By Colin Woodward
I’ve lived in Little Rock for about a year and half, and yet I didn’t visit Central High School until this spring. It was a beautiful Easter Sunday in Little Rock when I passed by the famous site. Since nothing much was open that day, I decided to ride around town and take some pictures.
If you take Daisy Bates Drive headed west from downtown, you’ll pass Central High. What struck when I first saw the building was how large it is. I’d seen it many times in pictures and films. But in person, it’s an impressive structure. Ironically, though, it’s easy to drive near without ever going past it. The school is not on my way to work, and Little Rock’s many hills are good for hiding things.
I was surprised to see that a gas station across the street from the high school had been preserved as it would have looked in 1957. And across the street from the gas station is a museum that is run by the National Park Service. Central High is the first site in the South run by the Park Service that I have seen that has nothing to do with the Civil War.
My visit to Central High was long overdue, not just because I live in Little Rock, but because of my interest in southern historian. My primer in the Central High crisis was a video on Vivion Brewer that I watched wile I was working Smith College, where Brewer graduated. Since coming to Little Rock to work in an archive, I’ve been unable to escape Central High’s history. Currently, I’m working on processing the large Hugh B. Patterson Papers at UALR. Patterson was the business manager of the Arkansas Gazette during the integration crisis. His father-in-law was J. N. Heiskell, the owner of the paper (and a godfather, of sorts, to the UALR archives).
The Gazette famously took a stand against the segregationists when Governor Orval Faubus threatened to close the school in order to prevent integration. The Gazette did nothing so radical as advocate equality among the races. Instead, it took a law and order viewpoint: the Brown decision, the paper opined, should become the law of the land.
The rest of the story is well known. Faubus closed the schools. Little Rock became a symbol of the early civil rights struggle. Whites opposed to race-mixing boycotted the Gazette, which, despite the financial hit it took, won two Pulitzer Prizes for its editorial writing during the crisis.
Processing Patterson’s Papers has provided me with some interesting insights into the Central High issue. Faubus, though he would become synonymous with southern Democratic political machines, seemed fairly moderate when first elected in 1954. In 1957, when the crisis began, he was only in his second term (Arkansas governors were then only elected for two years). No one could have seen how staunchly anti-integration he became, though his viewpoint would echo through the fields of George Wallace’s Alabama and elsewhere.
Ironically, Harry Ashmore, the editor of the Gazette during the crisis, had worked with Faubus early on in the governor’s career. Ashmore, a native of South Carolina, wrote a speech on education that might have been responsible for Faubus becoming governor. By the fall of 1957, however, Ashmore and Faubus were on very different sides of the issue of integrated schools.
So, I’ve been now seen Central High. Maybe soon I’ll actually go inside the museum.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.