I didn’t expect to like as much as I did. Going into the city of Little Rock, Arkansas wasn’t much fun. But on a quiet city street, we saw the majestic high school at the center of so much controversy almost 60 years ago.
You may remember, if you were paying attention in school, learning about the struggle to desegregate the public schools after the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. Little Rock HS was built in 1927, a massive, regal school that reminded me of a small palace. Staircases run up a long flight of steps to a magnificent entrance. This was the high school for white students.
In 1957, the Little Rock school board tried to quietly desegregate the schools but Orval Faubus, the governor at the time, undercut local officials. Nine African-American students had been handpicked to attend the school. The Governor called out the Arkansas National Guard to “protect” these students. President Eisenhower sent Federal troops to enforce civil rights for the African Americans. They became known as the Little Rock Nine. The next year, the governor closed the schools. After that, the schools slowly desegregated.
Little Rock Central High School became a historic site in 1998 but the school itself is still a fully operational high school with over 2,000 students. A visitor center sits diagonally opposite the school. Across the street, there’s a commemorative garden with nine trees for the nine students.
On the other corner, an old Mobil gas station has been refurbished to its 1950s origins. The gas station was home base for journalists who came from all over the world to cover the story. Besides gas, the building had a public telephone.
You can only tour the high school on a ranger-led tour. We were lucky that a group of sixth graders had scheduled a tour when we arrived. We tagged along with Ranger Fabian Ruiz who took us into the school, showed us the large auditorium and the cafeteria. Before we left, the bell had rung and students were changing classes. So we, along with the six-graders and their teachers, got caught in the traffic.
Today, the school is about half African American. It’s considered one of the best high schools in Arkansas. I wonder if the current students appreciate the history of their school or if it’s just oh-hum or “whatever.”