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Legislation Introduced To Expand Central High School National Historic Site

Little Rock Nine 9
Michael Hibblen

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Little Rock, joined Tueday (May 23) with civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont to introduce legislation expanding boundaries of the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site.

This expansion would mean seven homes located near Little Rock Central High School would be included in the school’s national historic site designation and preserved by the National Park Service. The legislation is being introduced ahead of the city’s celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine in September.

“To be able to see exactly how it looked when the Little Rock Nine walked their way into Central High – and into history – will do a lot of good for our country. It will help keep this park as a living monument to the courage of the civil-rights movement,” Cotton said in a statement. “It will allow future generations to come here and begin to understand what it took to achieve equal opportunity. And it will remind all of us that we must continually stand guard against hatred and intolerance.” (See at the end of this report a Senate floor speech from Cotton.)

Hill, also of Little Rock, added that Central High School was “ground zero” for the civil rights movement in Arkansas.

“Expanding the boundary of the National Historic Site at Central High ensures that the entire story of the Little Rock Nine and their brave role in the fight for equality of all children will be preserved for generations to come,” said Hill. “I appreciate the leadership of Senator Cotton, who worked on this legislation in the Senate with Sen. Leahy, and I am even more appreciative of the lifetime of leadership on the issue of civil rights of Congressman John Lewis.”

During the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School images of the students, protestors and law enforcement officers were widely seen across the country. In the backdrop of many of those photos were the seven homes that the Little Rock Nine gathered to wait for their walk to school to begin each day.

The U.S. Department of Interior recommended in its 2001 general management plan and 2004 long-range plan that the homes be included in the National Park Service (NPS) boundary, but it was never changed. The Senate legislation would be a simple boundary adjustment that would encourage home owners and the NPS to work together to preserve the exterior facades of these homes, but no change of ownership would occur.

According to state tourism officials, Little Rock Central High School, where the Little Rock Nine made history desegregating the school in 1957, is one of the most visited Little Rock landmarks. Nearly 126,000 people toured the site in 2015.

Two weeks ago, Kelly Boyd, chief deputy with Secretary of State Mark Martin’s office, said the concrete base of a popular memorial at the Arkansas State Capitol in honor the nine black students famous for integrating Little Rock Central High School was literally falling apart. State officials are spending nearly $8,000 will be spent to repair the memorial, one of the most visited memorials on the State Capitol grounds.

The Capitol grounds monument that captures the 1957 event, which is widely recognized as a key event in the nation’s civil rights movement, was dedicated in August 2005 to honor the courage of those black students, known collectively as the Little Rock Nine. Those Central High students – Melba Pattillo, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray, Carlotta Walls, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, Minnijean Brown and Thelma Mothershed — are now captured in striking, life-size bronze statuettes directly north of the State Capitol building off West Third Street.

Leahy said legislation is an opportunity for Congress to continue to support the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site and recommit the necessary federal resources to maintain and operate national park sites across the nation.

“Our history is part of every American’s heritage.  We have an obligation to ourselves and to future generations to preserve historic buildings and spaces that help us see, touch, remember and learn from our history, to know where we have come from, where we are now, and to inform our future,” Leahy said. “I commend Senator Cotton for bringing the Senate together in honoring this Fall’s 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine.”

Rep. Lewis, one of the 13 original Freedom Riders who organized student sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and continues to fight for voter rights and other racial equality issues in Congress, said he looked up to the Little Rock Nine as a high school student in Alabama.

“They are a part of American history that needs to be fully interpreted and understood.  It takes a lot of planning, organizing, and support for young teenagers to consistently and persistently challenge the way of life of a city, a region and a country,” Lewis said in a press statement. “These (homes) are a part of the legacy of the Little Rock Nine, and they should also be preserved.”

Caroline Rabbitt, spokeswoman for Sen. Cotton, said the Arkansas senator has not received a formal cost estimate from Congressional Budget Office for the Central High legislation, but said there is no cost associated with the boundary expansion. The NPS’ “upkeep costs” will vary annually from home to home and may be impacted by a variety of factors, such as natural disasters, she said.