Too excited to sleep—come morning she would be starting high school, and under very dramatic conditions—Elizabeth Eckford, 15, spent the night of September 3, 1957, preparing for her first day of classes at Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas. Like her mother and sisters, Elizabeth was an expert seamstress. Once again, she ironed the pleated white skirt she had made, taking care to touch up the navy blue and white gingham trim she had added when she ran short on white fabric. With bobby socks and white buck loafers, her outfit would present the ideal look. She was a little nervous; last evening on television, the Eckfords had watched Governor Orval Faubus announce that to protect everyone involved and to “preserve the peace,” he was activating the state’s National Guard units and stationing them at Central.
In the morning, as usual, Birdie Eckford inspected her children, making sure all six had notebooks, sharpened pencils, and lunch money. Then, also as usual, she read to them from the Bible, this day choosing a particular passage—the 27th Psalm—and giving those words heightened emphasis. “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” Mrs. Eckford read. “Whom shall I fear?”
As Birdie was reading, husband Oscar nervously paced the room, chomping on an unlit cigar. A night-shift maintenance worker at the Missouri Pacific Railroad station, he should have been asleep, but he too was wound up. Saying goodbye to her parents and siblings, and with a swirl of her skirt Elizabeth walked out the front door. She knew the route to Central by heart; she had passed the school countless times on her way to her grandfather’s grocery store.
A New World
Three years before, the U. S. Supreme Court had ruled school segregation unconstitutional. Some states of the former Confederacy, like Virginia, vowed to respond to the federal mandate to integrate with “massive resistance”. Less so Arkansas. In 1955, Little Rock School District Superintendent Virgil Blossom proposed to integrate Central High—gradually. During the summer of 1957, working with Arkansas NAACP president Daisy Bates, the city school board sought young Black volunteers for that momentous action
Of Little Rock’s 3,665 secondary school pupils, 750 attended the two facilities allocated for Black students, Dunbar Junior High School and Horace Mann High School. In 1955, Dunbar High had transformed into a junior high and Horace Mann opened as the new senior high for African American students. White students were free to attend Central High, Hall High, or Little Rock Technical High.
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As a first step, administrators reviewed student records at Dunbar and Horace Mann. Based on grades, attendance, and emotional maturity, Bates and board members chose and interviewed several hundred prospects. From among 200-some volunteers, the adults narrowed the ranks to 17. When organizers explained that, owing to the fraught situation, that participants would not be able to engage in extracurricular activities; that community backlash could get their folks fired, and that the effort to integrate Central could get violent, the list dwindled to ten: Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Jane Hill, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls. Like her nine schoolmates, Elizabeth Eckford was not particularly political. She just wanted to attend a modern, well-funded high school.
On September 3, Bates gathered the stalwarts at her home in Little Rock. The next day volunteers were to meet again at her house, ride together to Central, and, accompanied by Black and white clerics from local churches, walk into the high school at about 8:30, she explained. After the teens left and Bates was rushing about, it dawned on her that she had counted only nine volunteers. No one had contacted the Eckfords, who had no phone. Bates made a mental note to get with Elizabeth and her parents later that day, but in all the tumult the NAACP leader forgot.
THe journey to central high
Wearing sunglasses against the bright morning, Elizabeth took a city bus to 12th and Park Streets, two blocks from the front entrance to Central. Just before 8 a.m., she walked south on Park toward the school. She heard crowd noises that became a roar. Armed soldiers were lining the periphery of the school grounds. Up ahead, students were passing through the military picket line. “I saw the Guard break ranks as the students approached the sidewalks,” she later recalled. She walked to the point where she thought Guardsmen were letting students through.
When she stepped toward the school doorway, however, two soldiers suddenly closed ranks, obstructing her path. Believing she had picked the wrong entry point, Elizabeth walked further down the line to another sidewalk.
As she again tried to enter the school, Guardsmen crossed their rifles. Still supposing she simply had not found the right spot, she continued to a walkway near the school’s main entrance. Across Park Street from the National Guard line a mob of angry white protesters was milling. Finally, Elizabeth understood what the soldiers had been trying to convey. Again blocking her path, men with guns solemnly shunted her toward the mob.
“It was only then that I realized that they were barring me,” she said later.
“They’re coming!” a voice shouted. “The niggers are coming!”
Elizabeth’s knees began to tremble.
“Don’t let her in!” someone else shouted.
As she stepped into Park Street, hundreds of angry whites fell in behind her. Reporters and news photographers were walking backwards in front of Elizabeth and the mob, taking notes and pictures.
Intending to reach the bus stop at 16th and Park, Elizabeth strode briskly. Her parents had taught her to look to adults for help, so she scanned the crowd for a visage that showed a trace of empathy, focusing on an older white woman. “It seemed like a kind face, but when I looked again, she spat on me,” Elizabeth recalled. “Safety, to me, meant getting to that bus stop.”
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The Arkansas Democrat had assigned photographer Ira “Will” Counts, 26, to cover the desegregation of Central High. As he was documenting the chaos, Counts noticed directly behind Elizabeth a hysterical white girl spewing hateful language. He framed Elizabeth in the foreground, slightly blurred, with her snarling tormentor in focus. “I just hoped I had enough film,” Counts later said. As the white teenager was screeching “Go back to Africa!” Counts squeezed the shutter, counterposing Hazel Bryan’s unhinged ferocity and Elizabeth Eckford’s despondent composure.
Reaching the bus stop, Elizabeth sat on the edge of the bench there and stared downward. She tried without success to shut out her surroundings.
“I could hear individual voices, but I was not conscious of numbers,” she said. “I was conscious of being alone.”
Screeches of “Go back to the jungle!” and “Drag her to a tree and lynch her!” bombarded Elizabeth. Reporters circled her, forming a protective ring. Benjamin Fine of The New York Times sat on the bench and put an arm around her. He lifted her chin and whispered, “Don’t let them see you cry.” The sight of a white man comforting a Black girl further inflamed the mob.
Daisy Bates heard about Elizabeth’s predicament on her car radio and sped to Central. She didn’t arrive in time to help, but Grace Lorch happened onto the fracas in time to intervene. Lorch, 50, a prominent white figure in the local civil rights movement, had just dropped her daughter at a junior high near Central. Aware of that morning’s action, Lorch drove by to see how it was progressing. When she saw the protesters, she parked and ran to the scene. Charging into the crowd to get to Elizabeth’s side, Lorch called out the mob. “She’s scared!” Lorch shouted. “She’s just a little girl! “Six months from now, you’ll be ashamed of what you’re doing.”
Across Park Street stood Ponder’s Drug Store, whose soda fountain was a popular Central High hangout. With Elizabeth in tow, Lorch strode toward the pharmacy, intending to use the phone there to call a taxi. Protesters surged at them, spouting slurs. The staff had locked the store doors.
“Won’t somebody please call a taxi?” Grace Lorch pleaded.
No one did, but a northbound bus arrived on Park Street and the driver opened its doors. Lorch helped her companion board and sat with her. Lorch asked the girl her name; Elizabeth, in deep shock, did not respond. After a few stops, Grace asked if she would be all right. The girl said yes, so Lorch disembarked to catch a southbound bus and retrieve her car. Elizabeth later admitted to being relieved when her rescuer left, since she knew that many in Little Rock thought Grace and husband Lee Lorch to be left-leaning activists, perhaps even communists.
Birdie Eckford taught laundry technique at the Arkansas School for the Blind and Deaf Negro on Markham Street. Elizabeth got off the bus there. “There are times when you just know you need your mama,” she said later. She hurried downstairs through soapy, bleach-tinged clouds of steam to find her mother peering out a window through moist eyes. Birdie had been following her child’s ordeal on the radio. She and Elizabeth embraced without speaking.
As planned, the other student volunteers had arrived around 8:30 that morning at the corner of Park and 13th, accompanied by the ministers. They, too, walked a gantlet of abuse to the Central High doors, where the Guard unit’s commander declared that at Governor Faubus’s order the students could not enter the building.
Later that day, at Daisy Bates’s house, the NAACP chief met Elizabeth for the first time, Elizabeth glaring at the older woman with what Bates described as “cold hatred in her eyes.”
“Why did you forget me?” the 15-year-old demanded. Bates apologized profusely.
For two weeks, the volunteers stayed out of school as NAACP leaders and their lawyers went to court; when volunteer Jane Hill’s father’s boss threatened to fire him, her parents pulled her out of the project. On September 14, President Dwight D. Eisenhower summoned Faubus to Newport, Rhode Island, for a brief meeting at which Faubus assured the president he would allow the Black students to enroll. Then, withdrawing the National Guard and leaving security to the Little Rock police, the governor complained that the federal government was pressuring him to integrate his state’s high schools.
Daisy Bates began planning a second attempt to enroll the remaining student volunteers. She started calling parents. The Eckfords now had a telephone at their home. To Bates’s great surprise and relief, Elizabeth and her parents agreed, albeit reluctantly, to stick by the effort. The promise of a superior education trumped fear.
On the morning of September 23, escorted by Little Rock police, state troopers, and four Black journalists, the volunteers entered Central High School through a side door. Another mob, 1,000 strong, had gathered at the main entrance. Protesters raced to the side door and attacked Black newsmen. Through the morning, the mob showed no signs of relent. Before noon police officers ushered the volunteers out through the same side door and rushed them to safety in official vehicles.
That evening, President Eisenhower issued a proclamation ordering opponents of integration to “cease and desist.” The next day, by telegram, Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann begged Eisenhower to send Army troops to his city. An unenthusiastic Eisenhower realized Faubus had backed him into a political corner. The president federalized the Arkansas National Guard and approved deployment to Little Rock of 1,000 paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. On September 25, 1957, covered live by network television, the nine Black students, surrounded by soldiers, climbed the front steps at Central High on what proved the easiest part of their mission.
Torturous school year
A hard core of racist schoolmates numbering 150 to 175 spent the rest of the 1957-58 school year tormenting the volunteers. White girls scattered broken glass in the showers as Black classmates washed up after gym class. A favorite form of physical insult was stepping on Black students’ heels. A student hurled sharpened pencils at Elizabeth. An assailant threw acid in the eyes of volunteer Melba Pattillo, saved from blindness because a Guardsman rushed her to a sink and rinsed away the acid.
None of the nine shrank from the test. Birdie Eckford lost her job; Jane Hill’s dad lost his. Little Rock shut down its schools 1958-59. The Eckfords managed to hire a tutor, but Elizabeth came up several credits shy of a diploma. She completed high school by moving to St. Louis, Missouri. She sank into a withering depression. She overdosed on sleeping pills—the first of several suicide attempts. Chronically blue, she nonetheless graduated from Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, with a B.A. in history. She moved home to Little Rock. She enlisted in the U.S. Army. She lived in Indiana, Georgia, Washington, and Alabama. In May 1974, Elizabeth Eckford, 32, returned to Little Rock to stay.
“Other places, for me, weren’t any better,” she said. “They were just different places.”
She became a recluse, rarely leaving the house other than to shop and do laundry. For hours she lay in bed facing the wall. Therapy and medication lifted her spirits a bit, but it took an unexpected meeting to dispel the fog enveloping her.
After repeated coaxing, Elizabeth agreed to attend the 40th anniversary of the Nine’s enrollment in 1997. Will Counts, who had photographed Elizabeth and Hazel Bryan in September 1957, was encouraged by a historian friend to try to bring the women together for another picture as part of the commemoration.
Hazel Bryan Massery, who had stayed close to Little Rock, had come to regret her actions at Central High as a 15-year-old. She claimed to have “amnesia” regarding that behavior but acknowledged its caustic effects. She volunteered with young Black mothers and counseled minority students. When Counts invited Massery to pose for a photo marking the anniversary, she enthusiastically agreed.
So did Elizabeth Eckford.
Will Counts drove Hazel to Elizabeth’s house, where the women cordially greeted one another. Hazel apologized repeatedly. The two discovered they shared a love of flowers. Hazel said she hoped to have a chance to step out of one picture and into another. Counts drove them to Central High where he photographed them side by side smiling. The portrait ran on page 1 of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and later, combined with Counts’s 1957 photo, as a popular poster entitled “Reconciliation.”
For several years, the pair spent time together taking in flower shows, shopping, and meeting for lunch. They made public joint appearances. Elizabeth put depression further behind and became a teacher. Eventually it came to light that Hazel had remained friends with white students who had abused the Black volunteers. Elizabeth broke off contact.
Remembering THat Day
Elizabeth Eckford continued to speak with schoolchildren, though sometimes the encounters left her overcome by emotion. While talking to a student group in a restaurant outside Little Rock, she suddenly bolted. “I’m sorry,” the group leader explained. “She’s having an episode.” She kept up her public appearances but set limits: no crowding, no hugging, no loud noises.
In April 2007, during an annual Sojourn to the Past tour, Elizabeth found herself scheduled to speak at Central High. The Sojourn program, begun in 1999 by California history teacher Jeff Steinberg, annually takes a group of Black and white students on a week-long bus tour through the South to visit civil rights landmarks and hear from veterans of the struggle.
On the way to Little Rock from Memphis, Tennessee, chaperones told the students of Elizabeth’s stipulation about the ban on loud noises. As an alternative, Steinberg showed the group the American Sign Language gesture for cheering. When Elizabeth walked onstage at Central, the children rose, lifted their arms, and waved their hands in a standing ovation.
Nearly 50 years after her harrowing walk into unwanted immortality, Elizabeth Eckford again was in the midst of raised hands—not ending in fists or raised middle fingers but conveying silent appreciation for her achievement and strength of character.