By Eilene Lyon
Integration Comes to Little Rock
Just over 60 years ago, Little Rock Central High became the setting for the first real test of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. My aunt was in high school when she made the move from Portland to Little Rock. She graduated from Little Rock Central High in 1957, just a few months before nine black students were integrated into the school.
When classes began that fall, Governor Orval Faubus called on the Arkansas National Guard to blockade the school to keep black students from entering. (He said he was just preventing violence.) The U. S. Attorney General obtained an injunction against the governor on Friday, September 20. The National Guard stood down.
On Monday, September 23, eight black students arrived for school. As the state and city police escorted them into a side door, some black adults engaged in a diversionary tactic in front of the building. Violence ensued, both outside and inside the school, as some of the black students were allegedly assaulted by their new classmates.
President Eisenhower nationalized and demobilized the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the governor from using the troops to block the school again. None of the black students attended on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the famous nine walked calmly into the front door of the school, escorted by the 327th Airborne Battle Group of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division through a mob of angry, hateful faces and hurled epithets.
My Connection to Arkansas
I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was a fluke. My parents and grandparents were all from the Pacific Northwest: Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. My father was an Army officer and had been transferred to France. Mom, pregnant with me and unable to travel, also having a two-year-old to deal with, needed someplace to stay. Circumstances with my dad’s family in Oregon (his father and two grandparents died that year) meant going to my maternal grandparents’ home.
My grandfather worked for the Army Corp of Engineers and they moved him to Little Rock in 1954. He remained there for the rest of his career. As soon as he retired, though, he and Grandma couldn’t get back to Portland fast enough. Why? As Yankees, they never really felt accepted in southern society. This might seem like a slam, but I know it was not an uncommon occurrence. I recently read a New York Times comment from a reader with essentially the same story.
A Yankee’s Experience
My aunt shared with me some of her experiences related to race relations in Little Rock: One of scenes of drama [at home] as a result of the impending integration that took place before the Fall of 1957, and before I left for college: The boy I was dating during my Senior year was a Southern Baptist, and a firm believer that races should be separate, and “It’s in the Bible”. Me: “Show me where.” Him: “I can’t find it now.” This was after I graduated from H.S. in ’57, during the summer, and before I left for college.
My boyfriend, Paul, just happened to be standing around chatting with friends, but he was holding a “Dixie” flag. Some people from the press happened by and took Paul’s picture holding up the flag and quoted him as saying, “This flag’s no gag.” My parents saw his picture in the paper with this “Dixie” flag, and making a rather threatening statement. They were incensed!
It must have been the next day when Paul came over to my house, as was the custom, having forgotten about the big deal with the flag. Mother lit into him. They had words and Paul left the house and I never saw him again. I wasn’t upset because I had no serious intentions with Paul, and I would be leaving for college soon. That took care of that.
The other drama was all over the city of Little Rock. This was after the integrationists attempted to integrate the school. Governor of Arkansas, Faubus, a segregationist, closed the High School and put up a sign reading “Closed by the Federal Goverment”. … My parents were laughing to themselves about how dumb Faubus made himself look.
It was an adjustment for the whole family to adapt to the Southern Culture.
Returning to the South
Last month, I set foot in Arkansas for the first time in 50 years, at the Mississippi River town of Helena. The older part of town on the river is just beginning a revival, thanks to a young, wealthy, history-minded businessman. The people were quite friendly and I enjoyed walking around and visiting the museums and historical sites. I really do hope that things have changed since the 1970s, when my grandparents left. How sad it would be if we could never bridge that divide between north and south.
Feature Image: Little Rock Central High School By Adam Jones, PhD
The Courier News (Blytheville, Arkansas) September 16 – 23, 1957. Available online at Newspapers.com.