 60 years later

A visit to the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site Visitor Center may make you hopeful, ashamed or even angry — but most of all, it will make you think.


Photo courtesy Kat Robinson

Photo courtesy Kat Robinson

The events of September 1957 are being remembered this month on the 60th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock’s prestigious high school — but the forces that surrounded the actions of that month bear remembering, as well as the repercussions that followed. Catty-corner from Central High — which is still in full operation — stands a National Parks Visitor Center for those who come to learn about what happened here.

The two facilities have a separation of time and purpose. Within the school, students are preparing for their future, while at the center, others are focusing on the past.

It’s not a glorious one, not in this respect. In 1927, the federal government gave the city of Little Rock $1.5 million (equivalent to more than $20 million today) to build two new high schools in the name of separate-but-equal. It went into the creation and construction of a massive, six-story block-long edifice for white students that was considered on completion to be “the most beautiful high school in America” by the American Institution of Architects. Nothing was left for black students, so the black community of Little Rock banded together and raised money with bake sales, lawn mowing and other work to match monies granted by the Rosenfeld Fund. The $400,000 raised went to create Dunbar High School, named for black poet Paul Lancaster Dunbar, built on plans by the same architect that designed Central’s imposing structure.

The National Historic Site’s Visitors Center notes this history and the conditions of the separate-but-equal buildup following Plessy Vs. Ferguson, the landmark case that called for separate facilities to be provided for white and black Americans. It also covers the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision to end that practice, declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional; how Little Rock’s school board held firm against that decision and the later admonition that integration happen “with all deliberate speed”; and the incredible standards the first black students to apply were held to before they could cross the threshold at Central High.

Photo courtesy Kat Robinson

Photo courtesy Kat Robinson

History books in schools often mention the 1957 Central High School desegregation crisis, but few delve into the rigors these students were required to meet before even being considered — perfect grades, perfect attendance. They wouldn’t be allowed to participate in athletics, and they would not be allowed to fight back against anything done to them. Despite the restrictions, 200 students applied for the first class. Some dropped out of the process because of the restrictions; others removed themselves over threats called to their homes or places of business. In the end, 10 students were allowed to attend.

They met a street full of vitriol that morning of Sept. 4. After Gov. Orval Faubus called for the Arkansas National Guard to “accomplish the mission of maintaining or restoring law and order and to preserve the peace, health, safety and security of the citizens of Pulaski County, Arkansas” on Labor Day, a decision was made not to send these students to Central the next day. That Tuesday night, each of the 10 students was called to meet at the home of Daisy Bates — the president of Arkansas’s NAACP at the time. However, the family of Elizabeth Eckford did not get the message. They had no phone.

This is where the tour takes you from the visitors center out to the street, where an interpreter waves toward the different parts of the street — the direction Eckford came from after stepping off a bus a few blocks away, the section where a crowd of more than 1,000 angry white men and women would stand in the street, the line where National Guardsmen created a human barrier. A brief stop is made at the tiny white gas station — restored to its appearance in 1957 — where members of the media lined up and waited for hours to voice their copy to their news outlets over the only public telephone nearby. The interpreter shares how nine students were escorted by Bates, two white ministers and two black preachers up to the school, where a National Guardsman told them they could not enter — and how one of the nine in that group, a 10th grader named Jane Hill, would not try again.

The tour continues down the sidewalk in front of the school as the interpreter lays out the path of Elizabeth Eckford, who instead of turning when she saw the crowd, walked into it, getting spit upon and jeered. When she reached the barrier formed by the Guardsmen and was turned away, how she proceeded through the crowd, how a reporter from the New York Times would sit with her as she waited on a city bus and how he’d lose his job for that action, how a woman named Grace Loach would stand up to the crowd and be jeered for it.

During the summer and on some school days, the tour proceeds inside. No photos are to be taken for the sake of the privacy of the school’s nearly 2,500 students. A stop is made in the vestibule at the top of the entry stairs, where a case displays the photographs and some of the personal effects of the Little Rock Nine.

Then the tour is escorted into the auditorium, where in the front right section the interpreter talks about what happened next — how on Sept. 22, the nine remaining students were escorted in a side door

by police, how word got around that they were inside and the crowd that formed, and how they were taken out the back door and driven out in the floorboards of cars. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, frustrated with Arkansas’s governor, federalized the National Guard and sent in the army to ensure safe entrance for the nine on Sept. 25, 1957.

That’s where the story ended in media coverage — but the tour picks up. The interpreter talks about life inside the school for these students — a horrific tale of bullying, the blind eyes of administrators and the outright cruelty of classmates. The rules clearly stated the black students could not reciprocate, and they didn’t.

More is shared, including the vote the following year that resulted in the closing of four Little Rock high schools — including Central — for the duration of the 1958 school year. And then the following year, when the oldest of the Little Rock Nine managed to complete coursework for graduation. He was offered only a few tickets for graduation, but one of those who attended on his behalf was none other than Martin Luther King Jr.

The tour progresses outside and across the street to a special, newly constructed park, where tour members are given the chance to answer questions and to reflect on what happened at the school.


Kat Robinson is an Arkansas food historian and travel writer based in Little Rock. Follow her adventures at

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