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.

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LR Culture Vulture turns 7

The Little Rock Culture Vulture debuted on Saturday, October 1, 2011, to kick off Arts & Humanities Month.

The first feature was on the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, which was kicking off its 2011-2012 season that evening.  The program consisted of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90, Rossini’s, Overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers, Puccini’s Chrysanthemums and Respighi’s Pines of Rome.  In addition to the orchestra musicians, there was an organ on stage for this concert.

Since then, there have been 10,107 persons/places/things “tagged” in the blog.  This is the 3,773rd entry. (The symmetry to the number is purely coincidental–or is it?)  It has been viewed over 288,600 times, and over 400 readers have made comments.  It is apparently also a reference on Wikipedia.

The most popular pieces have been about Little Rock history and about people in Little Rock.

Sculpture Vulture: Clay Enoch’s UNITED installed on Sept 22, 2017

Clay Enoch’s sculpture UNITED was dedicated to kick off the public events for the commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of the Central High School integration by the Little Rock Nine.

The piece, which depicts two figures working together to close two circles, is located in front of Little Rock Central High School.

Enoch was joined at the dedication by several members of the Little Rock Nine, City of Little Rock officials, and current Central High School personnel.

City Director Dean Kumpuris and Little Rock Nine member Ernest Green (who was celebrating a birthday that day) made remarks about the importance of the message of United.  Enoch discussed his process in creating the sculpture.

Principal Nancy Rousseau accepted the sculpture on behalf of the school.  Then Mr. Enoch, Mr. Green, and current Central High students unveiled the sculpture.

The sculpture was installed by Little Rock Parks and Recreation staff.  The Central High School PTSA has landscaped the area around the sculpture and maintains it.

Enoch was chosen through a national public monument commission process sponsored by Sculpture at the River Market.

Little Rock Look Back: 1959 Labor Day Bombings

Labor Day Bomb

ARKANSAS GAZETTE photos showing the exterior and interior of the LRSD building after the bomb blast.

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On September 7, 1959, a peaceful Labor Day in Little Rock was shattered by the explosions of three dynamite bombs.

The locations were Fire Chief Gene Nalley’s driveway on Baseline Road at 10:20pm, Baldwin Company offices at Fourth and Gaines at 10:53pm (where Little Rock Mayor Werner Knoop was a partner–the company is now known as Baldwin Shell), and the School District offices at 10:58pm (then located at Eighth and Louisiana streets).

Given the three targets, it was fairly quickly assumed that there was a connection between the bombings and the lingering effects of the 1957 integration crisis. In light of that, police officers were stationed at the homes of all Little Rock City Directors and School Board members.

The investigation into the bombings turned up a purported fourth location for a bomb. That was the office of Letcher Langford. (Culture Vulture Editorializing Note:  This could have been a ploy to throw investigators off the scent. Langford was the only City Director who had been backed by segregationist candidates and had been openly hostile to the Women’s Emergency Committee — to the point of threatening them with legal action for not disclosing their membership rolls.)

Investigators determined that the bombing had been planned in late August by members of the Ku Klux Klan.  Five individuals were arrested.  They were J. D. Sims, Jesse Raymond Perry, John Taylor Coggins, Samuel Graydon Beavers, and E. A. Lauderdale.  The latter had twice been an unsuccessful candidate for the City Board of Directors.

Sims pleaded guilty and started serving a prison term later in September 1959.  Perry, Coggins and Beavers all went to trial in October and November.  Each was found guilty. Their terms ranged from three to five years.  Lauderdale was convicted, but appealed his decision. Though the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the verdict against him, he did not start serving his sentence until the court decision in February 1961.

Governor Faubus commuted the sentences of Perry, Coggins and Beavers.  All three served less than six months.  Lauderdale’s sentence was reduced by Faubus so that he, too, was eligible for release after six months.  Sims, who was first to plead, served the longest: nearly two years.

Sadly, this would not be the last bombing in Little Rock tied to 1957. In February 1960, Carlotta Walls’ house was bombed.

Little Rock Look Back: Brown v. Board II Decision from the US Supreme Court

On May 31, 1955, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka II.  

One year after the landmark Brown v. Board decision which declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional, the Supreme Court took up the case again.  This time the focus was on the implementation of desegregation

The original Brown v. Board grew out of a class action suit filed in Topeka, Kansas, by thirteen African American parents on behalf of their children.  The District Court had ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing Plessy v. Ferguson.  When it was appealed to the Supreme Court, Brown v. Board was combined with four other cases from other jurisdictions.

After handing down the 1954 decision, the Supreme Court planned to hear arguments during the following court session regarding the implementation.  Because the Brown v. Board case was actually a compilation of several cases from different parts of the US, the Supreme Court was faced with crafting a ruling which would apply to a variety of situations.

In the arguments before the court in April 1955, the NAACP argued for immediate desegregation while the states argued for delays.

The unanimous decision, authored by Chief Justice Earl Warren, employed the now-famous (or infamous?) phrase that the states should desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”

In making the ruling, the US Supreme Court shifted the decision-making to local school districts and lower-level federal courts. The rationale was that those entities closest to the unique situation of each locality would be best equipped to handle the distinct needs of those schools and communities.

The Supreme Court did make it clear that all school systems must immediately starting moving toward racial desegregation.   But again failed to provide any guideposts as to what that meant.

In anticipation of the Supreme Court’s Brown II ruling, earlier in May the Little Rock School Board had adopted a draft of what became known as the “Blossom Plan” (named for the superintendent, Virgil Blossom).  The thought process seems to have been that if the LRSD had a plan in place prior to a Supreme Court decision, it might buy it more time had the court ruled that things had to happen immediately.

The Blossom Plan called for phased integration to start at the senior high level.  It anticipated the new Hall High School as having an attendance zone in addition to zones for Central and Mann high schools. But the way the zones were created, the only school which would be integrated at first would be Central High.  The junior highs and elementary schools would be integrated later.

With no immediate remedy from the US Supreme Court, the NAACP – both nationally and locally – had little recourse other than expressing their unhappiness continuing to verbally protest the lack of immediate desegregation. (This is an oversimplification of the NAACP efforts, but points out that there options were very limited.)

Little Rock Look Back: First Hall High Graduation in 1958

Another historic high school graduation took place on May 28, 1958.  It was the first graduation ceremony for Little Rock Hall High School.

The school opened in September 1957 as Little Rock’s newest high school, located in “west” Little Rock.  (It is sometimes listed as the second Little Rock high school, ignoring the fact that Horace Mann high school existed.)

The first graduating class was smaller than future classes would be.  Because they had attended Central High School for their sophomore and junior years, many seniors who were zoned for Hall High chose to attend Central for their senior year.

Instead of processing in to Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” the Hall High seniors entered to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Procession of the Nobles.”  The music for ceremony also included “The Star Spangled Banner,” Scarmolin’s “My Creed” and Handel’s “Sarabande and Bouree.”

Principal Terrell E. Powell (who would be tapped as superintendent of the district in a few months) presided over the ceremonies.  Superintendent Virgil Blossom (whose daughter had graduated from Central High the day before) spoke briefly to introduce the School Board members.  One of them, R. A. Lile, presented the students with their diplomas.

There were 109 seniors listed in the graduation program, seven were honor graduates.  The senior class officers were: Redding Stevenson, president; Amanda Jeanne “Toppy” Cameron, vice president; and Karl E. Stahlkopf, secretary. Porter Briggs was the first student body president. Linda Overstreet was student body vice president and Linda Neathery was 12th grade representative on the student council.

The Senior speakers were:  Anita Kluglose (“Toward a Pathless Wood”), Karl Stahlkopf (“Toward the Mysterious Stars”), Linda Neathery (“Toward Majestic Mountains”) and Thomas York (“Toward Unlimited Horizons”).  Other students participating were Redding Stevenson presenting the senior gift, Mary Ellen Lenggenhager giving the invocation, and Michael Ebert giving the benediction.

Little Rock Look Back: End near for 1959 School Board Recall Election

May 23, 1959, was a Saturday. It was also two days before the School Board recall election.  With it being a Saturday, it was the last full day for door knocking as supporters for all sides were busy trying to get out the vote.

Both sides were confident of victory.  Before a crowd of 1,000 in MacArthur Park, segregationists Rep. Dale Alford and Mississippi congressman John Bell Williams berated Harry Ashmore and the Arkansas Gazette.

STOP chair Dr. Drew Agar and campaign chair William Mitchell predicted it would be the largest turnout in Little Rock school election history.  They also stated that Gov. Faubus’ TV appearance criticizing STOP had actually pushed people over to their side.

Echoing Agar and Mitchell, the Pulaski County Election Commission predicted 30,000 of the district’s 42,000 registered voters would cast ballots.  The previous record of 27,000 had been cast in September 1958 when voters decided to keep the high schools closed.  By contrast, 14,300 voted in the December 1958 election which had selected the six school board members now on the ballot for recall.  On May 22, the final day of absentee ballot voting, 205 absentee votes had been cast bringing it to a total of 455 absentee ballots.

William S. Mitchell, who in addition to being a renowned attorney, apparently had a wicked sense of humor.  He used CROSS’s name against them in ads (placed throughout the newspaper) which urged voters to “Cross” out the names of the three candidates being backed by CROSS.