Central High School National Historic Site

History

HISTORY & CULTURE

In the fall of 1957 Little Rock became the symbol of state resistance to school desegregation. Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus directly questioned the sanctity of the federal court system and the authority of the United States Supreme Court's desegregation ruling while nine African-American high school students sought an education at the all-white Little Rock Central High School.

The controversy in Little Rock was the first fundamental test of the United States resolve to enforce African-American civil rights in the face of massive southern defiance during the period following the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decisions. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower was compelled by white mob violence to use federal troops to ensure the rights of African-American children to attend the previously all-white school, he became the first president since the post-Civil War Reconstruction period to use federal troops in support of African-American civil rights.

History of Central High School

Built in 1927 as Little Rock Senior High School, Central was named "America's Most Beautiful High School" by the American Institute of Architects.

Designed as a mix of Art Deco and Collegiate Gothic architectural styles, the building is two city blocks long and includes 150,000 square feet of floor space. More than 36 million pounds of concrete and 370 tons of steel went into the building's construction. It cost $1.5 million to construct in 1927. The school received extensive publicity upon its opening. An article in the Arkansas Gazette said, "we have hundreds of journalists in our fair city for the dedication" of the new high school.

At its construction, Central's auditorium seated 2,000 people and included a 60 x 160 ft. stage that doubled as the gymnasium. A new library was built in 1969 and named for longtime principal Jess W. Matthews. In 1953 the school's name was changed to Little Rock Central High School, in anticipation of construction of a new high school for white students, Hall High School in Pulaski Heights.

In 1998, President William Jefferson Clinton signed legislation designating the school and visitor center across the street as a National Historic Site to "preserve, protect, and interpret for the benefit, education, and inspiration of present and future generations…its role in the integration of public schools and the development of the Civil Rights movement in the United States." Today, Central High is the only operating high school in the nation to receive such designation—and it is an historic site that includes not only a past, but a present and a future as well—in the form of an ever-evolving student body.

Little Rock Nine

Nine African-American teenagers faced great obstacles and angry mobs in September 1957 to desegregate Little Rock Central High School. Ranging in ages from 15 to 17, these teenagers showed an enormous amount of courage and are considered civil rights activists - meaning that they fought for the right for children all over the country to attend the school of their choice regardless of their race.

Today, history remembers these students as the "Little Rock Nine." Their actions showed the world that individuals who act upon their beliefs can change the course of history.

Crisis Timeline

September 1927

Little Rock Senior (renamed Central in 1953) High School opens its doors for the first time. The school cost more than $1.5 million to construct.

September 1929

Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, the high school for African American students, opens. The school cost $400,000 of which the Rosenwald Foundation donated $67,500 and $30,000 came from the Rockefeller General Education Fund.

May 17, 1954

The United States Supreme Court rules racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Five days later, the Little Rock School Board issues a policy statement saying it will comply with the Supreme Court's decision. In May 1955, The Supreme Court further defines the standard of implementation for integration as being "with all deliberate speed," in Brown II and charges the federal courts with establishing guidelines for compliance.

August 23, 1954

Under the direction of Pine Bluff attorney Wiley Branton, chairman of the state's NAACP Legal Redress Committee, the NAACP petitions the Little Rock School Board for immediate integration.

May 24, 1955

The Little Rock School Board adopts the Blossom Plan of gradual integration beginning with the high school level (starting in September 1957) and the lower grades during the next six years.

February 8, 1956

Federal Judge John E. Miller dismisses the NAACP suit (Aaron v. Cooper), declaring that the Little Rock School Board has acted in "utmost good faith" in setting up its plan of gradual integration. In April, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upholds Judge Miller's dismissal. The federal district court retained jurisdiction over the case, however, making the School Board's implementation of the Blossom Plan a court mandate.

August 27, 1957

The segregationist Mother's League of Central High School holds its first public meeting. They file a motion seeking a temporary injunction against school integration. Two days later, Pulaski Chancellor Murray Reed grants the injunction on the grounds that integration could lead to violence. Federal Judge Ronald Davies nullifies the injunction and orders the School Board to proceed with its desegregation plan.

September 2, 1957 - (Labor Day)

Governor Orval Faubus orders the Arkansas National Guard to prohibit African American students from entering Central High School and announces his plans in a televised speech.

September 3, 1957

The Mother's League holds a "sunrise service" at Central High attended by members of the Citizen's Council, parents and students. On September 20, Federal Judge Ronald Davies rules that Faubus has not used the troops to preserve law and order and orders them removed. Faubus removes the Guardsmen and the Little Rock Police Department moves in.

September 23, 1957

An angry mob of over 1,000 whites gathers in front of Central High School, while nine African American students are escorted inside. The Little Rock police remove the nine children for their safety. President Eisenhower calls the rioting "disgraceful" and ordered federal troops into Little Rock.

September 24, 1957

1200 members of the 101st Airborne Division, the "Screaming Eagles" of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, roll into Little Rock. The Arkansas National Guard is placed under federal orders.

September 25, 1957

Under troop escort, the "Little Rock Nine" are escorted back into Central High School for their first full day of classes.

May 25, 1958

Senior Ernest Green becomes the first African American student to graduate from Central High School.

June 3, 1958

Highlighting numerous discipline problems during the school year, the school board asks the court for permission to delay the desegregation plan in Cooper v. Aaron.

June 21, 1958

Judge Harry Lemley grants the delay of integration until January 1961, stating that while the African American students have a constitutional right to attend white schools, the "time has not come for them to enjoy [that right.]"

September 12, 1958

Under appeal, the United States Supreme Court rules that Little Rock must continue with its desegregation plan. The School Board orders the high schools to open September 15. Governor Faubus orders four Little Rock high schools closed as of 8:00 a.m., September 15, 1958, pending the outcome of a public vote.

September 16, 1958

The Women's Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC) forms and begins to solicit support for reopening the schools.

September 27, 1958

Citizens vote 19,470 to 7,561 against integration and the schools remain closed.

May 5, 1959

Segregationist members of the school board vote not to renew the contracts of 44 teachers and administrators they say supported integration.

May 8, 1959

The WEC and local businessmen form Stop This Outrageous Purge (STOP) and solicit voter signatures to recall the three segregationist board members. Segregationists form the Committee to Retain Our Segregated Schools (CROSS).

May 25, 1959

STOP wins the recall election in close victory. Three segregationists are voted off the school board and three moderate members are retained.

August 12, 1959

Little Rock public high schools reopen, nearly a month early. Segregationists rally at the State Capitol where Faubus advises them that it was a "dark" day, but they should not give up the struggle. They then march to Central High School were the police and fire departments break up the mob. Twenty-one people are arrested.