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Former Ark. guardsman recalls Central High duty


When young Bob Evans was ordered to report to guard duty one September night, he had no idea why.

The Arkansas National Guard had been called out before to help after natural disasters like the 1952 tornado that blasted the town of Judsonia to smithereens.

But now Evans could think of no state emergency that would require Gov. Orval Faubus to send them to Little Rock Central High School in the dark of night.

“We were just told to go guard the school,” Evans recalled 50 years later. “I didn’t know why I was there.”

Faubus provided an explanation on Sept. 2, 1957, announcing on television that he was sending the guard to all-white Central High to prevent violence. Days earlier, an angry Faubus had complained that the federal government was trying to force integration on the public with no offer of help in keeping the peace as nine black students prepared to attend the school.

In the days that followed, the governor’s actions would fail to keep a bullying white mob from the school and would lead to a showdown with President Eisenhower over court-ordered integration.

For his part, Evans didn’t follow the news and harbored no ill-will toward blacks. A son of sharecroppers, he said he was not raised to hate people and he can remember being puzzled when, as a boy, he offered his seat on a city bus to a pregnant black woman and was chastised by a white man.

“That was two new words for me, ‘segregation’ and ‘integration,'” said Evans, now a spry 71-year-old retiree who lives with his wife Vernell on a tidy two acres of Arkansas prairie land. “I don’t know if he (Faubus) was really trying to keep some problems down or if he just wanted to kind of buck heads with the president.”

Evans had been a guardsman for five years, having joined after he finished the ninth grade, gotten married and started a family at age 16. He and his wife were living at Camp Robinson, where he had a full-time job in the maintenance shop. He was a sergeant and they were expecting their fifth child.

When the orders came, about a dozen guardsmen at the camp got their weapons, climbed into some Army trucks and half-tracks and made the short trip across the Arkansas River to the high school.

“I had to leave her (Vernell) at the house. She didn’t know where I was,” Evans recalled.

At the school, they parked their vehicles to block access at each street corner and stood in the dead silence with their carbines and canteens.

“We just had a job to do,” Evans said. “We stayed all night long guarding an empty building.”

Central High School is a beautiful massive structure, built in the 1920s in the styles of Art Deco and Gothic Revival. It is the only national park site with a fully functioning school. Students go about their classes while visitors drop in at the National Park Service visitors center across the street.

Evans remembers that, after Faubus made the TV announcement, some people started showing up at the school. He figured his wife learned not long afterward about where he was.

“We started getting a lot of curiosity seekers coming around. And here we’re standing there with an unloaded rifle. We didn’t have no ammo,” he said. “Nobody knew that, I hope. But I wouldn’t have used it anyway.”

Otherwise, the night was so quiet the guardsmen could hear the roar of the big cats at the Little Rock Zoo about three miles away and the pop-pop-pop of acorns as the occasional car drove down the street.

“About 10 or 11 o’clock at night, I told my fellow guardsman, ‘Man, I’m hungry.’ They didn’t think about us over here with nothing to eat,” Evans said. “And up pulled this little old couple in this old car. They pulled up, said ‘Do you mind if we get out and talk with you? Plus we got some coffee and doughnuts.'”

So the white guardsmen and the black couple chatted and shared a late-night snack. Evans said the couple impressed him as part of an older generation that was not in favor of integration and thought it might create more problems between the races. Like a lot of people, they also didn’t like the government forcing social change on them, he said.

When morning rolled up, the segregationist Mother’s League held a “sunrise service” at the school that students, parents, and members of the White Citizens Council attended.

On Sept. 4, 1957, with more guardsmen in place, the nine black teenagers arrived and were turned away. Elizabeth Eckford, then 15, showed up separately from the others and faced an angry crowd alone. A baton-carrying guardsman approached the group at one point, but the jeering white pack continued to follow the girl.

A Will Counts photograph of Elizabeth, clutching school books and stoically making her way to a city bus stop, became an indelible image of the civil rights struggle. Students and adults yelled at her, spit on her, and threatened to lynch her before the bus arrived and she reached the safety of her mother at work.

Almost two weeks later, a federal judge said the National Guard couldn’t be used to block the students. The Little Rock police took charge of security at the school. But with more violence and a second unsuccessful attempt by the black students to attend Central, Eisenhower federalized the entire Arkansas National Guard and sent in 1,200 soldiers from the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Ky.

Evans said he doesn’t remember any violence at Central when he was there, only a lot of hollering and name calling. He also doesn’t remember guarding the school for longer than two weeks or so, although Eisenhower used the federalized guardsmen at the school later that year.

Some accounts also describe how occasionally a guardsman failed to stop white students from tormenting the Little Rock Nine.

Evans said if the governor had been obstinate and tried to pit the guard against the 101st, he would not have followed the governor’s lead. Faubus’ response to integration was causing big problems, Evans said. And as a military man, Evans knew the untrained part-time guardsmen were no match for the 101st paratroopers who “were hopped to go.”

On the first full day of school for the nine black students Sept. 25, 1957 the students arrived in a military station wagon. They were escorted from class to class by 101st soldiers, and soldiers stood in the hallways. Evans said he and his fellow guardsmen remained at Camp Robinson, under Eisenhower’s command and away from the school.

Six years later, Evans got out of the guard. It was 1963 and he and Vernell decided to move the family to California. The couple opened a shop where Evans made artificial limbs for amputees. They later lived in Arizona and Florida before retiring two years ago to Lonoke County, where Evans had lived as a boy when his family was sharecropping.

Last spring, Evans returned to Little Rock Central High for the first time in 50 years. He walked into the visitors center at the same corner where he and the guardsmen had kept the black students out of Central. A history book caught his eye.

On the book cover was a picture of him as a 21-year-old along with Lt. Col. Marion Johnson. They were turning the black students away from school and letting the white students pass through the blockade.

When Evans asked park ranger Spirit Trickey who one of the black teenagers was in the picture, Trickey said, “That’s my mother.” The daughter of Minnijean Brown Trickey, Spirit has been a ranger at the visitor’s center for years.

“I said, ‘Oh, you got to be kidding! I hope she’s not mad at me,'” Evans said. “I was there under orders so there wasn’t nothing I could do about it.”

When the nine observe their 50th anniversary of their first full day at the all-white school next Tuesday, Evans hopes he gets a chance to tell them how much he respects what they did. He remembers them with awe.

“Those nine students had to be brave,” Evans said. “It’s almost like dumping one of us out in a foreign country. They didn’t know what to expect, I guess. Man!”

– Associated Press

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