It might seem redundant to remind ourselves that the people featured in video footage of news stories — the black-and-white images capturing a precise moment in our shared past — are actual human beings, not simply a visual complement. We forget this, though; the images today move too quickly. The impressions are too fleeting, and there’s a future-seeking urgency to click or swipe to the next thing before we even have a chance to fully grasp what we’re seeing. Often, it takes a book like Dr. LaVerne Bell-Tolliver’s “The First Twenty-Five: An Oral History of the Desegregation of Little Rock’s Public Junior High Schools” to cut through the Hollywood sheen of made-for-television history and punctuate the lives of those who shaped and changed our world.
The 1957 desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School is so ingrained in our cultural consciousness it would be difficult to find a U.S. citizen ignorant of the episode. Less known, though, and equally important, are the procedural steps and lawsuits that led to initiating Arkansas’s desegregation plan, and the stories behind the subsequent desegregation of four of the five junior high schools in Little Rock, starting in September 1961.
Bell-Tolliver, an associate professor of social work at UA Little Rock, has compiled the memories of 18 of the first 25 African-American students to enroll in five junior high schools in Little Rock. And while there are similarities that stretch across all the narratives, the most meaningful are the uniquely personal details each participant shares, something their father said, an exchange with a teacher, or the loneliness of being the outsider, the “other.”
The early chapters provide a detailed explanation of the desegregation plan, the subsequent delays and other stall tactics. While impressions of a gradually quieter and peaceful integration of the African-American students found their way to the pages of newspapers, those students’ reported experiences are markedly different.
Once the school doors closed, there were taunts and threats. The new students were spat at. Gum put in their hair. They were referred to by the n-word. If they weren’t being shunned, they were being ignored, whether they sat by themselves at lunch or raised their hand, never to be called on. “I’d bury myself in books to not have to deal with all of that,” Kathleen Bell notes. “That’s mostly what I did just to survive.” Most white teachers were helpful, but not all.
Most student recollections in “The First Twenty-Five” address desegregation with concrete details: how they were “chosen,” what they were told to expect, how their families reacted. Most reflect on actual lived experiences from day one across entire tenures in Little Rock public schools. (Interestingly, every oral biography includes an exact memory of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.)
What stands out the most is a common thread: All students except one were brought up in two-parent homes; most found support in their religion and all held a firm faith in their abilities as both an individual and a student. Some had demonstratively supportive parents, but some did not; one persevered despite both parents suffering from severe mental illness. Dr. Kenneth Jones, who helped desegregate West Side Junior High, remarks: “One of the things we found in all of our research is that if a student has one adult that cares about them inside that system, that the likelihood of their academic success increases exponentially.”
Looking back, most students who participated attribute some part of their success to their desegregation experiences. It toughened them, forced them to learn new skills and interact with different types of people. For some, it made integrating back into the black community more challenging. Alfreda Brown, who was assigned to attend and desegregate East Side Junior High School in 1961, wonders, “Are we segregated more based upon race/ethnicity than on economic status? And I’m beginning to wonder if the thing that is bridging us is the gap between the haves and the have-nots. And that’s regardless of what color you are.”
Tolliver’s accounts are transcribed from interviews, and to read them is to eavesdrop on their stories. It’s to know them during this moment in their lives when they were the first to venture into an unknown world. “Children are the cruelest things on two legs,” Pinkie Thompson, who attended and desegregated Pulaski Heights Junior High School in 1962, says. “They say what they think. Their thinking has been formed by grandpa, great-grandma. All that the children are doing are spouting what they’ve been culturally taught. And they bring it with all of the energy their little young bodies can bring.”
A panel discussion and book signing featuring members of those “first 25” will kick off the launch of Tolliver’s book at an event hosted by Tolliver and Alvin Terry, 3 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 15, at the UA Little Rock Ottenheimer Library, Suite 202. The book will be featured at the “Black History Month Black Author’s Fair,” 6 to 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 26, at the ALLPS School of Innovation, 2350 Old Farmington Road in Fayetteville. Both events are free and open to the public, and copies of “The First Twenty-Five” will be available for purchase.