The story of the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School by nine black students is well known. But overshadowed is phase two of the school district’s desegregation plan, which involved 25 students attending five previously all-white junior high schools in 1961 and 1962.
A new book, "The First Twenty-Five: An Oral History of the Desegregation of Little Rock's Public Junior High Schools," shares the experiences of many of those students. The collection of first-hand accounts was compiled by Dr. Laverne Bell-Tolliver, who was the first black student to attend Forest Heights Junior High. She and Dr. Kenneth Jones, who helped desegregate West Side Junior High, spoke with KUAR News about their experiences and putting the book together. You can listen to the interview above or read a transcript below.
Several events marking the release of the book will be held throughout February, which is Black History Month.
- Saturday, Feb. 3, 2 p.m., Pyramid Art, Books & Custom Framing, 1001 Wright Avenue in Little Rock. It will feature the author and a panel of the former students.
- Sunday, Feb. 4, 2 p.m., Bullock Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, 1513 S. Park Street, Little Rock.
- Thursday, Feb. 15, 3 p.m., UA Little Rock Anderson Institute, 2801 S. University Ave, Little Rock. It will a discussion with Bell-Tolliver and former First 25 student Alvin Terry.
- Wednesday, Feb. 26, 6- 8 p.m., Black History Month Black Author's Fair, 2350 Old Farmington Road, Fayetteville.
MICHAEL HIBBLEN: Dr. Bell-Tolliver, first of all, tell me how this book came about.
DR. LAVERNE BELL-TOLLIVER: Well, actually my mother asked me many years ago, before she passed away, to write a book about my story of desegregating Forest Heights Junior High School, which was one of the five schools that were desegregated in 1961 and ‘62. And later I became a faculty member here at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and very shortly after joined the Chancellor’s Committee on Race and Ethnicity under the direction of then-Chancellor Joel Anderson. He became aware of the fact that I had desegregated the schools and a couple of times asked me to tell my story. He did so and later someone else asked me to have coffee with them, Dr. Vicki Lind. From that came an article and later on I realized that it was important enough for all of the students that did that desegregation process to have a chance to allow their voices to be heard. So a book was born.
HIBBLEN: How did you go about putting this together? It’s mainly a collection of oral interviews.
BELL-TOLLIVER: Yes, as a part of being on leave for a semester from the school, thanks to UA Little Rock, I was able to locate all of the 18 persons who are in this book. There were a number of people that were aware of their locations and were willing to talk with me about where they might be, so I was able to find them. They were so willing and eager to share their stories that we engaged in a research project. I traveled across the country, in some cases, but in others, some like Dr. Kenneth Jones had just returned to Arkansas in time for me to find them.
HIBBLEN: Dr. Kenneth Jones, you helped desegregate West Side Junior High School. Tell me how you came to be in that position.
DR. KENNETH JONES: Well, at the time I was 12-years-old and I wasn’t exactly sure why all of this was coming about, but my parents were contacted about the possibility of my attending West Side. They reviewed my academics, they looked at, at that time they looked at your conduct, we had a grade for that, and we decided that it would be a good thing to travel this road and continue with this second part of the desegregation process.
HIBBLEN: You had seen, obviously I guess, the Central High School desegregation. Did that play any thought in your decision?
JONES: It did. Believe it or not, even at 12, I was aware of what was going on. I had spoken with my parents about it. It was something that we talked about around dinner. Ernest Green, Jefferson Thomas, they were friends of the family. I have an older brother, he was closer to them, but they were people that frequented my home, I went to theirs, so I was totally aware of what was going on. And it was a very conscious decision and we knew that we would be, I mean the students and my parents and I, we knew that this decision would contribute to the continuing desegregation of the schools in the Little Rock area. So it was a fairly easy decision.
HIBBLEN: Dr. Bell-Toliver, you wrote that it really wasn’t your decision...
BELL-TOLLIVER: That’s absolutely correct. And Dr. Jones was one of those few who actually knew some of the things that had occurred prior with the desegregation of the high school, and then later on the desegregation of the junior high schools. That’s called phase two. Phase one was the desegregation of the high school part of it, phase two is the junior high schools. But I had no idea. My parents, later on when I was an adult, told me that they thought that they were doing the right thing in terms of finding the best education opportunity for me. But it was basically their decision. They were pretty authoritarian, as opposed to Dr. Jones’ family, and they made a decision, as my sister who also desegregated a school said, and we followed that decision.
HIBBLEN: What was it like for either of you? We’ve heard the stories about what the Little Rock Nine went through, but it sounds from the book like things hadn’t really progressed any in those following years?
JONES: Well, it was a completely new situation. I feel like we were in junior high school re-walking, say, the past that the Little Rock Nine did in the high school. We were just doing it at a younger age at a different school. So things hadn’t really changed that much. You could tell some of the teachers who did not want you there, but you also could tell the ones who did and were very helpful. You could tell that many of the students did not want you there. Literally some of us had to fight our way through school during the day. So things hadn’t really changed that much at that level, but I think that by desegregating the junior high schools and beginning to introduce that level of diversity at a younger age, as things began to progress, for those who came after us, it became much easier. But had they really changed at the junior high school level because of the Little Rock Nine or what happened at Central High School? I don’t think so.
HIBBLEN: Dr. Bell-Toliver, anything stick out to you about your experiences?
BELL-TOLLIVER: Well, one of the things I wanted to mention, Dr. Jones’ story and my story are both different and they’re similar. They’re different in that I was the only person in my junior high school. Also, this group of people were fairly wealthy. Their parents were doctors, attorneys, owners of the stores that they visited and many times there was not as much aggression. I think the aggression happened more toward the males, but not always, occasionally I was pushed down, but I didn’t have to fight except for maybe one time. But at any rate, most of the time I was ignored, and being ignored was very challenging to me, so that was a difficult process. There were one or two teachers that showed kindness, perhaps by not allowing people to engage in certain behaviors. But most of the time the teachers tended to ignore me as well.
HIBBLEN: There’s a big age difference between, while it’s just a few years in age, a big difference in the level of maturity between junior high school students and high school students who are almost adults. I imagine during those formative years, when you’re feeling a lot more peer pressure, it must have been different than say, what the Little Rock Nine went through?
BELL-TOLLIVER: And I would think, as you said, it seems as though they’re not that many years, but when you think of it from the perspective of an 11 or 12-year-old going into school, that is a huge difference, and as you said, developmentally, most of the time children want to be accepted, they want to be praised for achieving or accomplishing something. They want to be acknowledged by adults and commended if they have done certain types of things, and that doesn’t happen or didn’t happen to some of the people that were in the schools that I interviewed. It happened for Dr. Jones in some cases, right?
JONES: Yes. One of the differences is, we had approximately 10 students going to West Side, whereas Dr. Bell-Tolliver was alone. So we had a built-in support mechanism, and also with our families, some of our families lived close together and so we could study together. We would go to school together. Some of our fathers would take turns driving us to school and back. So we had that level of support mechanisms that helped us. In terms of the maturity issues, the age differences, you know, when Earnest Green went to Little Rock Central High School, he was a senior. So he was approximately 18 and many of us were 11 and 12, maybe 13, so there was a big difference. And I know that just for me personally, I was telling Dr. Bell-Tolliver, it was quite an experience, but I don’t feel bad about it. I entered that situation individually with something to prove. So the acceptance I received from my parents and my peers, not from the people from that school, I kind of stepped out there, I really did. I wanted to show people something, and so it affected me in a different way, but not necessarily negatively.
HIBBLEN: And I should note, the five previously all-white schools were East Side, Forest Heights, Pulaski Heights, Southwest, and West Side. Dr. Bell-Tolliver, any resistance from any of these folks… You write that there was a degree where people repressed some memories. Was there a hesitation to bring this all back from the people you spoke with?
BELL-TOLLIVER: Well, I could not get one interview that I really hoped to get, and so there’s a possibility of some reluctance on that end, even though the person initially appeared to be excited, so I won’t mention that name. But there were others who, as you mentioned, repressed a lot of information, and sometimes as we continued the interview, that person would recall something and would be able to share that. But it was challenging in that for several of them, the trauma is still there. While some people had a more successful experience, others still call it traumatic. One of my relatives who also is in education had to let me know, and I’m a clinician, I’m a therapist, but she had to let me know what you experienced was traumatic. Others of us are still in that healing process, and I think the book has been a helpful part for that.
HIBBLEN: Finally, what do you hope this book accomplishes?
BELL-TOLLIVER: Well, number one, I think as you mentioned, many, many people know about Phase one. Phase two, as I said, is the junior high schools. Phase three was the elementary school desegregation process. So it will raise awareness that it wasn’t just a onetime incident, and there are other levels of that desegregation that continues, I imagine, even until now. The second thing that I would like for this book to do is to help others to consider what parents, what teachers, what communicators, and the community members need to do. If there are children that are engaged in being the one, or the only, or the minority, because that happens every day, whether it’s a bullying incident or whether they’re just treading different waters than other people, and so I would like for them to have some idea on how to prepare their children for something like that, because children need to have the opportunity to have the support to process what’s going on and to give feedback and to receive feedback when things are going to be too challenging for them in such a different manner.
JONES: And if I might add to that issue of support, my experiences may have been somewhat different because I had that level of support at home and at church. We debriefed, we talked about it, not only with just my parents and my brother, but with other parents and other students. And so I’m hoping that when people look at this regardless of why you are a minority or why you are in a situation where you are being bullied or whatever, that parents and others need to look at how you support children. That’s the important thing.
Thanks to Marty Burton for generating this transcript.