On 62nd Anniversary, Former Students Recall Desegregation Of Little Rock's Central High

Sep 30, 2019

Members of the 101st Airborne Unit escort members of the Little Rock Nine into Central High School on Sept. 25, 1957.
Credit U.S. Army / Wikipedia

A weekend commemoration marked the turbulent integration of Little Rock’s Central High School. The event, held at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, was called “Retracing the Footsteps of History Makers,” with members of the Little Rock Nine talking about what is was like attending the school.

They were the first black students whose admission to Central required the assistance of the 101st Airborne because of the threat of violence from mobs of angry integration opponents. Elizabeth Eckford and Terrence Roberts were among the nine who attempted to start in the fall of 1957.

Roberts said he and his classmates were well prepared in part because of the high quality of instruction they had received in black segregated schools

"A lot of our teachers were highly trained, highly skilled people who couldn’t get jobs in their chosen professions, but they could teach,” Roberts said. “We had the cream of the crop. They combined their energies and focused their energy on us as students. They demanded excellence. We did not have a choice. You performed and really had to be on it and we responded in kind.”

Eckford confided to the audience that she still deals with post-traumatic stress disorder. She said talking about her experiences over the years has been healing for her.

“There were these images seen around the world of an ugly reality in Little Rock at a time when American propaganda was trying to combat Soviet propaganda. So I think that is the reason that President Eisenhower intervened,” she said, noting that on previous president “had supported the endorsement of court decrees regarding segregation.”

A tenth person, Jane Hill, was turned away by the Arkansas National Guard when she attempted to enter Central, and was then instructed by her father to return to Horace Mann.

“I feel very proud, feel overwhelmed. I feel happy. I feel joy, and it was just a blessing because I myself and the other students have paved the way for all the students who are attending Central High School.”

Sybil Jordan was part of a second wave to integrate Central, entering as a sophomore in 1959 and graduating as the only black member of her class in 1962. Now Dr. Sybil Jordan Hampton, she said she endured a “silent violence,” which was the shunning of her classmates.

“I was with a classmate recently and she said there were a number of us who wanted to reach out to you and we had no adult no teacher, no parent who helped us to understand how we could do something to make you less alone,” Hampton said.