Back in time to Central High

National Historic Site gives visitors a sense of what the Little Rock Nine endured


February 04, 2007|By Michael Schuman | Michael Schuman,Special to The Sun

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — LITTLE ROCK, Ark.-- --It was in September 1957 that Little Rock's Central High School was ordered to abide by federal law and integrate.

The result was turmoil on the school's campus and an ugly time for nine black students who tried to enter the school. They endured daily harassment and even death threats.

While Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) outlawed the concept of segregated schools, many still resisted change. Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus insisted Central High School would never be integrated.

He ordered Arkansas National Guard troops to block the black students from setting foot inside the school.

In response, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered in the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles, to the Arkansas capital to protect the kids who became known as the Little Rock Nine. That was Sept. 23, 1957.

Last summer, I visited the setting, Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, which continues to operate as a secondary school. This month and in September, the National Park Service will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the racial upheaval that captured the attention of and helped to change a nation.

The site is "a testimony to the progress that has been made in this country. When we step back and look at the events of 1957, they are something that seems unimaginable today," says National Park Service ranger Spirit Trickey, who led the walking tour.

A gas station -- a Spanish-tiled Magnolia Mobil -- sits across the street from the high school and has been refurbished to look as it did in 1957. It currently serves as the visitors center. However, it will be converted to an education center because a new visitors center, being constructed across the street, opens in September.

In the meantime, the building is filled with posted commentary and historic news clips shown on period television sets. On one vintage, wood-cased, black-and-white television, Eisenhower speaks to the nation: "Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of the courts."

A timeline details the school year, 1957-1958, from the first day the Little Rock Nine were refused entry by the Arkansas National Guard to May 25, 1958, when student Ernest Green became the first black student to graduate from Central High School.

There is a panel that displays the disparities between Central High and all-black Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, underscoring the concept of separate but not equal. For instance, at Dunbar: "library books: 5,000"; at Central: "library books: 11,000."

While touring the site, I met Harold W. Bussabarger, a veteran of the 101st Airborne Division that protected the Little Rock Nine on that heated day.

The exhibit includes television coverage of the integration crisis.

"I'm in there somewhere," Bussabarger says, as the camera panned a line of soldiers.

He gave me an account of how the military arrived in Little Rock.

"We were loaded on a plane and landed at the Air Force base [Camp Robinson] at night, then driven to the school after dark," he says. "We circled the school and we formed a spearhead formation to break up the mobs. It was a big ordeal.

"It was scary. We heard all kinds of chants, `Two, four, six, eight, we're not going to integrate,'" Bussabarger says. "You wouldn't believe some of the chants we heard."

Trickey has her own connection to the school. Her mother, Minnijean Brown, was one of the Little Rock Nine.

"I really make an effort to tell young people who my mother is because I think it gives the story more of a human connection," Trickey says. "It also gives them an understanding of how recent in our history it took place.

"Sometimes kids get really excited when I tell them who my mother is, but the reaction varies from group to group," she says.

"I want all children to learn about the Little Rock Nine so that they can be inspired by the story of regular kids, like themselves, who made such great change in the world," Trickey says.

During the tour, Trickey explains that the gas station sits on Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive. (It was known as 14th Street until 2001, when it was renamed.)

Daisy Bates was the leader of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and instrumental in helping the students weather the abuse. Trickey also points out landmarks seen in the 1957 videos in the visitors center that are still there. A tree in front of a Park Street house where an African-American figure was burned in effigy stands by the road.

Ponder's Drug Store, where one of the nine, Elizabeth Eckford, tried to use a pay phone to escape a mob, is there, abandoned and boarded up. Eckford was rescued by Grace Lorch, a white woman who asked the harassers, "Would you do this to your own child?"

Depending on the school schedule, walking tours may include the Central High building. The sturdy structure's tangible nods to its place in civil rights history are photographs and commentaries of the Little Rock Nine in the foyer.

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