Choices in Little Rock

Posted by Mary Hendra on January 16, 2013

Central High School (Little Rock, AK). It is a huge building. There’s no way around it - it is just enormous. It was built to be imposing and as it nears 90 years old it still meets that objective.

Seeing it in person for the first time last November, gave me all the more appreciation for the nine Black high school students who eventually climbed those steps to school in 1957.

I've taught about the crisis at Central and the Little Rock Nine for many years and I've heard several of the Little Rock Nine speak, as well as other amazing people who were active in the Movement. Facing History has an entire curriculum about this moment in the Civil Rights Movement. Last fall, I had the opportunity to go to Central High School with a group of Facing History Board Members and staff.

For me, there were two things that have continued to stay with me:

IMG_1287 1. The size of the building. I'd read about its magnitude and heard about it from others who have been, but it truly is huge. I wonder how its imposing structure contributed to the conflict. Did the very architecture of Central HS symbolize the position of superiority whites held in society? Did the building itself have a psychological influence on the community - Black and white - of reinforcing that superiority? And what does it mean for today’s graduates to come through those walls?

This may seem an odd set of questions to ask here, and perhaps I should explain more of my own "history" with considering architecture. A number of years ago, when at Yad Vashem, an art professor shared details with us about the creation and staging of the "Degenerate Art" show in contrast to the "Great German Art" exhibit--both in Berlin. The latter was shown in a brand new building, tall ceilings, made to exude grandeur. The former was set up in dark hallways, with writing on the walls and pieces cramped together. The architecture clearly influenced the interpretation of the art. And in that case, it was done purposely. (Click here for more on the Degenerate Art show.) This deliberate use of architecture to convey meaning has stuck with me as a reminder to notice and question the architecture or setting--whether an intentional or unintentional part of the message.

220px-Little_Rock_Desegregation_19572. Everyone has a story.
We talk about that often with Facing History. There is even a reading with that title that reminds us to ask the students next to us in class and others we encounter what their story is. (Click here to see a short video of the story.) On the way to Arkansas, I had read the book Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock which primed me for looking and listening for previously untold stories. The book, by David Margolick, tells the personal stories of Elizabeth Eckford, perhaps most famous for the images of her as a solitary African American student trying to enter school on what was intended to be the first day of integration, and Hazel Bryan Massery, the unnamed young white teenager whose face, screwed up in hatred, has symbolized the opposition to that integration for decades. Elizabeth Eckford was on a panel at the school, along with a white student who had been one of the majority of students who simply stood by, trying to have a "normal" school year, and another, Robin, who is known to many Facing History teachers as the white girl who shared her Algebra book with Terrence Roberts (one of the Little Rock Nine). The panel was moderated by a recent and very proud graduate.

Each one had their own story to tell. Each lived experience holds the ultimate essence of truth for that person. As a student of history, I love to learn each individual's story, even though they sometimes compete with each other.

I learned from Robin's comments that her decision to share her textbook was not a huge, significant choice in her mind at the time. As a child, watching film of Holocaust survivors and related discussions with her mother had established in her a compassion for those who were different. This wasn't an isolated event, but was followed by other moments of observation and discussion which strengthened this compassion.

In the moment, sitting near Terrence Roberts in Algebra class, somebody else in the classroom had suggested she share her book. Whether that comment was intended as a joke or serious, Robin's reflex action was to help. Far beyond that simple act, I learned, Robin spoke to school administrators on multiple occasions to try to gain better treatment for her peers, the Little Rock Nine. She seemed to still hold disappointment today that she had not been successful, and she lives in the Little Rock community today as part of her on-going dedication to true integration and a positive sense of community.

Hearing her talk reminded me of a favorite quote, "The process of deciding happens long before the moment of decision." Her life values and experiences had led up to that moment of sharing her textbook and continued afterwards with additional steps. The decision to share a book was not so significant for her, though it holds significance for all of us who study the Little Rock Nine today.

Topics: Civil Rights Movement

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