The more things change, the more they stay the same.
-- Alphonse Karr
Recently the 60th anniversary of the integration of Central High School in Little Rock was commemorated and the stories of the "Little Rock Nine," the black students who bravely walked through those school doors in 1957, were told again. The Little Rock Crisis, as the fall-out from social and political clashes over integration vs. segregation became known, created a famous and defining view of Arkansas and its capital city throughout the world.
Less known and not commemorated is what happened the next school year. Interestingly, the reaction to Central's integration brought a degree of shame to the state, but it was the lost year that dealt a quieter, longer and more crushing blow to white and black students and their families. Gov. Orval Faubus, bending to his political base and sticking to his stand that he was preventing violence, closed all four Little Rock high schools for the 1958-59 school year. Aside from Central, which is usually the only school mentioned, Hall High, Horace Mann (the black high school), and Little Rock Technical High were also closed, except their football games continued, of course.
Students and their parents waited for classes to begin, but as weeks looked like they could become months, 3,665 students started to realize they needed to figure out Plan B. Because I was supposed to enter Hall High for my sophomore year, my parents, like thousands of others, began to weigh options. They did not want me going to one of the private unaccredited start-up schools rapidly being created out of sudden necessity by churches or other entities, including a private school corporation, or watching a few classes on TV.
My aunt in Memphis said I could live with her, but I took one look at their city's massive school, which seemed to be three times the size of Central High, and balked. Schools in smaller districts near Little Rock were rapidly filling past their capacities, or just flatly rejecting non-residents, and kids were car-pooling or riding buses daily to towns farther and farther from Little Rock. Some students went to other states and lived with relatives or family friends. Some went to boarding schools, some got jobs, some joined the military early, some missed school completely that year, and some never returned to any school to finish their high school years because they did not have the money or advantages others of us had.
My mother and I finally went to live with my elderly grandmother in Magnolia, and I had to catch up about six weeks of missed work. To this day geometry remains a mystery, since I had completely missed postulates and theorems. Fortunately one of the boys in my class must have liked me, since he shared his homework and tutored me for tests the rest of the year. Latin class was another nightmare altogether.
That small town embraced me and one other Little Rock refugee, who lived with a cousin, and we came to love the school and our friends there. But the next school year loomed and no one could be certain that, if they opened, the Little Rock schools would actually stay open. St. Mary's, the Catholic girls' school in Little Rock, accepted many of us so I spent my junior year there. As a senior, I finally made it to Hall and graduated in 1961. For most of us and our families, black and white alike, it was not just one lost year, but several scrambled years and scattered lives.
Sandy Hubbard, a documentary filmmaker and Hall High 1960 grad, produced "The Lost Year" in 2007, and the website (www.thelostyear.com) has the capacity to continue to accept the stories of those affected by this period in our history as part of a memory project. In the film Dr. Sondra Gordy, author of "Finding the Lost Year: What Happened When Little Rock Closed Its Public Schools," listed the statistics that tell the bones of the story: Of the white students, 44 percent went to private schools in Little Rock, 35 percent went to other Arkansas public schools, 9 percent went out of state, 4 percent entered college early, and 7 percent found no alternate schooling. Of the black students, 50 percent found no schooling, 36 percent attended other Arkansas public schools, 12 percent went to out-of-state public or private schools, and about 6 students entered college.
Sixty years is a long time to learn even life's hardest lessons. Little Rock, sadly, is still studying.
Commentary on 10/03/2017
Print Headline: The lost year