Little Rock center tells story of 1957 integration at Central High School

The shrieking white crowds, the armed soldiers, the recalcitrant governor and the nine black teenagers who dared to attend all-white Central High School tell the story of civil rights in America at a new visitors center.

The visitors center for the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site opens next Monday, in time for 50th anniversary observances of the school desegregation crisis.

At the press of a button, visitors will hear the story of September 1957 in the words of the Little Rock Nine, white students, teachers, parents, soldiers, and news reporters.

Archival photographs and film capture scenes from the year; interpretive text on the movement and quotations from civil rights workers express the struggle.

Parks Superintendent Michael Madell said the U.S. Parks Service project represented three years of work done in about a year and a half. Congress appropriated $6 million for the project.

The 10,078 square-foot building, across the street from Central High School, replaces a center that could barely accommodate staff or the 45,000 visitors who toured the site last year. The building is about five times larger than the current center, a renovated Mobil station that will be converted for use in educational programs.

“What resulted is absolutely phenomenal,” Madell said. “I feel very good about it.”

Park service staff, which gave a tour to media Monday, are putting the finishing touches on the building in preparation for a dedication ceremony next week. About 1,800 people are expected to attend the ceremony, kicking off a week of anniversary events.

The Little Rock Nine, former President Clinton and others will gather Sept. 25 at the school to mark the 50th anniversary of the black students’ first full day at Central.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional. Integration began slowly and unnoticed at a few schools until Central.

When the nine black students tried to enter the high school Sept. 4, 1957, they were turned back by the Arkansas National Guard on orders from then-Gov. Orval Faubus. The students again tried Sept. 23 to attend classes. But after a few hours, they were escorted out by police when a white mob became violent and threatened to enter the school.

On Sept. 25, each of the Little Rock Nine had 101st Army Airborne escorts as they went from class to class and the soldiers, called out by President Eisenhower, lined the school halls to keep order.

At the new center, visitors are reminded of the constitutional imperative of the 14th Amendment that inspired many Americans to take life-threatening risks.

“No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States,” it says on the yellow brick wall.

Madell said the site of the new center was once used for a commercial greenhouse and crews had to remove 370 tons of soil contaminated with pesticides and herbicides before construction could begin. The building is architecturally designed to fit in with the school and the neighborhood, and its heating, cooling and lighting systems have several environmentally efficient features.

Madell expects visitation figures will rise to 60,000 annually. Admission to the center is free.

On the Net:

Central High Historic Site http://www.nps.gov/chsc

–Associated Press



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