Little Rock Central High School—A Lesson in Little Rock History

By Jasmine Medley, Judicial Education Specialist, Arkansas Administrative Office of the Courts

Little Rock, a city with a rich history, has seen periods of intense strife. These events have made it one of the most historically and culturally significant cities in American history. From its beginnings as a stop on Hernando de Soto’s exploration to the present day, various events have dotted the city’s growth and development culturally, economically and socially. One of the most well-documented and oft-cited events was the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School (Central).

The building that houses Central High was erected in 1927, and was touted as the most beautiful high school in America. Constructed on a $1.5 million budget, the school was the most expensive for its time (www.centralhigh57.org). At that time, the school was the premier white high school in the city of Little Rock and was called Little Rock High School. The name was changed to Little Rock Central High School in 1955 when Hall High School was opened in what was then West Little Rock.

In 1956, the Little Rock School Board decided that it would begin to desegregate its public schools to comply with the Brown v. Board of Education decision from 1954 (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net). The process of integrating Central was a long and tedious one. One of the first steps in this endeavor was to select the African American students who would ultimately go into the halls of Central. Students were taken through a battery of interviews and tests that looked at their aptitude and level of achievement during their secondary school careers.

The group of students who were selected to enter Central went from a few dozen down to 17 (www.centralhigh57.org). The Little Rock branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) served as a cornerstone for the students who were selected to go into Central. The chief mentor was Daisy Bates, the Little Rock NAACP’s president. She championed the cause of getting the African American students into the school. When the prospective Central students were told that they would not be allowed to participate in any extracurricular activities, like choir or jazz band or any sports or student clubs (several of the students participated in musical groups and sports teams at their former school Horace Mann High School, the African American high school), they dropped out of the group that would integrate. That stipulation dropped the group down to the final nine students, now known as the Little Rock Nine.

Those final nine students ranged from age 15 to 17: Minnijean Brown, Jefferson Thomas, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls, Melba Pattillo, Elizabeth Eckford, Thelma Mothershed and Ernest Green (www.nps.gov). Notably, Thelma Mothershed almost dropped out of the group due to a heart ailment—her parents and those connected to the Little Rock Nine thought that the pressure and stress of entering the all-white Little Rock Central would be too much for her and cause her great harm. Nevertheless, Miss Mothershed and the other eight students stuck with it.

The Little Rock Nine were supposed to begin classes with the rest of the Central High student body on September 4, 1957, but their plan was brought to a screeching halt by mobs surrounding the school building. Not only did the Little Rock Nine have to deal with the mobs, but also with the support that then governor, Orval Faubus, gave to the segregationists. The same day that the Little Rock Nine were supposed to enter the school, Governor Faubus dispatched the Arkansas National Guard to help with the mob’s attempts to keep the students out of the school (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net). One of the students, Elizabeth Eckford, did not have a telephone in her home and did not get the word that they would meet and arrive at the school as a group and that the group had been turned away. Miss Eckford walked from her home to Central by herself and endured the screaming, spitting, cruel mob at her heels (www.encyclopediaorarkansas.net). One kind white bystander came to Miss Eckford’s rescue, got her on a city bus, and rode home with her.

The students, led by Daisy Bates, tried each school day to get in, but each time, they were unsuccessful. It was not until September 25, 1957, that the students were finally let into the school. This small victory came only because President Dwight D. Eisenhower overrode Governor Faubus’ actions with the Arkansas National Guard and called up the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army. President Eisenhower not only brought in the Army troops, but he federalized all 10,000 of the Arkansas National Guard members, taking them out of the control of the governor. The Little Rock Nine finally got into Little Rock Central High School (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net).

School days for the Little Rock Nine were challenging at best. Each of the Nine was assigned a soldier from the United States Army and later the Arkansas National Guard, but the days were still long and tough. It is likely that each of the nine students was tormented and harassed by their white peers. Students shoved members of the Nine down stairs, spat on them, and hit them, and one student even poured acid onto Melba Pattillo’s face and eyes.

After several previous incidents with students in the cafeteria, Minnijean Brown was expelled from Central after she poured chili onto a group of white male students (www.nps.gov). Miss Brown moved to New York City with family friends where she finished high school at New Lincoln High. The remaining eight students finished out the school year at Central.

In May 1958, Ernest Green became the first African American graduate of Little Rock Central High School (www.nps.gov). The ceremony was held in Earl Quigley Stadium, directly west of the school building, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. attended (www.centralhigh57.org).

After the turbulent year at Central, Governor Faubus tried once more to go around the high court’s decision to integrate the schools. Faubus believed that the city of Little Rock had a right to oppose the court’s decision, so he signed an act that allowed him and the Little Rock School District to close the schools. With the closure of schools, neither African American nor white students would be able to attend school. City residents could oppose the governor’s signed acts in a referendum, but in a speech, Faubus persuaded voters to uphold his new legislation to close the public schools. In that speech, Faubus outlined his plan to lease public school buildings to private schools so that students would remain segregated (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net). Voters sided with Faubus and the 1958-1959 school year is now called the “Lost Year” because all public schools in the city were closed (Central High School National Historic Site).

Several of the Nine moved to other towns with relatives to finish their high school careers. Like many African American students during that year, Thelma Mothershed finished her high school education and received her high school diploma from Central through correspondence.