At Central High, lessons for posterity
Site of a desegregation showdown in Little Rock, Ark., becomes the
LITTLE ROCK, ARK. — When nine African-American students walked up the steep steps of all-white Central High here in 1957, they forever transformed it into a symbol of the fight for racial equality in America.
Some 40 years later, the school remains a monument to the changes that began to unfold on that September day. The palette of student faces has broadened to include almost every skin color, and the building - with its ruddy brick and Gothic revival archways - has become one of the newest members of America's National Park System.
At the close of the 20th century, the Park Service is incorporating more and more pieces of contemporary history - from jazz hot spots to airfields - into its portfolio of soaring peaks and sandstone canyons. But that has increasingly meant setting up shop in places that are still operating, and the process of making a bustling school double as a museum is presenting unique challenges.
"It's a working high school - a first for the parks system," says Sandra Washington, the National Park Service project director for Central High School. "We will have to balance the students still attending school here and the people visiting the school to see where history occurred."
The desire among government officials to protect 20th-century landmarks has been building for much of the past decade. Five years ago, Congress created the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park, "to ensure that jazz continues as a vital element of the culture of New Orleans and the nation."
Earlier this year, the Park Service took steps to turn a historic airfield in southeastern Alabama into a park site commemorating the Tuskegee airmen of World War II. "With parks like these, we get multiple layers of history told by people who remember the era," says Ms. Washington. "It may not always be the best history of America, but it shows the diversity of our country."
With some of these new parks, however, have come new logistical problems, with the Park Service having to accommodate still-active tenants. The Missions National Historic Park in San Antonio, for instance, conducts tours of its Spanish frontier missions only when services aren't scheduled at the Roman Catholic churches there.
To some degree, Central High officials can learn from parks like that one, yet they also know their efforts to further open the school to the public will involve a bit of trial and error.
First, they envision displays along the front of the school that explain the events of the day the Little Rock Nine made it to class: the placement of troops who were called in by President Eisenhower to protect the black students, the location of the mobs that opposed them, and the sites where specific incidents took place.
"The beauty of this park is that so much of the area around the school still looks the way it did in 1957," says Laura Miller, director of the Central High School Visitors Center, housed in a renovated Mobile Oil gas station. "We can, in time, re-create history."
Tours may be limited during school hours, with more expansive weekend hours. But many students show tourists around when they make impromptu drop-ins at the school. In addition, they have also shown that they are interested in helping give more formal historical tours and also landscape the grounds.
Central High, which was designated a national historic site last November and has nearly 2,000 students, will continue to operate under the direction and ownership of the Little Rock (Ark.) School District. Much-needed maintenance will also be at the discretion of the school district, though the it can now appeal to the Park Service for funds.
Students have said they would like park-system money to go not just toward re-creating history, but also toward repairing ceiling tiles, painting the walls, and putting doors on bathroom stalls. Yet the extensive repair and maintenance backlog at the Park Service may mean that money will be hard to come by. Central High will compete with Yellowstone and the Everglades for funds.
Still, despite all of the needed renovations, Central High deserves the spotlight, say students, both past and present. "The whole education process was enhanced because you walked through what you talked about in history," says David Freeman, a class of 1991 alumnus. "You walked up and down the stairs that the Little Rock Nine talked about being thrown down, and you could see how much pain they went through just to go to school."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society