Arkansas: Little Rock Central High School

This school was the site of early racial integration in the United States South. When the governor of Arkansas blocked the enrollment of nine black students in September, 1957, he precipitated a clash between states’ rights and federal authority which attracted worldwide attention.

Site Office

Central High School

1500 Park Street

Little Rock, AR 72202

ph.: (501) 324-2300

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Little Rock Central High School’s place in United States history has been ensured by the racial crisis of 1957-1958; however, as Little Rock Senior High School, it had boasted a long and honorable tradition as one of the finest high schools in the South.

The Beginnings and Growth of Little Rock High School

The earliest schoolhouses in Little Rock were private homes converted into school buildings. After the Civil War (or the War Between the States, as it was known in Little Rock), the first schoolhouse constructed for that purpose was named Sherman School. It graduated its first class of four girls and one boy in 1873.

For a time, there was no high school separate from the lower grades. However, a building on Capitol Avenue, constructed not long after the war on the site of an old cemetery, can be called Little Rock’s first public high school. Before long, the Scott Street School was opened at Fourteenth and Scott Streets. It became the high school, and its predecessor was reduced in status to Peabody Grammar School. Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, the high school moved back and forth between the Scott Street and Peabody Schools as one or the other expanded its facilities. It was eventually settled at Fourteenth and Scott when, in 1905, a new one hundred thousand dollar high school was constructed on the site of the old Scott Street School. Little Rock Senior High School remained at this location for the next twenty-two years.

In 1927, Little Rock Senior (later to become Central) High School was opened at Fourteenth and Park Streets. The massive four-story building, its facade resembling a castle, was constructed at the cost of $1.5 million. It was at one time designated the most beautiful high school in America by the National Association of Architects. Its predecessor at Fourteenth and Scott became East Side Junior High School, and still later a trade school. Peabody School was eventually closed, demolished, and the Little Rock Federal Building was constructed on the site.

A Catholic high school for boys and a Catholic academy for girls had long existed in Little Rock. Dunbar High School, a high school for black students, and a small technical high school were a part of the Little Rock school system. However, until 1957, Little Rock Senior (Central) High School was the only public high school for whites in the city. By the mid-1950’s, the enrollment was 2,400 students, making it by far the largest high school in Arkansas. It was also the best funded. It attracted an excellent faculty and dominated the state in athletics, especially football.

In 1953, however, plans were completed to build a second high school for whites in western Little Rock, the fastest-growing section of the city. Even though the second high school, Hall High, would not open its doors for another four years, the first high school could no longer retain the exclusive name. Little Rock Senior High School became Central High School, and the class of 1954 was the first to be graduated under that name. In time, following the racial integration of the schools, a third high school, Parkview, would be opened, and the former high school for black students would become an integrated junior high school. At the end of the twentieth century, Central remained the largest of the three high schools, though it would never again be so dominant as during the first half of the century.

The Crisis of 1957-1958

Five days after the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that “separate but equal” public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional, the Little Rock School Board announced its intention to comply with the Court’s mandate. The “Blossom Plan” (bearing the name of the district’s superintendent, Virgil Blossom) was formulated, whereby the all-black schools would be continued, but grades ten through twelve would be open to black students beginning with the 1957-1958 school year. Then desegregation would proceed downward, year by year, through the junior high and elementary grades. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) challenged this limited and gradual approach, but the courts ruled that it met the “deliberate speed” test enunciated by the Supreme Court.

Implementation of the plan was to begin with the opening of school on September 3, 1957. A small group of exemplary African American students was chosen by local civil rights activists to request admission to Central High School. By September 3, roughly half of those accepted had withdrawn their applications, unwilling to hazard the unknown risks of the historic enrollment. Those who remained would become famous as the “Little Rock Nine.” Eight would finish the year. One, the most combative of the group, would be expelled for fighting back against harassment within the school. One, Ernest Green, would become the first black graduate of Little Rock Central High School.

When the nine appeared at Central High on the morning of September 3, they found the school closed and their way barred by Arkansas National Guardsmen. Orval Faubus, serving his second term as governor of Arkansas, went on statewide television announcing that he had taken these measures in order to protect life and property. He had, he said, received reports that a mob was going to assemble to prevent the integration of Central High by force. Federal Judge Ronald N. Davies accepted the governor’s use of the National Guard, but only on the assumption that the guardsmen would protect the right of the nine to enter the high school without interference.

Three weeks passed, and Governor Faubus continued to use armed troops to prevent the black students from attending school. Unruly mobs did gather in front of the school, and several ugly incidents occurred, although no one was killed or seriously injured. Journalists from the major newspapers, news magazines, and television networks gathered in Little Rock to report on the conflict between the state power being asserted by the governor and the constitutional mandate he was opposing. On September 24, President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded. He called all members of the Arkansas National Guard to active duty; thus, they were immediately made members of the United States Army and were no longer under the governor’s control. President Eisenhower also dispatched a detachment of the 101st Airborne Infantry to ensure the entry of the Little Rock Nine into Central High and to maintain order around the school. By early October, the paratroopers were withdrawn to nearby Camp Robinson to be replaced by national guardsmen.

The 1957-1958 academic year was the unhappiest in the history of the school. Governor Faubus claimed that the federal government was conducting a military occupation of Arkansas, and many segregationist sympathizers supported his claim. Little Rock Central High School, the community of Little Rock, and the state of Arkansas received negative publicity almost daily around the world. Recurring incidents of harassment of the black students–most verbal but some physical–were documented throughout the year. Still, eight of the nine finished the year, and racial integration had become a fact at Little Rock Central High School.

The Aftermath of the Crisis

All three Little Rock public high schools were closed from 1958-1959. Students were forced to gain admittance to a private school or move to another city to attend a public high school. Those who were to be seniors had to earn their diplomas somewhere else. The schools were reopened the following year, and two more African Americans were graduated from Central High in 1960. Only three of the Little Rock Nine completed their secondary education with their respective classes at Central High–the others went on to receive their high school diplomas elsewhere, and most earned university degrees.

Orval Faubus was reelected to a third two-year term as governor of Arkansas in 1958. He was subsequently reelected to three more terms, serving until January, 1967. Faubus’s political opponents accused him of adopting his obstructionist stance at Central High School purely for short-term political advantage. He was for a time widely popular in the South but was generally viewed negatively outside the region. After leaving office, he spent the rest of his life attempting to rehabilitate his reputation, arguing, both in person and in print, that his actions in 1957-1958 were not racist but were principled given the circumstances he faced at the time. The Arkansas Gazette, which had supported the racial integration at Central High and had opposed the governor’s actions throughout the crisis, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage.

Under an order from the federal court, the Little Rock school district instituted a citywide busing program designed to achieve racial balance in every school and, by the 1970’s, the district was largely integrated. In 1980, half the student body and a third of the faculty at Central High School were African American. By the 1990’s, the enrollment featured a solid black majority. At the end of the twentieth century, the Central High School enrollment numbered 1,850 students, some 550 fewer than in the mid-1950’s, but Central continued to lead all Arkansas high schools in scholastic honors, including National Merit Scholarships.

In 1977, Central High School marked the twentieth anniversary of its desegregation with an assembly at which the principal speaker was Ernest Green, its first black graduate. In 1997, on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the crisis, an elaborate ceremony was held on the school’s front lawn. The president of the United States and the governor of Arkansas spoke, and several of the Little Rock Nine were in attendance. Across the street from Central High, on the site formerly occupied by a gasoline station where students often lounged before and after school, a small museum was established. The museum, dedicated to the desegregation crisis of 1957-1958, contains photographs and other memorabilia from that turbulent year.

For Further Information

  • Bates, Daisy. The Long Shadow of Little Rock: A Memoir. New York: David McKay, 1962. The account of a civil rights leader intimately involved in the Central High crisis.
  • Faubus, Orval Eugene. Down from the Hills. Little Rock, Ark.: Pioneer, 1980. In his review of his six terms in office (spanning from 1955 to 1967), the former governor argues his side of the Central High crisis.
  • Graves, John William. Town and Country: Race Relations in an Urban-Rural Context, Arkansas, 1865-1905. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1990. Examines the establishment and evolution of the segregation laws, most of which were still in effect in 1957. Argues that, ironically, Arkansas–especially in urban areas–-had been one of the most progressive southern states in desegregating its people.
  • Huckaby, Elizabeth. Crisis at Central High: Little Rock, 1957-58. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. A memoir of the school year, written by the vice principal for girls.
  • Lester, Jim, and Judy Lester. Greater Little Rock. Norfolk, Va.: Donning, 1986. Central High appears throughout this history of the city, both in text and photographs.
  • Reed, Roy. Faubus: The Life and Times of an American Prodigal. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1997. Chapters 16 through 20 deal specifically with the Central High crisis and its immediate aftermath.