LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Explore Arkansas this week takes us to a historic location in Little Rock. The site where images, quotes, videos and guides tell the story of The Little Rock Nine: Little Rock Central High School (LRCH).
Across the street from the actual high school, which is still open, is the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site.
“In this place, we preserve the stories of a very historical moment in American history,” explains Favian Ruiz, a park guide.
The learning experience begins with an outline of U.S. history; from the Jim Crow Law and segregation, to Brown vs. Board of Education, the historic case in 1954.
“This was the year when the Supreme Court, the highest court in the nation, declares that the doctrine of separate but equal, was unconstitutional,” Ruiz continues.
The decision was the catalyst.
“In many ways this was kind of the beginning of the crisis of 1957,” Ruiz agrees.
That’s when the Little Rock Nine were the first to attend high school at LRCH. On September 4, 1957, the nine black students were met with angry mobs and the Arkansas National Guard.
“Not to protect them, but to actually keep them away from entering the school,” Ruiz says.
That was a choice by the governor, and in making it, he directly challenged the Supreme Court decision.
“Eisenhower had to bring in the federal troops. The 101st Airborne of the U.S. Army,” he explains.
Troops arrived on September 24. On September 25, the Little Rock Nine spent their first full day in class. It was 21 days after they were supposed to start. Once they made it inside the school, it was just the beginning of their struggle.
Ruiz outlines some of the challenges they faced, “Name calling, being spat on, being pushed on. All kind of… harassed in the restrooms.”
Few of the federal soldiers were actually allowed inside the school. Those who were, weren’t allowed everywhere.
“You are not allowed to be at the restrooms, the cafeteria, the auditorium,” Ruiz explains. “You can only walk with the Little Rock Nine to protect them in the hallways.”
The students made it through the year, though. Ernest Green was the only senior, and the first black student to graduate from Little Rock Central High School in 1958.
“During his graduation, Dr. Martin Luther King was actually here to see him,” Ruiz adds.
Little Rock Central High School opened in 1927. Ruiz says it was dubbed both the most expensive, and beautiful high school in America. It survived ugly times.
It’s been open every year since 1927, except for one. During the 1958-1959 school year, the governor closed Arkansas schools to prevent integration. It’s known as “The Lost Year”.
“You can see this picture says this school closed by order of the federal government,” Ruiz says. “That was not true. It was by order of the state government.”
It reopened the following year.
“Central High was officially considered integrated in 1972,” according to Ruiz. “It was a while.”
Most of the Little Rock Nine are still alive. Jefferson Thomas passed away in 2010.
On their way to class, today’s students pass by a pool with 10 benches.
“And every bench has a name of one of the Little Rock Nine,” Ruiz adds. “The tenth bench is in honor of the past and present and future students.”
Park leaders would like to see more Little Rock locals stop by to learn about this piece of history. He says most visitors are from out-of-state and international.
“A lot of people leave this place inspired. They’re inspired by the courage of these nine young teenagers, who, at such a young age, had the courage to change society.
The park is open from 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. each day, and entry is free.
Click here to learn more.