Little Rock, Arkansas, Addresses Complex History in More Ways Than One
On September 24, 1957—three years after Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional—President Dwight D. Eisenhower was forced to use troops from the 101st Airborne Division to escort nine African American teenagers to Little Rock Central High School in the face of protests and violence from white segregationists.
With the support of segregationist groups like The Mother’s League of Central High School, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus had defied a federal judge and called in the National Guard to keep the students out of the then-segregated high school they were ordered to attend, as part of the Brown v. Board decision. But the Little Rock Nine persisted, successfully ushering in the integration of Central High School and marking an unforgettable chapter in the larger context of Little Rock’s African American history.
Little Rock Central High School, originally known as Little Rock High School, was built in 1927. According to the New York Times, its $1.5 million in construction costs made it the most expensive high school in U.S. history. The school featured a combination of Collegiate Gothic and Art Deco architecture and spanned two city blocks. It included 100 classrooms, a 2,000-seat auditorium, and a greenhouse. And, it was white-only.
Meanwhile, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School—named for the African American poet, novelist, and playwright of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—was the comparable African American-only high school, a Rosenwald School funded in part by Julius Rosenwald. Dunbar High School was built after the completion of Central High School, although Central High School’s construction costs had depleted funding for the development of new schools in the district.
Wittenberg & Delony Architects Firm—the same firm that built Central High School—designed, engineered, and built Dunbar High School. Dedicated on April 14, 1930, Dunbar High School was also built in the Art Deco style for $400,000, of which $67,000 came from the Rosenwald Fund and $30,000 from the General Education Board. The rest of the funding for the school was raised locally. It had 34 classrooms, a 1,000-seat auditorium, and seven industrial shops.
Dunbar High School used the Tuskegee model of education for African Americans, which emphasized “economic advancement through vocational education that did not challenge racial segregation and disenfranchisement of black voters,” according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. So, though the school empowered African Americans personally, it took broader legislation and grassroots activism outside of the school environment to achieve full integration. In recognition of its important history and role in the community, Dunbar High School was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and remains an active school today, now called Dunbar Magnet Middle School.
After Central High School was integrated, it became one of the most nationally important civil rights sites in the United States. Central High School was listed on the National Register in 1977 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1982, along with a visitor’s center down the street.
Today, Central High School is open for tours that dive deep into the building’s civil rights history. It is also the only operating high school to become a National Historic Landmark, meaning that its story and impact on America’s historic fabric continues to evolve. The student body is currently 71 percent minority (majority black), significantly higher than Arkansas’ average of 39 percent.
In honor of the Little Rock Nine, a sculpture created by chief editorial cartoonist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette John Deering was unveiled on August 30, 2005. The statues were sculpted by Deering, his wife Kathy Deering, and his studio partner Steve Scallion over seven years. Called “Testament: The Little Rock Nine Monument,” the memorial is intended to invite viewers to become “virtual witnesses, imagining themselves amid the blur of protestors, reporters, and troops who surrounding the Little Rock Nine," according to a brochure from the office of Arkansas’ Secretary of State. The memorial is located on 3rd Street next to the Arkansas State Capitol.
The civil rights history of Little Rock, Arkansas, also extends to the Daisy Bates House, which belonged to Daisy and L.C. Bates, activists who advocated for the Little Rock Nine. L.C. and Daisy owned and reported for African American newspaper the Arkansas State Press. Along with the NAACP, Daisy challenged the Little Rock School Board to adhere to Brown v. Board in court and even helped select the Little Rock Nine for the school’s integration. The Daisy Bates Home quickly became a center of organizing as well as a gathering place for the students, from their initial denial to their ultimate triumph in successfully attending the school.
The home endured the marks of racism, having been vandalized while the Bates were living there. “Shots were fired through its windows, and crosses were burned in the yard on two occasions,” according to Arkansas’ Civil Rights Trail website. “After the school board closed its high school in 1958-59 to avoid integration, the Bates home was the target of an incendiary bomb.” The historic home is now available for tours and is listed on the National Register.
Central High School, Dunbar High School, the “Testament” statue, the Daisy Bates Home, and other places related to African American history can be found on the Arkansas Civil Rights History mobile app, an audio/visual walking tour that covers 36 historic Little Rock landmarks. The app touches on major historic landmarks, like Central High School, as well as other significant places that may not have been as formally recognized by the historical record.
In addition, Arkansas Congressman French Hill introduced a bill in May 2017 to expand the boundaries of the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site and include seven additional properties by the high school. The bill, passed into law in January 2018, intends to “mark, interpret, improve, restore, and provide technical assistance for the preservation and interpretation of their properties.”
The City of Little Rock also received a National Park Service grant of almost $500,000 to restore the Art Deco facade of Central High School in order to “prevent water damage to the exterior of the structure,” according to a March 2018 story from the Arkansas Times.
While it may have been tempting to cover up the state’s reaction to integration and the Brown v. Board decision, individuals and groups in Arkansas instead chose to broaden and contextualize its place in the Civil Rights Movement. By focusing on African Americans’ contributions to the city, as well as the difficult history that surrounds the significant sites, Little Rock is helping us learn from our past to impact our future.