History was never my favorite subject. But reading a few book paragraphs about something that happened before I was born, many states away, is different from living where something happened and is still discussed and analyzed. So after living most of my adult life in central Arkansas, I finally toured the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site.
The site has a visitor center staffed partly by National Park Service rangers. National historic sites exist to interpret history, and there’s a reason the rangers are also called interpreters. I’ve taken the tour with two rangers. Each highlighted some things the other didn’t even mention.
In the fall of 1957, the Little Rock School District began desegregation with nine black students at Little Rock Central High School. The first day, they didn’t even make it into the school; they were kept out by the Arkansas National Guard, under orders of governor Orval Faubus. (One interpreter noted that in holding the line against blacks, those troops also kept out some employees—cafeteria workers and janitors.)
Nineteen days later, they started school, but a gathering mob got so menacing that school officials had them whisked away early, hidden under blankets in the back seats of police cruisers. Two days later, they finally completed their first day of school at Central. President Dwight Eisenhower had sent in troops from the 101st Airborne—the same infantry unit that helped storm the beaches at Normandy and drive back the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge—to escort the students in.
The more experienced ranger asked us questions to make us think. And, altogether, the tour and the visitor center displays got me considering … well, let’s arrange it in nine categories.
1. Clothing and school supplies
A doll-sized dress replica in a display case in the high school foyer and a pair of saddle shoes in the visitor center serve as reminders that, whether routine or historic, the first day of school is still the first day of school, with its usual anticipation. Elizabeth Eckford sewed her first-day-of-school skirt herself, and laid it out the night before. Melba Patillo shined her saddle shoes. Ernest Green wore a pencil behind his ear.
People spat on Eckford’s clothing that day. Patillo’s saddle shoes became her combat boots, as she later wrote in her journal, “I got up every morning, polished my saddle shoes, and went off to war.” Green’s jaunty pencil was a sign of the responsibility he felt to succeed as the only senior. He graduated the following spring, and a young Martin Luther King sat with his family.
To read the rest, including thoughts on that iconic photo you’ve probably seen, please walk with me to Tweetspeak Poetry.