By Airman 1st Class Regina Agoha
19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
In 1957, nine African American students made a world-wide statement as they walked into Little Rock’s history books by courageously deciding to leave the comfort and safety of their black-only schools and integrate into an all white school that was not quite ready for change. Almost 55 years later, the actions of those nine students who have come to be known as the “Little Rock Nine,” are still a reminder to how far not only Little Rock but also Arkansas has come.
In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decided to outlaw segregation in the public education system. Virgil Blossom, the Little Rock School District Superintendent at that time, came up with a plan to begin to slowly integrate Little Rock’s schools one step at a time, starting with Central High School.
The school board began to ask for volunteering African American students from the local black schools such as Dunbar Junior High and Horace Mann High School; they also forewarned them that participating in extracurricular activities was out of the question. Because of that and the fact that many parents were threatened that their jobs would be taken away, the majority of black students opted to stay where they were… except nine.
For Minnijean Brown Trickey, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed Wair, Melba Pattillo Beals, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas and Gloria Ray Karlmark, changing schools would be a frightening change, but also a new beginning because Central High had much more courses and opportunities to offer.
“When my tenth-grade teacher in our Negro school said there was a possibility of integration, I signed up. We all felt good. We knew that Central High School had so many more courses, and dramatics and speech and tennis courts and a big, beautiful stadium,” said Trickey to Look Magazine, June 24, 1958.
On Sept. 4, 1957, the “Little Rock Nine” arrived at Central High and were met by a mob of angry bystanders. Some of the students were spit on and threatened. Little did the nine know that they wouldn‘t be attending classes that day. Because the mob outside and students in the hallways were so verbally viscous, the nine were turned away by the Arkansas National Guard.
“I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the mob-someone who maybe would help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.” (This quote of Eckford was taken from, “A life is more than a moment: The desegregation of Little Rock Central High.”)
Media began to pick up on the story and the “Little Rock Nine” became a household name. Almost two weeks had passed from the attempt of equal education, and during that time the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, and the U.S president came together to resolve the issue at hand.
On Sept. 23, with the command of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the units of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, (the Screaming Eagles), the first official African American students of Little Rock Central High were successfully escorted into the school for their first full day.
As time passed, the mobs got smaller and quieter and acceptance of integration slowly grew. For one of the nine, Trickey, acceptance wasn’t growing fast enough. She decided fight back and retaliate to some students’ mean gestures. In December, Trickey was suspended for dropping chili on some boys who wouldn’t let her get to her seat in the cafeteria. Ultimately, Trickey was expelled from the school February 1958, when she called a white girl, “white trash” for hitting her with a purse. The other eight continued on and stayed strong for the rest of the year.
Even though he was three weeks behind in all classes because of starting late, on May 25, 1958, Ernest Green, the only LR Nine who was a senior, was the first African American to graduate from Central High.
“It’s been an interesting year. I’ve had a course in human relations first hand,” Green told Life Magazine, June 1958.
The following year brought change for the high schools in the city of Little Rock. They were closed in order to bring those for and against segregation to one final agreement. When the schools were reopened, two of the nine, Walls and Thomas, returned to Central and graduated in 1960. Mothershed took correspondence courses and received her diploma from the school as well. The others, including Trickey, all graduated from other high schools.
Throughout the years, the Little Rock Nine have come from receiving threats and hateful looks from crowds and classmates to being honored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and former President Bill Clinton, a native of Arkansas. They have received the NAACP Spingarn Medal as well as the Congressional Gold Medal, which is the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Though the beginning of this story for the history of Little Rock is gloomy and grey, it shows how innocent ignorance, once changed, can lead to a world of opportunity and great accomplishment. Little Rock has grown into a widely diverse area with the community mixed with not only whites and blacks, but many more ethnicities. This community is a stirring pot of different cultures and the aroma of equality gets sweeter and sweeter as the memory of the Little Rock Nine live on.