A Long Way from Little Rock -by Linda Johnson

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I was born in 1942 in Little Rock, Arkansas. So I was destined, by age, to be in a high school class of 1960. That same winter, nine notable African-American babies were also born, all but one in Little Rock, who could expect to graduate in 1960. They were to be later known as the “Little Rock Nine.” My life’s path took me a long way from Little Rock, geographically and culturally. By 1949 my family had moved to Colorado and most of my school years were spent there. 

There was one high school in Colorado Springs;  everyone in our town attended it.  But back in Little Rock, there was grandiose Central High, seven stories tall, with up-to-date curricula, for white students. And there was Horace Mann, an underdeveloped school for Afro-American students, or “blacks” as they were called then.  In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court mandated that the nation’s school would be racially integrated.  The ruling met with resistance, especially in Arkansas. Amid violent white protests and in defiance of federal law, Governor Orville Faubus ordered out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent black students from entering white schools.  On September 3, 1957, nine brave Horace Mann students, studious and determined, enrolled and would attempt to enter Central High School in Little Rock.   I was born in 1942 in Little Rock, Arkansas. So I was destined, by age, to be in a high school class of 1960. That same winter, nine notable African-American babies were also born, all but one in Little Rock, who could expect to graduate in 1960. They were to be later known as the “Little Rock Nine.” My life’s path took me a long way from Little Rock, geographically and culturally. By 1949 my family had moved to Colorado and most of my school years were spent there. 

 Meanwhile in Colorado Springs on September 3, 1957, eight of my friends and I met on the sunny sidewalk, waiting for the bell that would invite us into the halls for our first day of high school. Our most pressing problems were whether we could remember our locker codes, which of our friends would be in our classes, and whether we had on the right clothes for high school.  We all wore the same thing: a full skirt just below the knee with starched crinolines underneath to make it stand out, a shirtwaist blouse, a wide cinch belt tight around the waist, saddle shoes and white socks. We had swooned over Elvis and Johnny Mathis and anticipated fall football games and our first homecoming dance. The boys wore jeans with rolled up cuffs and collared shirts, the collar turned up like James Dean’s in Rebel with a Cause.  

 In Little Rock that same day, the nine black students (the Nine), wearing clothing like ours as shown in iconic pictures in the press, tried to enter the all-white Central High School.  Their age and attire were identical to ours, but their determination to equally and fairly obtain the best education would cost far more determination and suffering than we would ever know. That morning they had been directed by supporters and organizers to enter Central High School together.  Amid crowds of outraged protesters, they were prevented from meeting at the assigned place; one girl, 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, faced the armed Arkansas National Guard soldiers alone. In the chaos, Elizabeth fled to a bus stop and rode to her mother’s work for safety. The other eight were separately chased and threatened by white protesters and could not enter the school. 

On September 23rd, President Dwight Eisenhower, complying with the Supreme Court decision on integration, ordered federal troops to escort the Nine into the classes they had enrolled in and qualified for. They were escorted in amidst a mob of white resistance.  All but one completed the tortuous year of 1957-58, with white students and teachers alike scorning and physically abusing them, in spite of the federal troops assigned to protect them. 

Meanwhile in Colorado Springs, we happily finished our sophomore year, with the biggest policy change being that we could wear blue jeans for final exam week. There was a sparse black population in Colorado Springs, but those who were there filled spots on Student Council and in sports. Thanks to some outstanding black athletes, Colorado Springs High School won the state football championship that year.  Back in Little Rock, black students were excluded from all extra-curricular activities and were prevented from even attending a Central football game.

Spring finally came sixty years ago in May, 1958. Ernest Green, the only senior among the Nine, was the first black graduate of Central High. Unbeknownst to the crowd of spectators, Martin Luther King Jr. sat with Ernest Green’s family at that graduation.

 The following year, owing to the violence and political pressure, Arkansas Governor Faubus cancelled all public schools in Little Rock for the entire year, so there was no class of 1959.  Seven of the Nine moved away and graduated elsewhere, many in 1960. Elizabeth Eckford got her GED and went on to a lifetime of civil service and activism.  The rest attended college and advanced degrees, and luminous careers in their fields.  In Colorado Springs, we too attended colleges and had careers, seemingly as seamlessly as third to fourth grade.   

 Only one of the Little Rock Nine, Melba Patilla Beals, has written a memoir. The title, Warriors Don’t Cry,   was inspired by the females in her family, particularly her grandmother, India.  Melba’s mother had been the first black woman to graduate from the University of Arkansas. (1954). When Melba was overwhelmed by violence and hatred at Central High, she quoted her grandmother, telling her to have faith and to stand up, because “warriors don’t cry.”

 Her grandmother also assured her that “everything changes.”  Indeed, Melba describes slow but positive changes in Arkansas and in the nation coming from the Nine’s harrowing experiences in the name of racial equality. The Nine have remained fast friends and relished their reunion when a statuary memorial to them was dedicated in front of the Arkansas capitol.

Grandmother India told Melba that life’s memories are composed of “snapshots of experiences” we can never forget. When Melba saw the memorial sculptures of the Little Rock Nine unveiled in front of the Arkansas capitol, she gasped at how accurately the statues resembled them in September, 1957.  Their teenage interests, dreams, and even dress paralleled those of my friends and me in the class of 1960.  And the nine or so of us Colorado Springs High School graduates still cherish those friendships.  I too have a memory “snapshot” of September 3, 1957, garbed in our teenage idealism, but on that day I was a long way from Little Rock. 

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Linda Johnson is a local historian and genealogist who has lived most of her life in Colorado Springs.   She has published articles in genealogical journals and done speaker presentations of neighborhood history and genealogy.  From 1983 to 2015, she  owned and was the  designer for   her  theatrical costume rental business, “Ivywild Costumes,”  where the history of clothing merged with family studies and history. In 2015 she retired, with her husband Patrick, and relocated to Ft Collins.