Jane Kuhn stands outside Little Rock Central High School, where in 1957, the desegregation of the school drew worldwide attention.
Memories of my annual fall trip always seem to help sustain me when the weather turns cold, and this year is no different. While ordinarily Lady Jane and I head east for our mid-October trip to admire the autumnal blaze that New England and Mid-Atlantic deciduous trees always provide, this year, we went a different route.
For this trip, we actually headed south to fulfill Jane’s wish to see Arkansas and Alabama, two of the final remaining states she’s not seen up close.
We left early on a Saturday morning, and I kept the sciatica that so often bedevils me during distance driving at bay and accomplished my 600-mile goal of making it to Horn Lake, Mississippi, and our lodging at — for my money — the nation’s best hotel chain, the Drury Inn and Suites. The chain provides not only a hot breakfast but also an evening meal and some adult beverages, perks that supplement a most congenial staff and a whistle-clean room.
While in Mississippi, the hotel is actually just down the road from Memphis. There was no need for Jane and me to check out such Memphis sites as Beale Street or the Piedmont Hotel to see its famous Duck March, because we’d already checked those boxes on a previous trip that also included Chattanooga and Nashville.
The next morning, it was off to Little Rock, specifically to see one of the more famous high schools in the country — one made famous, sadly, for pretty much all the wrong reasons. Jane always has a pretty definite idea of what she wants to see when we travel, and Little Rock’s Central High School was one of those places. She’d recently completed a reading of the book “Warriors Don’t Cry”, by Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the group of students who became known as the Little Rock Nine.
The nine black students volunteered in September of 1957 to integrate the all-white Central High, considered one of the finest college-prep high schools in the state with an enrollment of approximately 2,500. Both Jane and I found the building to be so impressive, and so did the American Institute of Architects, which named the building, which was dedicated in 1927, as “America’s Most Beautiful High School.”
The event was the first major affirmation of the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that racial segregation in public educational facilities is unconstitutional. The reaction to Melba Pattillo and the eight others in such unenlightened times was outrage, especially by the parents of the school’s white students. The harassment and the indignities suffered by the nine were shameful. Arkansas governor Orval Faubus actually called out the Arkansas National Guard to attempt to bar the nine from entering on Sept. 4, the second day of the new school year.
Sixteen days later, with President Dwight Eisenhower, becoming increasingly concerned over the press’s coverage of what was becoming not just a national disgrace but an international one as well, and following a federal court ruling that it was illegal for the National Guard to block the students from entering, the President federalized the National Guard and sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to ensure the nine students’ safety. Eisenhower, the former military superstar, was indeed a law-and-order man as well as a strict constitutionalist. Civil Rights activist and journalist Daisy Bates wrote, “Anytime it takes 11,500 soldiers to ensure nine Negro children their constitutional rights in a democratic society, I can’t be happy.”
As Jane and I walked around the outside of the school, now a National Historic Site, imagining the terror the nine must have felt as they passed through a gauntlet of racial epithets and profanity, we encountered a National Parks worker who was policing the garden across the street that acknowledges the historical significance of the site.
He introduced himself as Michael Douglass, adding, “The good looking one, not the actor.” Douglas was quite informative about the event. A Little Rocker from birth, Douglas said that while he was only a year old when the shameful event took place, he was well informed about its history from his father, who was an Army Reservist. Douglas said while there were some students who accepted the Little Rock Nine, many other students unfortunately treated the students terribly with both verbal, and, in some cases, physical abuse.
Douglas was quite interesting in discussing many of the side stories that occurred in that troublesome year and also unlocked the visitors’ center on our Sunday at the site to give us some very informative literature about the event as well.
So, what started with Lady Jane’s insistence that we see the school ended with my learning a great deal about an event of such importance in our country’s ongoing attempts to break down the racial walls that sometimes tend to keep us apart.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a division of AIM Media Midwest, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.