I remember learning about the events surrounding desegregation at Little Rock Central High School in my history classes, but didn’t realize that it was a National Historic site until a recent accidental visit to the area. How that happened is a long story, but I had a free morning and found myself searching for tourist attractions in Little Rock, Arkansas and discovered that there was a visitor center and opportunity to tour the still-operational high school. As a history lover and fan of all things National Parks-related, I hopped in my rental car and headed out first thing in the morning for what turned out to be one of the most moving travel experiences I’ve ever had. The stories are hard to hear, but they’re so important.
Why is Little Rock Central High School famous?
Little Rock Central High became one of Arkansas’ most famous landmarks because of the events and protests surrounding desegregation in the 1950s. After the landmark Brown v. Board decision that ended school segregation, nine black students enrolled at the formerly all-white high school for the 1957-58 school year. The Little Rock Nine, as they came to be known, were initially prevented from entering the school as the Arkansas governor at the time called out the National Guard to keep them outside. Angry mobs formed outside, shouting death threats and racial slurs at these teenagers attempting to attend high school. After more litigation, then-President Eisenhower sent Federal troops to ensure that the students were allowed to enter.
We of course learned about these events in my history classes, but our text books never really delved deeply into the day-to-day horrors the students faced after finally being admitted to the school. It was always presented as “then they got to go to school. The end.” But that was really the beginning of a year of horrors, and I honestly don’t know how they survived. The constant violence, insults, threatening phone calls, organized groups of students determined to get them expelled, and even acid attacks that continued throughout the year never seemed to make it to the curriculum – even in my Advanced Placement classes in high school. These teenagers survived a war at Little Rock Central, and though their story was certainly the most famous, it wasn’t necessarily unique. I don’t think I would’ve survived that. After that brutal school year – and Ernest Green successfully graduating despite the torture – segregationists were still determined to fight integration, so the governor closed all of the high schools in Little Rock for the following year. High school classes didn’t resume until August 1959.
If you’re not familiar with the events – or just need a brush up on your history – there is a wealth of information online. The National Parks site has a detailed timeline of events and the King Institute at Stanford has a nice, succinct recap. While I was at the National Historic Site, I picked up a book called Warriors Don’t Cry, written by Melba Pattillo Beals, who was one of the Little Rock Nine. It’s a painful recollection of that year drawing from her diary and hard to read at times, but I’d highly recommend it and wish it had been part of my required reading in school.
What to do at Little Rock Central High National Historic Site
The National Historic Site was established in 1998 and is made up of three buildings – the current visitor center, the original visitor center that has been returned to its original appearance as a gas station, and the high school itself. The visitor center has a small but interesting museum that covers the timeline of the famous events at the high school. There is also a memorial to the Little Rock Nine and a commemorative garden across the street.
If you’re interested in touring the high school itself, tours are conducted at 9 am and 1 pm on most weekdays. Check the NPS website to see the schedule before planning your trip. Tour group sizes are limited, so visitors are encouraged to call ahead. I did manage to walk onto a tour without a reservation, so if you haven’t made one, all hope isn’t lost, but I like to plan ahead as much as possible. The tours typically last about an hour. Please keep in mind that it’s still an operational high school, so attempting to enter the building without a tour isn’t allowed. Be respectful of the current students who are attending classes.
Our tour began with a brief introduction in the visitor center where the park ranger told us a little bit about the origin of the high school. Did you know that its elaborate design was intended to help Little Rock compete with Atlanta for status in the South? Ironically, the events made it famous ended up driving businesses away from Little Rock because of the instability they caused. After our intro, we made our way across the street to the original visitor center housed in the former Magnolia/Mobil gas station. This gas station served as an important location during the events here because reporters used the phone to call in their stories and bring national attention to what was happening. It’s ben recreated to look as it did in 1957, right down to the gas prices posted on the pumps.
The tour then takes you up the famous front stairs of the high school. You’ve almost certainly seen photos of it in history books at some point if you’ve studied American history. The building is absolutely gorgeous, and on the quiet summer day when I visited, it was hard to imagine angry mobs surrounding it. Once inside, we entered the auditorium and sat in the seats while the park ranger told us more about the individual stories of the Little Rock Nine. This was the most valuable part of the tour in my mind. You can get the raw facts from Wikipedia if you want, but hearing about how the white students coordinated attacks on the black students and how they were hit with locks, pushed down the stairs, and more was what has stuck with me the most.
Meeting Elizabeth Eckford
Note: This is not part of the normal tour and I lucked into it because the majority of our group that morning was part of a Stanford tour that had arranged for one of the Little Rock Nine – Elizabeth Eckford – to give a special talk in the school library. Because we were with the group, one other family and I got to join in this amazing opportunity, but don’t go in expecting this because it’s definitely not normal.
The park ranger leading our tour mentioned going to the library to meet Elizabeth a couple times during the tour, and since I had no idea that the Stanford group had arranged something special, I assumed it was a recorded video interview. I continued thinking this as the ranger had us sit at tables grouped around a projector screen. I was wrong. She came to talk to us in person. I still can’t believe how lucky I was to stumble into that room.
Elizabeth Eckford is the only one of the original nine students to still live in Little Rock where she’s currently a social worker. She spoke candidly about that year at Little Rock Central High and told us her personal stories of the attacks and insults she faced from students and strangers. It was so bad that she was diagnosed with PTSD years later and says she still doesn’t like being in crowds.
One of the tour members asked if any of the white students had ever apologized in the years afterward and she said that a few had tried. She said that one of the girls had said she was sorry for everything but that she also claimed to have amnesia about the events that year. “So I don’t know what she was apologizing for,” Elizabeth said with a chuckle.
Unfortunately, I had to catch a flight and I had only budgeted one hour for the tour since I had no idea this talk was happening, so I had to be horribly rude and get up in the middle of her talk to leave. I only hope that the park ranger I spoke to to get directions out of the building relayed my sincere apology. The two hours I spent at Little Rock Central stayed with me all day as I found myself lost in thought staring out the plane window instead of my usual reading/writing. Though the historic site itself isn’t particularly large, it’s such a huge part of American history.
Things to know before visiting Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
The visitor center is open from 9-4:30 daily except for New Year’s Eve – it closes early – and New Year’s Day – it’s closed entirely. Admission is free. If you plan on doing the tour, I would allow two hours to visit. Without the tour, one hour to visit would be sufficient.
The high school and visitor center are located just a few minutes west of downtown Little Rock. The Arkansas State Capitol is only a few minutes north. It’s about a ten-minute drive from the Little Rock airport if you are flying in. There was plenty of parking available at the visitor center. Just remember that it’s an active high school, so respect the students and don’t try to approach the school without a guide.
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