The High School That Changed Civil Rights

SCA Centennial Volunteer Ambassador Sally Goldman surveys Little Rock Central High with NPS staff

SCA Centennial Volunteer Ambassador Sally Goldman Takes an Inside Look at the History of Little Rock Central High School

SCA Centennial Volunteer Ambassador Sally Goldman with a member of the Little Rock NineSally Goldman is an SCA Centennial Volunteer Ambassador at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site in Arkansas. Central High became the site of violent protests during the 1957 Desegregation Crisis, when nine African American students began attending the all-white school.

As Black History Month comes to a close, Sally shares an inside perspective on the school that is her alma mater, her workplace, and an icon of the Civil Rights movement.

Right: Sally Goldman with Minnijean Brown-Trickey, member of the Little Rock Nine
 

Why should everyone check out Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site?

Our story is the best part of our site. This is not only a story about nine teenagers who overcame great adversity: it’s about opportunity, the state and federal governments struggling over power, racial politics, and public education. There are so many layers, but at its core, this is a story about humanity.

In addition, we’re the only National Park that contains a working high school (it’s my alma mater!) Many of our volunteers are current Central students, and since this event happened in recent history, members of the Little Rock Nine and alums from all throughout Central’s history come to visit from time to time to share their stories.

Students learning the history of Little Rock Central High School

What role did Little Rock Central High School play in the Civil Rights movement?

Our site was the first major test of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that declared state laws establishing separate schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. Three smaller schools in Arkansas had already integrated, but Central was the largest high school in the state and highly ranked in academics.

Governor Faubus sent in the National Guard to prevent integration, eventually causing President Eisenhower to send in the 101st Airborne to enforce integration. Reporters from across the country flocked to Little Rock, making it front-page news around the world.

Our site is very active in telling the ongoing story of the struggle for civil rights. Last November we hosted the Social Conscience Gathering, bringing together activists, academics, and the public to discuss social justice.

I always end my tours and programs by talking about what Central looks like today. The school is 55% black, 40% white, and 5% everything else — but students of color are still less likely to take AP classes, desegregation funding ends in 2017, and Little Rock’s housing patterns are more segregated than in 1957. What do those factors mean for today’s struggle for civil rights?

NPS staff gather at Little Rock Central High School

How is Black History Month commemorated at your site?

Every month is Black History Month at our site! Each day we strive to make sure that black history is a permanent fixture in mainstream narratives of American history.

February kicks off our field trip season, so we are very busy with giving tours for school groups, doing distance learning, and conducting outreach programs. Last week I gave my first tour of the school, visited grade school classrooms to speak about Central and the Park Service’s role in preserving black history, and gave a walking tour of the school grounds to a group of first graders!

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about Central High School? How has your work changed your perspective on Civil Rights history?

I was surprised at how hard the school board and the governor fought to prevent integration. Two segregated high schools opened in 1957 as Central was being integrated, and after the 1957-58 school year, the school board filed for a delay, which was denied by the Supreme Court. Governor Faubus closed Little Rock’s four public high schools the same day the Supreme Court denied the delay. It took the work of the Women’s Emergency Committee to get the schools reopened next year.

My work has taught me that the legal and political history of the civil rights movement is so rich and often not given the coverage it deserves. Court cases and special elections are a lot more fun to learn about than most people think.

What kinds of reactions have you received from visitors to your site?

There are always a few people who cry when they go through the exhibits and learn about all the cruelty the Nine had to endure. When I teach kids about the abuse the Little Rock Nine went through, some get really mad and say that they would have stood up for the Nine by retaliating physically. They get even more upset when you tell them that one of the rules of integrating Central was that you couldn’t retaliate, or you would get expelled! Kids sometimes get much more passionate about right and wrong than adults.

What should visitors be sure to check out while they’re at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site?

For a 26-acre park, we have so much to do! Visitors can take a ranger-led tour of the school, where they can walk through the same hallways as the Nine did and hear their stories. If you can’t take a tour, spend some time at the listening stations in our exhibits. There are great video interviews with the Nine and others who were involved in the crisis. These stories are incredibly moving and fascinating — stories that should be recognized and remembered in every month of the year.

Above: The Little Rock Nine, reunited for the 50th Anniversary of the Desegregation of Little Rock Central High School.

 

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