Thing to Do

Walk the Footsteps of History

Commemorative Garden at dusk

 A commemorative bus bench from the story of Elizabeth Eckford at the corner of Park and 16th Streets. The Art Deco and Collegiate Gothic facade of "America's Most Beautiful High School." A landscaped garden with a curving pathway past a small grove of trees and two monumental sculptural arches.

Little Rock Central High School NHS encompasses the places where the story of Central High's desegregation and the Little Rock Nine transpired as the eyes of the world watched in 1957. Today, these sites provide visitors with accessible areas to remember and reflect on this watershed moment in the Civil Rights Movement. 

Elizabeth Eckford Bus Bench

On Wednesday, September 4, 1957, ten African American students attempted to enter Central High for the first time. The previous evening, the principals of Dunbar and Horace Mann had informed these students that they would be going to Central the next day. Daisy Bates, President of the Arkansas Conference of Branches for the NAACP, had called the families of the students to inform them of the logistics for that Wednesday morning: do not come to Central High alone, but meet near the school around 8:30 a.m. where a group of local African American and white ministers would escort the students to the high school.

Elizabeth Eckford did not receive notice about this plan of action - the Eckfords do not have a telephone. Mrs. Bates intended to try to reach the Eckfords on Wednesday morning, but forgot in the hurried pace of the morning. Elizabeth rode a bus to Central, approached the school just before 8:00 a.m. and saw the soldiers of the Arkansas National Guard surrounding the school. Barred by the soldiers in several failed attempts to be allowed past their ranks, Elizabeth found herself in the throes of an angry mob of protesters numbering over 300+ on Park Street. Chants ["Two, four, six, eight! We don't want to integrate!"], racial epithets, terroristic threats and spit descended down on this fifteen-year old student as she attempted to make her way to the end of Park Street where perceived safety awaited her at another bus stop and bench. After arriving at the bus stop, Elizabeth waited for 35 minutes; in the interim, she is denied entrance to Ponder's Drug and supported by Benjamin Fine and Grace Lorch.

"The mob of twisted whites, galvanized into vengeful action by the inaction of the heroic state militia, was not willing that the young school girl should get off so easily. Elizabeth Eckford had walked into the wolf's lair, and now that they felt she was fair game, the drooling wolves took off after their prey. The hate mongers, who look exactly like other, normal white men and women, took off down the street after the girl." - Buddy Lonesome, St. Louis Argus

"Here she is this little girl, this tender little thing, walking with this whole mob baying at her like a pack of wolves seeking to destroy a little lamb." - Benjamin Fine, New York Times

Unveiled in 2018, a replica of the bench stands in the place where Elizabeth's first attempt at integration ended on that September day. The bench and surrounding plaques are the result of a student-led project by the Central High School Memory Project in collaboration with the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, the National Park Service and other partners. The Memory Project, a group inspired by the American Memory Project at the Library of Congress, immerses students in the oral history of civil rights and human rights through hands-on, inter-generational learning and requires students to analyze causes/effects of historical events as well as the resulting impact on both individuals in their families and institutions in our communities.

The bench is a place for reflection, a space to remember the nonviolence demonstrated by a fifteen-year-old in the face of surrounding violence. We recommend using our self-guided tour with audio and transcript available on the NPS App; this narrarated walking tour was researched, scripted, and recorded by the Central High Memory Project and follows the footsteps with eyewitness accounts of the unsuccessful first attempt by all ten African American students (September 4, 1957) to attend classes during the historic desegregation crisis. Note - the language in the audio narration and transcript is taken directly from eyewitness and published accounts and contains strong language and racial epithets; the inclusion of this strong language is meant solely to convey the courage of these African American students in the face of charged racism and bigotry. 

Little Rock Central High School


An architectural wonder, Little Rock Senior (later Central) High School stood larger and more expensive than any high school when it opened in 1927. In the era of Jim Crow laws and at a time when Supreme Court-mandated policy allowed educational facilities to be "separate but equal", Little Rock Central High School admitted only white students during its first three decades. These students received greater educational opportunity than did their African American counterparts throughout the city.

The landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 held separate educational facilities to be inherently unequal. Three years after Brown, Little Rock Central High School became the epicenter of a direct challenge to federal authority and enforcement not seen since post-Civil War Reconstruction.In September 1957, angry mobs, the governor of Arkansas and the Arkansas National Guard blocked two attempts by African American students to enter and integrate the school. Later dubbed by the media as the Little Rock Nine, this group of students succeeded on their third attempt. They entered classes on September 25, 1957, escorted by the 101st Airborne, which had been ordered by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to enforce the ruling and prevent interference with court orders of integration.

Despite the presence of troops, the Little Rock Nine faced harassment—verbal and violent, private and public, latent and life-altering—throughout the school year. The following year, voters chose in a special election to reject immediate racial integration of all schools within the Little Rock School District, allowing four local high schools to be shuttered for an entire school year.

Today, Little Rock Central High School is still a functioning 9th - 12th grade facility and is not open to the public. Visitors to the National Historic Site can schedule a guided tour in advance which may offer ranger-led limited access into the school (weekdays only; check park website for available dates). If tours are unavailable or not part of your visitation plan, you may walk on the front ground and/or up a stairway to the main entrance at the front of Central High School only. Little Rock Central High boasts impressive statues of four figures over the front entrance representing Ambition, Personality, Opportunity and Preparation. At the 1927 dedication, Lillian McDermott, then-president of the School Board, claimed that the new school "would stand...for decades to come [as] a public school where Ambition is fired, where Personality is developed, where Opportunity is presented and where Preparation in the solution of life's problems is begun." A new statue by Clay Enoch entitled “United” featuring two figures working to close two open and intertwined circles stands guard adjacent to a side entrance on the building’s east side. Note: the stairway and front entrance are not accessible from outside the school; the lower landing and reflecting pool are accessible from the south sidewalk in front of Central High School.

Little Rock Central High School, the only operating high school designated as a national historic site, is important beyond its past. Learn how the sacrifice and struggle endured by nine African American teenagers more than a half century ago have provided opportunities and opened doors to those seeking equality—and education—around the world.


Commemorative Garden

The Commemorative Garden, adjacent to both the visitor center on South Park Street and the north side of Little Rock Central High School, documents a photographic history, inlaid on brick and concrete arches, as a reminder of the bravery of the Little Rock Nine and a legacy of Central High School. Within this space are nine benches and nine trees to provide seating and shade for a visitor to sit and reflect in this tranquil landscape.

The arches and accompanying sculptures, designed by Michael Warrick and Aaron Hussey, surround a poem etched into a concrete circle – “The Spirit of Central High.” Inside the arches are reflective photographic panels showing the history of Central High from its construction before 1927, through its struggle for desegregation in 1957/The Lost Year as well as recent images of Central High School’s student life and activity.

The Commemorative Garden has an accessible ramp on its south and east entrances which leads through the entirety of this contemplative space. 
Details
Walk the Footstpes of History
All ages, but minors must be with an adult, parent or guardian.
Service animals are allowed as are leashed pets. Individuals in possession of pets must have on their person a bag or device for the containerization and removal of pet excrement. Individuals shall immediately containerize and dispose of excrement deposited by their pet in a trash receptacle or remove it from the historic site.
Entrance fees may apply, see Fees & Passes information.
The Elizabeth Eckford Bus Bench is located at the northeast corner of S. Park and 16th Streets.

Little Rock Central High School is located at the southwest corner of W. Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive and S. Park Street.

The Commemorative Garden is located at the northwest corner of W. Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive and S. Park Street.
Guided tours require an advance reservation.
Accessibility Information
The Elizabeth Eckford Bus Bench is accessible from the visitor center and parking lot. Cross W. Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive and use the sidewalks on either side of S. Park Street to reach the bench at the southeast corner of S. Park and 16th Streets.

Little Rock Central High School is accessible from the visitor center and parking lot. Head south from the visitor center and cross W. Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive, then west across S. Park Street to reach the sidewalk in front of the northeast corner of Little Rock Central High School. The sidewalk in front of Little Rock Central High School runs around the entirety of the 21-acre campus. Note: the stairway and front entrance are not accessible from outside the school; the lower landing and reflecting pool are accessible from the south sidewalk in front of Central High School.

The Commemorative Garden is accessible from the visitor center and parking lot. Cross S. Park Street and use the sidewalk to enter at the west side or south side of the garden. Each entrance has an ramp which leads through the entirety of this contemplative space.

 

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site

Last updated: September 15, 2021