I spent two days/nights in Little Rock, the capital city of Arkansas. One of the highlights of my visit was to see and tour the grounds of the huge, beautiful, historic and famous Central High School, which is the only fully operational high school in the USA that is also a National Historic Site with a Visitor Center that is managed and operated by the National Park Service. As an educator myself and a history lover who is very interested in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, I had wanted to visit this very famous school for many years and finally got to do so.
What makes this school so famous and so historic you might ask? Well, it was the site of forced desegregation in September of 1957 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional only three years earlier. You see, in the fall of 1957, nine Little Rock students, all African-American, and now referred to in history as the Little Rock Nine, decided that they wanted to attend this all white school, which was considered to be the very best public school in Little Rock, if not all of Arkansas, at the time. They wanted to get a better quality education, which they felt they could get at Central High School. Then, chaos and violence erupted on Sept. 3, 1957, when the governor at the time, Orval Faubus, mobilized the Arkansas National Guard in an effort to prevent these nine students from entering and integrating the school.
In response to this armed intervention by Governor Faubus, President Eisenhower spoke to the nation via television telling the American people that he was elected to defend the U.S. Constitution and the laws. Wanting to avoid a possible bloody confrontation in Arkansas, he placed the 10,000 strong Arkansas National Guard under federal control and sent 1,200 U.S. Army paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to protect these students and to restore order at the school. The tactic worked and the students were able to attend this school without further violent disturbances, though the nine students were still bullied, spat on, threatened, laughed at and shunned once inside the school. Governor Faubus then closed all public schools in Little Rock for the 1958/1959 school year, until he was forced to reopen and integrate these schools for good the following year.
Built in 1927 at a cost of $1.5 million in the Gothic Revival Style, it was hailed as the most expensive, most beautiful and largest high school in the nation. Its opening earned national publicity, with nearly 20,000 people attending its dedication ceremony. It is by far the largest, most beautiful and impressive high school that I have ever seen anywhere. Even though the school itself was closed for tours when I was there due to spring break, I was still able to spend several hours in the interesting Visitor Center, which is located almost directly across the street. The timing of my visit actually worked to my advantage, because on two different days, I could literally walk right up to the school, peak in its massive front doors, and take as many pictures as I wanted without any interference from school administrators, teachers, students, national park service representatives or curious tourists like myself.
I was so impressed with the school's architecture and in awe of its sheer size, complete with its marble columns, gorgeous statues and large reflecting pool at the front entrance. I sat on a park bench in front of the school that is / was dedicated to Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine, whose book I am still reading, which talks about her experience at the school. While walking the beautifully landscaped grounds, I could hear and picture the mobs of people in the street yelling, screaming and threatening the students, while the Arkansas National Guard stood by watching silently, and later the presence of the 1,200 U.S. 101st Airborne paratroopers on the street and at the school protecting and walking these students to and from their classes.
As a history lover and teacher, my visit to this historic school was very interesting, educational and eye opening on many levels. I am so glad that we, as a nation, have grown and evolved so much since those dark days. As an educator, I personally believe that a more racially and culturally diverse student body not only makes for a better educational experience for the students themselves, but for the teachers and administrators too.
Gary Richards is a teacher and Norwalk resident who enjoys writing about his travels.