Last updated: April 15, 2021
The End of Legal Segregation
In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision outlawed segregation in public education. Little Rock School District Superintendent Virgil Blossom devised a plan of gradual integration that would begin at Central High School in 1957. The school board called for volunteers from all-black Dunbar Junior High and Horace Mann High School to attend Central.
Prospective students were told they would not be able to participate in extracurricular activities if they transferred to Central such as football, basketball, or choir. Many of their parents were threatened with losing their jobs, and some students decided to stay at their own schools.
“[Blossom said] you’re not going to be able to go to the football games or basketball games. You’re not going to be able to participate in the choir or drama club, or be on the track team. You can’t go to the prom. There were more cannots…”
Carlotta Walls LaNier
“When my tenth-grade teacher in our Negro school said there was a possibility of integration, I signed up. We all felt good. We knew that Central High School had so many more courses, and dramatics and speech and tennis courts and a big, beautiful stadium.”
Minnijean Brown to Look Magazine, June 24, 1958
The First Day of School
On September 3, 1957, the Little Rock Nine arrived to enter Central High School, but they were turned away by the Arkansas National Guard. Governor Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard the night before to, as he put it, “maintain and restore order…” The soldiers barred the African American students from entering.
"I was not prepared for what actually happened."
“I thought he [Faubus] was there to protect me. How wrong I was.”
Thelma Mothershed Wair
The students arrived at Central alone on the first day. By prior arrangement, they gathered at the 16th Street entrance with several local ministers who accompanied them. Elizabeth Eckford arrived at the other end of the block by herself. She was met by a mob screaming obscenities and threats, chanting, “Two, four, six, eight, we ain’t gonna integrate!”
“We didn’t know that his [Faubus’] idea of keeping the peace was keeping the blacks out.”
More than two weeks went by before the Little Rock Nine again attempted to enter Central High School. On September 23, 1957, the Little Rock Nine entered the school. Outside, rioting broke out and the Little Rock police removed the Nine for their safety.
The President Becomes Involved
On September 24, 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered units of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division -the “Screaming Eagles”- into Little Rock and federalized the Arkansas National Guard. In a televised speech delivered to the nation, President Eisenhower stated, “Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of the courts.”
On September 25, 1957, under federal troop escort, the Little Rock Nine made it inside for their first full day of school. The 101st Airborne left in October and the federalized Arkansas National Guard troops remained throughout the year.
Inside the School
The Little Rock Nine had assigned guards to walk them from class to class. The guards could not accompany the students inside the classrooms, bathrooms, or locker rooms. They would stand outside the classrooms during class time. In spite of this, the Little Rock Nine endured verbal and physical attacks from some of their classmates throughout the school year. Although some white students tried to help, few white students befriended any of the Nine. Those who did received similar treatment as the Nine, such as hate mail and threats.
One of the Little Rock Nine, Minnijean Brown, was suspended in December for dropping chili on some boys after they refused to let her pass to her seat in the cafeteria. She was later expelled in February 1958 for calling a girl who had hit her with a purse “white trash.” After Brown’s expulsion, students passed around cards that read, “One Down, Eight to Go.”
Brown finished high school at New Lincoln School in New York City, while living with Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark. The Clarks were the social psychologists whose “doll test” work demonstrated for the Supreme Court in Brown that racial prejudice and segregation caused African-American children to develop a sense of inferiority.
The remaining eight students completed the school year at Central. Senior Ernest Green was the first African American student to graduate from Central High School.
“It’s been an interesting year. I’ve had a course in human relations first hand.”
Ernest Green, Life Magazine, June, 1958
The following year, the city’s high schools were closed to prevent further desegregation while the NAACP continued to pursue the legal case to integrate Little Rock’s schools.
When the schools reopened, Carlotta Walls and Jefferson Thomas returned to Central and graduated in 1960. Thelma Mothershed received her diploma from Central High School by taking correspondence courses to complete her studies.
The rest of the Little Rock Nine completed their high school educations at different schools. The Little Rock Nine have received numerous accolades and awards, from the renowned NAACP Spingarn Medal to the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal.
Little Rock Nine Biographies
Minnijean Brown Trickey graduated from New Lincoln High School in 1959. She received a Bachelor of Social Work degree in Native Human Services from Laurentian University and a Master of Social Work degree at Carleton University, in Ontario Canada. Brown Trickey has worked in various settings committed to peacemaking, gender and social justice advocacy, youth leadership, diversity education and training, cross-cultural communication, and environmental issues. She served in Clinton Administration as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Workforce Diversity in the Department of the Interior. Brown Trickey continues to work as a teacher, writer, and motivational speaker; she is the subject of the critically acclaimed documentary, Journey to Little Rock: The Untold Story of Minnijean Brown Trickey.
After 60 years, the infamous photo of Elizabeth Eckford walking through the mob in front of Little Rock Central High School still serves as a symbol of white resistance against integration in the Civil Rights Movement. Along with the other eight students, Elizabeth faced her share of adversity within the walls of Central High and can recall numerous incidents of harassment and hostility at the hands of her white peers. After Governor Faubus closed all public high schools in Little Rock to prevent further integration during the 1958-1959 school year, Elizabeth moved to St. Louis, Missouri where she obtained a GED. Eckford served in the U.S. Army as a pay clerk, information specialist, and newspaper writer. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. For her great contributions to social justice, Eckford has received many prestigious awards such as the Congressional Gold Medal, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, and the Humanitarian Award presented by the National Conference for Community and Justice. Today, Eckford is still a strong proponent of tolerance in every aspect of life.
Ernest Green is the first African American to graduate from Little Rock Central High School (May 1958). He holds a Bachelor of Science in Social Science and Master of Science in Sociology from Michigan State University as well as honorary doctorates from Michigan State University, Tougaloo College, and Central State University. Green served as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employment and Training during the Carter Administration. He was appointed to Chairman of the African Development Foundation by President Bill Clinton and by Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley to serve as Chairman of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Capital Financing Advisory Board. Green is a recipient of the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, the Boy Scouts of America’s Distinguished Eagle Scout Award, the Urban League’s Frederick Douglass Freedom Medal, the John D. Rockefeller Public Service Award, and the Congressional Gold Medal.
Thelma Mothershed Wair received her diploma from Little Rock Central High School in 1960 after completing correspondence courses and transferrable summer school credits. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Home Economics Education from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and received a master’s degree in Guidance and Counseling plus an Administrative Certificate in Education from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. Wair worked in the East St. Louis school system for 28 years – 10 years as a Home Economics teacher and 18 years as a counselor for elementary career education - before retiring in 1994. She also served at the St. Clair County Jail/Juvenile Detention Center in St. Clair County, Illinois and was an instructor of survival skills for women at the American Red Cross. In addition to the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal and the Congressional Gold Medal, Wair has received numerous awards for her professional contributions and community service including the Outstanding Role Model award from the East St. Louis Chapter of the Top Ladies of Distinction and an award from the Early Childhood/Pre-Kindergarten staff from the East St. Louis School District. She collaborated with Richard J. Hansen for a book narrating her experiences from Central High School entitled Education Has No Color: The Story of Thelma Mothershed Wair, One of the Little Rock Nine.
Dr. Melba Pattillo Beals finished her high school education at Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa, California. Beals earned a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from San Francisco State University, a Master of Arts in Communications from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in International Multicultural Studies from the University of San Francisco. She has worked as an on-camera television reporter for KQED’s Newsroom, as an NBC-TV news reporter, and as a radio news talk show host for KGO, ABC radio, San Francisco. Dr. Beals founded the Department of Communications and Media Studies at the Dominican University of California. She has written four books based on her experiences at Central High School. Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High is a firsthand account of the experience that Beals and the Little Rock Nine encountered at Central High School. Other works include March Forward, Girl, the prequel to Warriors Don’t Cry; White is a State of Mind, the sequel to Warriors Don’t Cry; and I Will Not Fear, an examination of her faith through her journey of terror, oppression, and persecution. Dr. Beals is the recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, the Spingarn Medal, the Congressional Gold Medal, and is a communications consultant and motivational speaker.
Gloria Ray Karlmark graduated from Kansas City Central High School in 1960. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and Mathematics from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT); post-graduation, she joined the ITT Research Institute as Assistant Mathematician on the APT IV Project (robotics, numerical control, and online technical documentation) and collaborated with Boeing in Seattle, McDonnell-Douglas in Santa Monica, and the NASA Automation center in St. Louis. Karlmark has served as a teacher, mathematician, systems analyst, and technical writer. She founded and served as the Editor-in-Chief for Computers in Industry, an international journal of computer science and engineering. Karlmark also worked in the Netherlands for Philips Telecommunications in Hilversum and Philips Lighting in Eindhoven.
Dr. Terrence Roberts graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1959. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from California State University and a master’s degree in Social Welfare from the University of California at Los Angeles. In 1976, Roberts was awarded a Ph.D. in psychology from Southern Illinois University and later became Department Chair of the Psychology program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. He is the author of Lessons from Little Rock, a memoir of the 1957-58 school year at Central, and Simple, Not Easy, a reflection on community, social responsibility, and tolerance. Dr. Roberts is CEO of Terrence J. Roberts & Associates, a management consultant firm devoted to fair and equitable practices. He maintains a private psychology practice, conducts lectures, and presents workshops and seminars on a wide variety of topics. Dr. Roberts is the recipient of the Spingarn Medal and the Congressional Gold Medal.
Jefferson Thomas returned to graduate from Little Rock Central High School in 1960. He received a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Los Angeles State College and served as a staff sergeant in South Vietnam with the 9th Infantry Division, United States Army. Thomas, with his father, operated the family-owned Retail Sales Business, worked as an Accounting Clerk and Supervisor for Mobil Oil Corporation - Los Angeles Credit Card Center, and later as an Accounting Clerk with the Department of Defense. He was the recipient of an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Ohio Dominican University in recognition of his life-long efforts in human rights and equality. Jefferson Allison Thomas died on September 5, 2010 in Columbus, Ohio.
Carlotta Walls LaNier returned to graduate from Little Rock Central High School in 1960. LaNier attended Michigan State University for two years before moving with her family to Denver. In 1968, she earned a Bachelor of Science from Colorado State College, now the University of Northern Colorado. In 1977, she founded LaNier and Company, a real estate brokerage firm. LaNier serves as president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation and is a member of the Denver Chapter of The Links, Incorporated, and the Johnson Legacy, Inc. Board of Directors. In addition to the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal and the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to her as a member of the Little Rock Nine, LaNier is the recipient of an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Northern Colorado and is an inductee in the Colorado Woman’s Hall of Fame, the Girl Scouts Women of Distinction and the National Women's Hall of Fame. She is the author of A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School.
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