Little Rock, a moving stop on the US Civil Rights Trail

CR Rae
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Little Rock Central High School was the site of forced desegregation in 1957 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional.

Little Rock, Arkansas, is one of the top 10 destinations on the United States Civil Rights Trail, which connects 100 sites across 14 states.

One of the most notable sites in the city is the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site and Visitor Center. The school was named “America’s Most Beautiful High School” by the American Institute of Architects. It has 100 classrooms, a 2,000-seat auditorium, gymnasium, greenhouse and reflecting pool. The Gothic Revival building was constructed in 1927 at a cost of $1.5 million.

In September 1957 the school had the attention of the world, when Gov. Orval Faubus had the Arkansas National Guard called to prevent nine Black students from attending the school. Those students are known as the Little Rock Nine. Eventually, President Dwight Eisenhower had federal troops escort those students into the school.

Little Rock Central High School continues to educate students today and is the only functioning high school in the U.S. to be within a National Historic Site.

In 2007, 50 years after the Little Rock Nine made history, the site’s visitor center and museum opened across the street from the school. It includes interactive displays, exhibits, pictures and audio that tell the remarkable and powerful story of the Little Rock Nine — some with the members personally telling their story. Handheld devices are available with recordings to explain the exhibits as you peruse the center and museum. The displays and center are handicapped accessible and COVID-19 safeguards are in place.

There were actually 10 students who attempted to enter Central High in 1957. Students received word the night before not to go to school. However, not having a telephone, Elizabeth Eckford did not receive the message. When she arrived at the school, she saw the National Guard, and after failing to get by them she made her way to the bench at a bus stop.

Around the corner from the high school at Park and 16th streets is the Elizabeth Eckford Commemorative Bench, part of the Memory Bench project spearheaded by a team of students from Central High. It is a replica of the bench at the bus stop that was a refuge for Elizabeth.

At first you might miss the bench, as it has a sign on it that states “you can advertise on this bench phone MO 6-2159.” I sat and contemplated that, wondering why anyone would allow for advertising on such a historic icon ... then I realized the phone number was not current and the original bench had that sign.

A commemorative garden is on South Park Street. A curved pathway runs through the garden past benches and archways, which have photographic panels on the inside. The poem “The Spirit of Central High” is etched between the arches in the concrete.

At this time, the National Park Service is offering daily streetscape tours, which must be scheduled in advance.

No more than 10 participants are on the tours, which are offered from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. local time. Tours do not go inside the school as they did before COVID-19 restrictions. Visit nps.gov/chsc/planyourvisit/guidedtours for all the “how-to” information on booking a tour.

Also in the city is the beautiful Arkansas State Capitol building, where visitors will find the moving and insightful “Testaments,” a sculpture of the Little Rock Nine. It is on the north side of the building and faces the governor’s office window. It is also part of the Civil Rights Trail.

President Bill Clinton, once Arkansas’ governor, had the sculpture made to remind future governors of this time in Little Rock’s history. The statues are life-size and each has a personal quote from the student, which leaves a lasting impact on visitors.

For places to stay visit littlerock.com.