Whenever our family is on a road trip, I look at the National Park Service website to see if there are any parks close to our destination. On our trip to Hot Springs National Park, I saw that Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site was an easy detour on the way to Memphis, Tennessee so we decided to make a visit. I am so thankful we did. For me, this was one of the best experiences I have ever had at a National Historic Site and the kids were equally moved by everything we learned.
Still a working High School, Little Rock Central High School is the site of a major event in the desegregation of American public schools. Following the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision (read about our visit to that National Historic Site HERE) which ruled segregation as unconstitutional, nine African American students enrolled in the all white High School in 1957. However, before the “Little Rock Nine” were to start classes, the governor of the state of Arkansas sent the Arkansas National Guard to bar their entry to the school. In response, a few weeks later, the Arkansas National Guard was ordered by a federal judge to leave the school and the Little Rock Police Department stepped in to ensure the safety of the new students. When the Little Rock Nine were finally allowed to gain entry and start classes, a mob of over 1000 people came to the school taunting, screaming and spitting at the students and chasing away reporters. Once again the Little Rock Nine were forced to leave the school as the local police department was unable to ensure their safety. At this point, President Eisenhower stepped in. Calling the prior events disgraceful, he sent 1200 U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division troops to escort the Little Rock Nine into the school. Continued harassment caused the need for troops to accompany the Little Rock Nine to their classes each day. While the soldiers were able to protect the students from violence, it was still a difficult year for them as pro-segregation activists did everything they could to make integration fail including not allowing any of the black students to have classes together and not allowing them to participate in school activities. AS the soldiers could not be everywhere with the students, the harassment still continued in bathrooms and locker rooms as well.
Even with these hardships, eight of the nine finished the school year and one of them, Ernest Green, graduated and became the first black graduate of Little Rock Central High with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attending the graduation ceremony. Only one student, Minnijean Brown, was not able to finish the year as she was expelled when she dropped her lunch tray on two white boys who were harassing her. She moved to New York City and finished high school there. Astoundingly, the next year, rather than allow integration to continue, Little Rock voters decided to close all four of the local high schools and they remained closed for the entire school year. In addition, teachers and administrators who declared their support for integration and the Little Rock Nine were forced out of the school as their contracts were not renewed. This meant that Little Rock citizens would rather have NO high school than one that was integrated. However, after a year with no high schools Little Rock residents were forced to face the reality that integration was going to have to occur, and the high schools were eventually reopened as integrated schools.
Our visit to the site began at the Visitor Center adjacent to Little Rock Central High School. The kids picked up Junior Ranger packets and we watched the movie that outlined the events of 1957-1959 and also related the experiences of the Little Rock Nine. The exhibits in the center also told their stories with recordings, pictures and videos. I kept finding myself crying while perusing the various displays. While I remembered learning about Little Rock Central High as a student, I did not recall the details. As with all history lessons, learning the stories of the individuals living through the events brings a level of understanding much greater than just learning the main facts of the timeline. The stories of the Little Rock Nine are a lesson in courage and perseverance in the face of amazing obstacles. It is hard to imagine that the degree of ignorance and hatred existed just 50 years ago and in such a public and collective manner. It was also hard to imagine the amount of courage these young students had to have in order to go to school.
After looking at all of the exhibits and completing the Junior Ranger activities, we left on a 45 minute ranger led guided tour of the Little Rock Central High School building. By reservation only, a tour is the only way to get to go inside the building as it remains in operation as a public high school. I highly recommend scheduling a tour as it was interesting and informative for my entire family. A moving experience, the ranger’s stories continued to enthrall us as we learned more about the integration movement not only in Little Rock but across the United States. It was encouraging to know that my kids were in disbelief that this crisis could happen as skin color is a non issue in their experience and they could not believe that events like this could ever occur. Things have come so far since the 1950’s.
Once the tour was over we sat outside and just talked through what we had learned that day. Even at their young ages, the kids had learned much on our visit. We talked about racism and other forms of social injustice and how it is our job as Christ followers and Americans to make sure that we never allow things like this to happen. We also talked about the courage of the Little Rock Nine and how it must have felt to live through the events and also how much America owes them for their bravery. In addition, we discussed the proponents of segregation and tried to figure out what their motives where. All of this important discussion was instigated by our visit to the historic site and for that reason it remains one of my favorite ever visited. If you are ever even remotely close to Little Rock, plan a visit here. It is well worth your attention.