31 Days of Arkansas Rep: THE LEGACY PROJECT: IT HAPPENED IN LITTLE ROCK

Since today is Elizabeth Eckford’s birthday, the past Arkansas Rep production that is featured is 2007’s The Legacy Project: It Happened in Little Rock.

Culled from three years of research and over 80 interviews, playwright and director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj created a multi-faceted play with music that explored stories past and present of Central High’s desegregation and the legacy the events of those years have provided citizens of Little Rock, of Arkansas and of the United States.

The cast featured Destan Owens (playing parallel roles of a 1957 Harlem reporter and a 2007 artist (a stand-in for Maharaj) as well as nine other actors who played multiple roles of diverse ethnicity — from current Central students to the Little Rock Nine, from elected officials to blue-collar workers.  Those actors were J. Bernard Calloway, Mary-Pat Green, Taifa Harris, Shannon Lamb, Vanessa Lemonides, Arthur W. Marks, Gia McGlone, Nick Petrie and Julian Rebolledo.

The creative team included Sybil Roberts Williams (dramaturg), Michael Susko (choreographer and assistant director), Charles Creath (musical director) Steve Hudelson (musician), Mike Nichols (scenic design), Matthew Webb (lighting design), Leslie Bernstein (costume design), M. Jason Pruzin (sound design) and Lynda Kwallek (properties). Producing Artistic Director Bob Hupp and Education Director Leslie Golden were also involved in shepherding the project over the years.

Funding for the production came, in part, from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The production ran from September 14 to September 30, 2007, in conjunction with other events commemorating the 50th anniversary.

In 2008, Maharaj directed a play called Little Rock Off Broadway. While a separate piece of drama, it was based on the research he conducted and infused by his experiences creating The Legacy Project: It Happened in Little Rock.

 

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Happy Birthday to Elizabeth Eckford

After 60 years, the most dramatic images of the 1957 crisis at Little Rock Central High School remain those of 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, being taunted as she walked through a hate-filled mob, on her way to school.  Today, Ms. Eckford recalls how difficult it was for her parents, Oscar and Birdie, to allow her to continue the struggle to integrate the Little Rock schools.

Last month, a replica of the bench on which she sat on that first day in 1957 was unveiled.  Instead of sitting on a bench surrounded by taunters, this time she sat on a bench surrounded by cheers and applause.  The bench was the latest project of the Central High Memory Project which has also produced an audio tour which takes listeners down the street as Ms. Eckford experienced it in 1957.

Born on October 4, 1941, she grew up in Little Rock.  Because all of the city’s high schools closed her senior year, Ms. Eckford moved to St Louis, where she obtained her GED. She attended Knox College in Illinois, and received her BA in History from Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.  While in college, Ms. Eckford became one of the first African Americans to work in a local St. Louis bank, in a non-janitorial position, and later she worked as a substitute teacher, in Little Rock public schools.

Ms. Eckford, a veteran of the U.S. Army, has also worked as a substitute teacher in Little Rock public schools, test administrator, unemployment interviewer, waitress, welfare worker, and military reporter.  Along with her fellow Little Rock Nine members, she is a recipient of the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal and the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal.  Together with one of her former tormenters, Ms. Eckford also received a Humanitarian award, presented by the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ), following their meeting 34 years after an apology.  The award recognizes forgiveness and atonement.  They talked to students for two years, and, together, attended a 12-week racial healing course.

Ms. Eckford has started to walk through the painful past in sharing some of her story.  She has said that true reconciliation can occur if we honestly look back on our shared history. She believes that the lessons learned from Little Rock Central High School must continue to be shared with new generations, reminding audiences that “the dead can be buried, but not the past.”  Ms. Eckford continues her interest in education by sharing her story with school groups, and challenges students to be active participants in confronting justice, rather than being passive observers.

Little Rock Look Back: Little Rock Nine enter Central High for First Full Day

After legal challenges, stymied attempts, and literally countless threats, it was on Wednesday, September 25, 1957, that the group of African American students known as the Little Rock Nine actually entered Little Rock Central High School for a full day.  They would return each day through the end of the school year.

Unlike September 23, when they went in a side door before being hustled a few hours later for their own protection, on September 25 they walked in the front door.  They did so escorted by members of the 101st Airborne who had been ordered to Little Rock by President Eisenhower.

Much has been written about the events of September 25, 1957.  Several of the participants that day have penned memoirs.

Whatever I would write today would pale in comparison to the accounts of those who lived it.

So I just end this with words of gratitude to:

  • Melba Pattillo Beals
  • Elizabeth Eckford
  • Ernest Green
  • Gloria Ray Karlmark
  • Carlotta Walls LaNier
  • Terrence Roberts
  • Jefferson Thomas
  • Minnijean Brown Trickey
  • Thelma Mothershed Wair

Thank you to these nine pioneers, who were simply teenagers trying to have equal education opportunities.  Thank you to their parents, their families, their pastors, their legal team, their support system.  Thank you to Daisy and L. C. Bates, Wiley Branton Sr. Chris Mercer, and Thurgood Marshall for the roles they played.

While Jefferson Thomas passed away in 2010, the other eight continue to tell their stories and speak truth to audiences ranging from one to thousands and ages from pre-school to seniors.

Elizabeth Eckford Bench Dedicated Today

Sixty-one years ago today, Elizabeth Eckford took the long walk down Park Street as she was trying to enter Little Rock Central High for her first day of classes there.

Met by a mob and kept out of the school by the soldiers she thought were there to protect her, Eckford finally made her way to a bus bench at Sixteenth and Park Streets.

Today at 4:30 pm, a replica of that bench is being dedicated at that location.

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site is collaborating with the Central High Memory Project students and additional partners for the ceremony.

September 4, 1957, was supposed to be the first day of school for the African American students who were selected to integrate Little Rock Central High School.  Due to the mobs gathered outside of the school and interference from Governor Orval Faubus, the students would not get in the school that day.

The most famous images from that day are the photos of Elizabeth Eckford walking in front of the school, only to be rebuffed by soldiers and tormented by the crowds. Elizabeth’s decision to walk through the mob of protesting segregationists to enter school, only to be turned away became world news. The story of the desegregation of Central High School was thrust into a defining role within the Civil Rights Movement. Elizabeth’s efforts to overcome the fear and uncertainty that she faced that morning resulted in her seeking refuge at a lonely bus stop bench.

In order to highlight this aspect of the story and create more personal connections with this turning point in history for students and visitors, the National Park Service and the Central High Memory Project Student Team will work with community partners in a new public history project.  The Bench Project includes building a replica of the bus stop bench, creating a mobile app for the students’ audio walking tour of eyewitness accounts of that first day of desegregation, and developing a storycorps recording booth for interviews and student podcasts.

The partnership includes: Bullock Temple C.M.E., Central High School and their EAST LAB, the Little Rock School District, the City of Little Rock, the Clinton School of Public Service, Central Arkansas Library System’s Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Good Earth Garden Center, Friends of Central High Museum Inc., Home Depot, Little Rock Club 99 and other Rotary International Clubs,  Unity in the Community, and others.

The groundbreaking ceremony will be held at the corner of Park and 16th Street starting at 4:30 p.m. The program will include remarks by the NPS Superintendent and the directors of some of the partnering organizations regarding the projects that will be completed in connection with this effort. The Central High Memory Project Student Team will be on hand to meet the public and share details about their work.

Scenes from Elizabeth Eckford bench groundbreaking

On May 17, 2018, Elizabeth Eckford joined with representatives of the National Park Service, Little Rock School District, Bullock Temple CME, and many other organizations to break the ground for a commemorative bench.

This bench is a reproduction of the one on which Ms. Eckford sat so famously on the morning of September 4, 1957.

The bench will be built over the summer and installed in September 2018.

Here are some scenes from the ceremony.

Elizabeth Eckford visits with Central High School Principal Nancy Rousseau.

David Kilton of the National Park Service speaks at the ceremony.

Attendees spilled out of the tent and lined the street for the event.

Ms. Eckford speaks to the crowd.

Ms. Eckford is joined by Central High students in breaking ground.

 

Groundbreaking today for Elizabeth Eckford commemorative bench project

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site is collaborating with the Central High Memory Project students and additional partners for the groundbreaking ceremony of the Elizabeth Eckford Commemorative Bench on May 17, 2018.  It will take place at 4:30 this afternoon at the corner of Park and 16th Streets.

The date for this groundbreaking was chosen to be on the 64th anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision.  It was that decision which paved the way for Little Rock Central High School to be a pivotal location in the Civil Rights struggle.

September 4, 1957, was supposed to be the first day of school for the African American students who were selected to integrate Little Rock Central High School.  Due to the mobs gathered outside of the school and interference from Governor Orval Faubus, the students would not get in the school that day.

The most famous images from that day are the photos of Elizabeth Eckford walking in front of the school, only to be rebuffed by soldiers and tormented by the crowds. Elizabeth’s decision to walk through the mob of protesting segregationists to enter school, only to be turned away became world news. The story of the desegregation of Central High School was thrust into a defining role within the Civil Rights Movement. Elizabeth’s efforts to overcome the fear and uncertainty that she faced that morning resulted in her seeking refuge at a lonely bus stop bench.

In order to highlight this aspect of the story and create more personal connections with this turning point in history for students and visitors, the National Park Service and the Central High Memory Project Student Team will work with community partners in a new public history project.  The Bench Project includes building a replica of the bus stop bench, creating a mobile app for the students’ audio walking tour of eyewitness accounts of that first day of desegregation, and developing a storycorps recording booth for interviews and student podcasts.

The partnership includes: Bullock Temple C.M.E., Central High School and their EAST LAB, the Little Rock School District, the City of Little Rock, Central Arkansas Library System’s Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Good Earth Garden Center, Friends of Central High Museum Inc., Home Depot, Little Rock Club 99 and other Rotary International Clubs,  Pam Brown Courtney and Willis Courtney M. D., the Clinton School of Public Service, Unity in the Community, and others.

The groundbreaking ceremony will be held at the corner of Park and 16th Street starting at 4:30 p.m. The program will include remarks by the NPS Superintendent and the directors of some of the partnering organizations regarding the projects that will be completed in connection with this effort. The Central High Memory Project Student Team will be on hand to meet the public and share details about their work.

Rock the Oscars: Nine from Little Rock

On April 5, 1965, the Academy Award for Best Documentary, Short Subject went to the film “Nine from Little Rock.”

Narrated by Jefferson Thomas, Charles Guggenheim’s documentary looks at the nine African-American students who enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Thomas, one of the students reflects on the state of race relations in the seven years that had elapsed (up to 1964).  The film also focuses on Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford and Thelma Mothershed.

Guggenheim both directed and co-wrote the film. The latter credit was shared with Shelby Storck, who also produced the film.   The film had been commissioned by George Stevens, Jr., for the United State Information Agency.

The Oscar that night was Guggenheim’s first of four.  His others would be for: 1968’s “Robert Kennedy Remembered” (Live Action Short), 1989’s “The Johnstown Flood” (Documentary Short) and 1994’s “A Time for Justice” (Documentary Short).  His son Davis Guggenheim won the Oscar for Documentary, Feature for An Inconvenient Truth.

The film was digitally restored by the Motion Picture Preservation Lab for the 50th anniversary of its win for Best Short Documentary at the 1965 Academy Awards.  It is available for purchase on DVD and can also be viewed in its entirety on YouTube