Rita Henry, a Little Rock photographer who’s exhibited widely, has taught classes in the art for 20 years. To help her students fine-tune their skills, she asks them to develop prints from negatives — good old-fashioned film.
It’s her experience that you shouldn’t just pitch old photos.
So a year ago, when she ran into Joanne Riddick, the mother of Rita’s friend John Haley, she asked Riddick if she ever stumbled across any negatives stashed away in the big family home she lives in on Hill Road to save them for her.
In March, Riddick, who’d been clearing out the attic in anticipation of a move, called Henry. She had shoeboxes full of film and pictures for her.
The pandemic had just reared its ugly head in Arkansas. Henry wasn’t teaching classes. She had a lot of time on her hands — enough time to go through a shoebox that once held Troylings high heels to look at photographs and film from the 1940s and 1950s shot by Riddick’s late husband, Walter G. Riddick: Brownie negatives. 35 mm film, Kodak Tri-X and Ansco Supreme. Negatives in Pinky’s Photo packets from Hall’s Drug Store, neither of which entities exists today. Girl Scout Council negatives. Small snaps of tanks and ships from what appear to be World War II bases.
Henry went through the box picture by picture, envelope by envelope. “It was a week or two before I got to the bottom,” she said. There she found loose, dirty negatives, uncut and flat. She didn’t look at them at first because she assumed they were in terrible shape.
But then she picked up a loupe and checked them out. There, in one of the 35 mm frames of two rolls of film that Riddick shot in 1957, was a photograph of a young Black teenager sitting on a bench and surrounded by people. Henry knew right away what she had: Shots of Central High on the day it was to be desegregated. A photo of Elizabeth Eckford, the member of the Little Rock Nine who arrived alone at school and suffered racist taunts by fellow students and onlookers. Shots of flatbed trucks and Army vehicles and Air National Guardsmen with rifles. Laughing students, apparently excited by the attention, the girls in skirts filled out with petticoats and crewcut boys in short-sleeved shirts. Onlookers, students and adults alike, packing Park Street in front of the school. A Chevrolet with a KATV sign on its rounded trunk.
Few are the Arkansas adults who have not seen famous shots of Eckford being shouted at on her way to school — Will Counts’ shot for the Arkansas Democrat is iconic — and then sitting petrified and staring straight ahead on a bus stop bench, surrounded by a crowd of reporters and students and adults. Riddick’s shot is taken from Eckford’s left, and shows a reporter in coat and tie leaning over to talk to her. There’s a glimpse of Grace Lorch, the teacher who chided the crowd for tormenting Eckford and escorted her to a bus and home, behind the bench. (For her trouble, Lorch and her family were the target of threats; they eventually left not just Arkansas, but the country.)
Another of Riddick’s shots shows Terrence Roberts, another of the Nine, by what appears to be an Army vehicle; Arkansas Gazette reporter Jerry Dhonau stands nearby. One shot captures Arkansas State Press publisher L.C. Bates, whose wife, Daisy, was shepherding the Nine’s entry into Central, seated on the bus stop bench before Eckford’s arrival.
An amazed Henry called Joanne Riddick to let her know what she’d found and ask what she should do with the film. Do what you want, was Riddick’s answer.
Because the pandemic had closed stores, Henry couldn’t get the photographic paper she needed to print the negatives. When she did, “I started printing each one by one, in order.”
Walter Riddick, whose father Walter Riddick Sr. served on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, was an assistant U.S. attorney when he made the photographs for the federal office. He was sent to Central High the mornings of Sept. 4-5.
Joanne Riddick, who married Walter Riddick in 1972, remembered what her husband told her about that day.
“They sent him out to see what he could find out ‘under cover,’ ” she said. (Riddick, 30 at the time he took the shot the film, had attended Central High several years earlier, but when he entered the school in that day on September in 1957, school registrar Ernestine Opie didn’t even look up when he entered the office, asking, “What do you want, Riddick?”)
In another surprising turn of events, when Joanne Riddick mentioned the film in a meeting in August with a UA Little Rock archivist, she learned the center had in its possession a report Walter Riddick had made of the trips to Central to make photographs. It had been in a box she’d previously donated to the UA Little Rock Center for Arkansas History and Culture.*
In the statement, which he writes was “made in connection with an official investigation being conducted by the FBI,” Riddick, who was there with Assistant U.S. Attorney James Gallman, mentions seeing a “Negro boy about 16 years of age standing at the corner of the Central High School grounds” between two armored trucks. The boy was Terrence Roberts. After talking to guardsmen, Riddick reported, the boy walked away. The report continues:
“About the time the boy walked away, a number of persons who had been crowded around him, and others, ran Eastward across Park Street to a bench located at a bus stop on 16th Street immediately east of Park Street. On that bench was a small colored girl whose surname I later learned was ECKFORD. She was surrounded by some 30 to 40 people, most of whom appeared to be photographers or newsmen. On the fringes of this group, there were a number of people milling around, one of whom was vociferous in his advice to the crowd not to disclose anyone’s address. This same man kept shouting something to the effect that the country might as well be given away to the Communists.”
On Sept. 5, Riddick returned and climbed to the top of a military truck to observe the crowd. Among the crowd of 200 people standing in front of the school on Park Street were small groups of 30 to 50 individuals he described as “quite agitated.”
“Various persons in these groups were distributing mimeographed petitions. In my judgment, the members of these small groups had arrived at an emotional state that could have become quite dangerous on short notice.”
Henry has tried to identify people in the film. The identity of the man interviewing Eckford, seen in several of the shots, remains a mystery, as is the figure with a newsreel camera aimed at her.
Photographs of Eckford and the crisis at Central High are well known. In the scheme of things, how valuable are more photographs of an event that was covered in the pages of newspapers across the country, including Life magazine and other pictorial journals?
Very, said historian and editor of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas Guy Lancaster. “So many of the photographs used to represent the Central High crisis focus upon the drama of the specific individuals involved,” he said, “but these capture the scope of the crowds and give the viewer a sense of the chaos Faubus and his cronies unleashed upon Little Rock.”
Taking the photographs as the crisis unfolded would have been dramatic. Riddick, Henry said, “didn’t know what was going to happen. He was just there to watch.”
Henry has made copies of the negatives for her Blue-Eyed Knocker Photo Club to print and high-resolution scans to go with the originals for archival research.
“If the virus hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have had time,” she said.
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the materials were going to the Ottenheimer Library.