DESEGREGATION Central High a lesson in history
The school that was the foundation of the Little Rock Nine's fame is still used today.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- Walk into Little Rock Central High School as classes are changing, the historic school's halls filling with students, and you walk into history.
With just a few upgrades, the cafeteria looks the same as it did in September 1957. The hallways are still narrow, the imposing brick building still foreboding.
Central High shoulders a legacy as the nation's first major battleground for school desegregation after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that black children were entitled the same education as whites. For three weeks in September 1957, Gov. Orval E. Faubus blocked nine black students from enrolling at all-white Central, forcing a historic confrontation between state and federal authorities over integration. The Arkansas National Guard circled the school, called out by Faubus to keep the Little Rock Nine away. Inflamed crowds gathered outside.
In response, President Eisenhower signed a history-making proclamation approving the use of federal troops to enforce the desegregation order and protect the black students. The 101st Airborne Division arrived the next day, and the students entered Central under armed escort on Sept. 25, 1957.
Forty-eight years later, the school remains a civil rights landmark and one of the most important historic sites in Little Rock. The National Park Service runs tours, a museum and visitors center at the site, and more than 29,000 people came through last year. An increase is expected this year due to higher numbers of tourists in town to see the nearby Clinton Presidential Library.
Mike Madell, who is director of the historic site for the National Park Service, said he takes tourists through the school to put history in perspective. He includes the auditorium and the cafeteria -- where just outside the door the 101st Airborne camped out on an athletic field. He points out the nooks and crannies in the hallways where white students hid and then jumped out to harass the black students.
"We ask people to think of what it would be like to be one of nine black students in an auditorium of more than 2,000," he said. "It's very imposing. There are lots of places to hide."
Photographs on display at the visitors' center -- which is made to look like the Mobil gas station that stood on the property during the 1950s -- include the famous Will Counts shot of a white girl sneering at a black female student.
Another photograph shows a sign outside the school that reads, "This school is closed by order of the federal government."
An elaborate timeline notes events from September 1957 through May 1958. An RCA Victor television sits in the corner, running a continuous tape of newsreel footage from the unrest. Above, newspaper front pages flash on a screen.
"It looks more like a war zone and not a normal day of high school," tour guide Tarona Armstrong said.
Across the street from the visitors center, winding stone walkways lead past nine benches and nine trees through large arches with photos of Little Rock Central students, an area dubbed the Commemorative Garden.
Families or tourists are welcome to drop in for 45-minute guided tours of the visitors' center. Tours of the actual high school are available for larger groups and must be arranged ahead of time, Madell said.
The school today
Central High is one of Arkansas' largest high schools, with 2,259 students enrolled last year. The student body is diverse -- 52 percent black, 45 percent white. It also produces more National Merit scholars than any other public school in the state -- 16 semifinalists last year.
Nancy Rousseau, principal of Little Rock Central, says she has no problem allowing tours of the school. "I recognize this school is an extension of the community," she said.
Madell is lobbying to build a new $5.8 million visitors' center that would offer six times more museum space in time for the 50th anniversary of the Central High crisis. As president, Bill Clinton spoke on the steps of the high school in 1997 for the 40th anniversary.
Madell said the new center is necessary because, "we've really just scratched the surface of the stories here." He said he envisions an entire section dedicated to explaining Faubus' view of the confrontations. The governor feared social unrest if Central's student body included blacks.
Madell would like to include seven homes along Park Street -- where mobs gathered outside the school -- within the historic site's boundary. That designation would allow him to offer the owners financial assistance to restore the facades to what they looked like in the 1950s.
"They provided a backdrop for so many events in the 1950s," Madell said. "Every picture probably had these homes in the background. This is where all the crowds congregated."
One woman, Grace Hays-Blagdon of Lake Forest, Calif., has purchased two of the seven homes and hopes to restore them. The Little Rock native wants them to look as they did in 1957. "It was kind of an emotional chord ... You wanted to see the houses you remembered," she said.
With or without the homes as part of the historic site, Madell hopes visitors will recognize that some of the challenges present in 1957 are still relevant today.
"There is a danger to have folks come in and say that was a long time ago," Madell said. "My hope is that when they leave, they can make a comparison between what happened in 1957 and the 21st century. This is a story that is still evolving."