The events of September 1957 are being remembered this month on this 60th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock’s prestigious high school – but the forces that surrounded the actions of that month bear remembering, as well as the repercussions that followed. Catty-corner from Central High – which is still in full operation – sits a National Parks Visitor Center for those who come to learn about what happened here.
The two facilities have a separation of time and purpose. Within the school, students are preparing for their future, while at the center others are focusing on the past.
It’s not a glorious one, not in this respect. In 1927, the federal government gave the city of Little Rock $1.5 million dollars (equivalent to more than $20 million today) to build two new high schools in the name of separate-but-equal. It went into the creation and construction of a massive, six story block long edifice for white students that was considered on completion to be “The Most Beautiful High School in America” by the American Institution of Architects.
The National Historic Site’s Visitors Center notes this history and the conditions of the separate-but-equal buildup following Plessy Vs. Ferguson, the landmark case that called for separate facilities to be provided for white and black Americans. It also covers the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision to end that practice, declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional; how Little Rock’s school board held firm against that decision and the later admonition that integration happen “with all deliberate speed;” and the incredible standards the first black students to apply were held to before they could cross the threshold at Central High.
History books in schools often mention the 1957 Central High School desegregation crisis, but few delve into the rigors these students were required to meet before even being considered – perfect grades, perfect attendance. They wouldn’t be allowed to participate in athletics, and they would not be allowed to fight back against anything done to them. Despite the restrictions, 200 students applied for the first class. Some dropped out of the process because of the restrictions; others removed themselves over threats called to their homes or places of business. In the end, ten students were allowed to attend.
The Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site Visitors Center is open daily 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. throughout the year, excepting some holidays. It’s located at 2120 West Daisy L. Gaston Bates Drive in Little Rock. Tours are only offered on weekdays at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. and require a reservation. For more information or to sign up for a tour, call (501) 374-1957. Further information is available on the National Parks Service website.