The integration crisis at Little Rock Central High School did not end on May 28, 1958, when Ernest Green walked across a stage to become the school's first black graduate. The following summer, extremist Governor Orval Faubus wrenched control of Little Rock's public schools from the moderate school board. As a result Central, Hall, Little Rock Technical, and Horace Mann high schools never opened on Sept. 14, 1958, as scheduled. The elementary and junior high schools of Little Rock were opened as segregated schools, but for 3,665 black and white 10th-, 11th-, and 12th-grade students there was no public education.
Historian Sondra Gordy documented the events surrounding the 1958-59 school year, in her book Finding the Lost Year: What Happened When Little Rock Closed Its Public Schools (2009, University of Arkansas Press). Drawing from school records, newspaper accounts, legislative documents, court filings, diaries, analyses of voting patterns and interviews with hundreds of teachers, administrators, and students, she has presented a thorough and even-handed account of those events. Gordy's book is informative, revealing and noteworthy--even to those who experienced the lost year firsthand as I did.
My purpose is not to take issue with Gordy, nor to present an alternative view. It is simply to give a 60-years-later reaction to the Lost Year from my perspective. Gordy's book has put my thinking straight on matters which I was too ignorant or naive to understand at the time. She has given me an opportunity to reflect from a more factual and less visceral basis than personal experience alone provides.
As the 1958-59 school year approached, everyone knew that things would be tumultuous. The year before, when integration was enforced by President Eisenhower, it had been world-making news. So in 1958, many expected some sort or repeat. It was worse. In 1957 we had interrupted education; in 1958 we had no education.
An account of nine black students in both 1957 and during the lost school year of '58-'59 is told in The Long Shadow of Little Rock by Daisy Bates. The stories of all the actors in 1957 are retold in the displays and interactive kiosks at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site museum. My remembrances of 1957 are archived there, abbreviated in several video clips, drawn from an oral history project that attempted to recapture that historic time. It was the turmoil of September 1957 that set the stage for political wrangling, judicial delay, uncertainty among the citizenry, and confusion among the various student bodies.
The lost year was difficult at first because we didn't know it was lost. In early September we thought it was only deferred.
As a stop-gap measure, the Little Rock School Board supported a plan to hold classes by television. Local networks donated free air time in off-prime hours for teachers to present lectures. It was a lame attempt hindered by lack of experience, technical crudeness and the fact that many homes in that era did not have televisions. It was soon abandoned.
The school board and the governor indicated that segregated schools would soon be opening. When that had not happened by mid-October, discouraged students like me, who at first had reveled in an extended summer vacation, began a desperate clamor to enroll in any school possible.
Many white students went to the Pulaski County Special School District, which though segregated was operating. Mabelvale, Sylvan Hills, and Jacksonville high schools were common destinations, but they soon became overcrowded and stopped adding new students.
T.J. Raney High School, a quasi-private academy which operated under legislation later declared unconstitutional, opened to more than 600 students. Parochial schools squeezed in additional students, and prominent white churches opened schools by charging modest tuition. Thirty-one Central High students, many of them Japanese whose families had been placed on farms in southeast Pulaski County during World War II, were allowed to enroll at North Little Rock High School.
For black high schoolers, the options were more limited. Pulaski County Training School in Wrightsville accepted some students, but the expense of transportation was a hardship for most families. A few students from Horace Mann High School (Little Rock's only black high school in 1958) found classroom seats in high schools in Lonoke, Prairie and Saline counties and lived with relatives. Some, like five of the famous nine who had entered LRCHS in 1957, earned high school credits through correspondence courses from the University of Arkansas. Some joined the military, moved out of state, or moved into the workforce without a high school education.
Gordy's book reports that among white students, "less than 7 percent were unable to find any kind of academic training during the lost year." As for black children, 50 percent ended up with no formal education during the 1958-59 school year. The extent of this disparity remained unknown to most white citizens of Arkansas and causes me to realize how fortunate I was. I also am perplexed by why such data did not come to my attention until 50 years after the fact.
I considered going to Beaumont, Texas, to live with an uncle for my senior year, or attending Harding Academy in Memphis. The first was not workable, and the other was unaffordable. Instead, I lied about my residency to the registrar at Mabelvale High School and was admitted there in early November. My enrollment was just days before the second six weeks' tests and I did horribly. I was not a strong student anyway and was hopelessly behind. By Christmas break, it appeared I would finish the fall semester with Ds. I was on the verge of dropping out, finding a job, and starting my senior year afresh the next year.
About that time Little Rock University (now UALR) announced that it would accept incoming high school senior students as college freshmen if they could pass an entrance exam. I did not pass the exam, but did well enough to be admitted on academic probation and went from there without a high school diploma to transfer to another college.
In 1970, I returned to UALR as a professor and talked to Dudley Beard, who had been the registrar of the college when I first enrolled there in 1959. He told me that in the spring of 1959 he had admitted 62 LRCHS students on provisional basis in hopes of boosting Little Rock University's struggling enrollment. Of those 62, none of them went on to graduate from LRU/UALR. Most had transferred to other colleges and universities as I did.
LRU/UALR was not integrated in the spring of 1959, a fact that I scarcely took notice of then, but can hardly believe it was true given the diversity of that campus today.
The integration of Central was an important landmark for the civil rights movement. However, court battles were waged during the lost year, when a determined states' rights governor challenged federal authority and provided precedent-settling decisions in such disputes. Later, in Virginia, South Carolina and elsewhere in the South when similar school battles erupted, the legal issues in Little Rock had been resolved. Although an overall loss for students academically, from a legal and political point of view 1958-59 was a time of remarkable constitutional progress.
From my point of view, 1958-59 was not lost at all. I was able to advance to college early and was consequently eight months ahead of my age group. I missed the rituals commonly associated with a senior year (prom, annual and graduation) but that was a paltry price to pay.
Minnijean Brown, Thelma Mothershed, and Terrance Roberts, three of the nine black students who entered Little Rock in 1957 and endured the difficulties of the lost year, eventually found their way to Southern Illinois University. I was a graduate student at SIU, and our times on that campus overlap.
One unexpected outcome of the integration crisis and the lost year is the focus it gave my academic career while at SIU. As a scholar and teacher I have attempted to gain insight into the nature of race relations. My master's thesis, written in 1964, was An Analysis of the Sermons of Southern White Protestant Ministers on Racial Issues. My doctoral dissertation was a quantitative study: The Impact of Including Black Studies into the Classroom upon the Attitudes of White High School Students.
Had I not been through the turmoil at Central, I would never have attempted to probe the nature of interracial understanding. Furthermore, I believe that sociologic research into the nature of prejudice, historical examinations of important events like Gordy's and governmental statues that level the playing field between black and white citizens has great potential to mitigate hatred and bitterness between races.
No city in the world had a name more synonymous with racism, ignorance, and cultural backwardness than Little Rock in 1958. That perception may still hold true in some quarters. But for those who have taken a more recent look at our town, it has moved well above that today.
One contributing factor is that our state has honored the nine students by placing statues of them on the Capitol grounds. Those people, now in their 70s, have returned to Little Rock from time to time, and have been gracious to the community that treated them so poorly. Two of them choose to live here after retiring from careers in other states. An interactive museum across the street from LRCHS reminds us of our past that we can learn from if we want preserve our 14th Amendment rights.
Editorial on 09/09/2018
Print Headline: Remembering . . . a lost year