“On May 23, 1961,” Dr. LaVerne Bell-Tolliver writes in the opening lines of her new book, “the Little Rock School Board designated twenty-five students to be the first African-Americans (then called “Negroes” or “Coloreds”) to attend four of the five public Little Rock junior high schools.” For the next 18 pages, the story is straightforward, easily digested. Although it deals with a branch of history that’s been largely overshadowed by its counterpart—the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in 1957—the overview that these pages provide is clear and concise and lays a contextual foundation for what’s to follow. It’s an account that is, in tone and timbre, like so many others.
The second part, however, is what makes it stand apart from so many histories of that era. If the first section was a photograph, then the second section—appropriately titled “Our Stories”—is where the formerly still image starts to move, speak, come to life. For just over 200 pages, we hear, firsthand, from 18 of the 25 students who integrated the once exclusively white junior high schools. The stories they tell are candid and raw. Now so many years removed from their experiences, the students give intimate accounts of their lives then—the loneliness, the prejudice, the small bits of joy they found day to day.
It can be a shocking thing, to hear these that had been silent for so long. As Dr. Bell-Tolliver writes, “This oral history approach provides them with something they did not have in 1961 and 1962: the opportunity to break the silence.” In the excerpt that follows, we hear from the individual who desegregated Forest Heights Junior High School—the only instance where there was just one African-American student who went to class. The student in question? Dr. Bell-Tolliver herself. —jph
My name is LaVerne Bell-Tolliver. I attended Forest Heights Junior High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1961. … I was the only one to attend that school for the first two years, the seventh and eighth grades. In the ninth grade, two other students attended with me, but [for] those first two years, I was the only African-American student there.
Did you know the other two students who came in your ninth-grade year before they attended?
I knew one of them. … She lived a few blocks over [from my house]. The other student, I did not know.
And you completed all three grades there?
Yes, I did.
What … were your experiences … with the white community before you attended school?
I had no experience beyond being cursed at or treated in some harsh manner. Let me explain that. When I was in the first through the third grade, attending Stephens Elementary—I attended there … through my sixth grade—[for] the first few years, my family and I lived on a street just behind that school. … That was totally African-American. That neighborhood was insulated. We had no contact with … the white community. …
The children didn’t have contact beyond … the local grocery store owner. … His store [was] right down the street from our house. Other than that, everyone else was African-American. Our stores were on what is called Ninth Street here in Little Rock, and the movie theater was there, the hairdressers, the doctors—everyone was located on Ninth Street. I didn’t know any different. … The summer of my third-grade year, I believe, we moved to 24th Street, and everything changed. There were very few African-Americans there.
When I’d walk to the store, that is when I was met with a lot of hatred. … People who were driving cars [would] throw things out of their windows, call me derogatory names and otherwise try to make life very negative. So that was my experience with the white community before I went to junior high school.
What experiences stand out in your mind from your junior high days?
You know, it’s funny that it’s usually the harsh ones that stand out in my mind. … I’ll try to also think about some positive ones as well. … The first one was the first day of school when my mother took me to school. … I could tell that she was pretty anxious, pretty nervous, even though she didn’t say anything during that time. She drove me to school.
That day I remembered her holding my hand. … This school … was in an affluent area. … Children of privilege were attending that school. So there was not outwardly on that first day the name calling or yelling or jeering or any of that. … When we walked through the crowd that was standing around the door, waiting for the school to open, one little child said “Hi.” … I could tell that my mother was calmer right then. … She left, but that was the last time that child said anything to me. No one else said anything … on that particular day. … The other memories that I have are of people who would … push one person onto me and say, “Is the color going to rub off on you?” or “Is the black going to come off on you?” to that person’s friend.
People … ignored me, which was more often the case. … I don’t know if anyone can express how [it] feels to be ignored for so many years. Most of the time, no one said anything to me at all other than those few people who would taunt me in different kinds of ways. … Now there were people in class, and I think it was maybe the second year or the third year, who might say something or talk to me, one or two people—in class—and that was about it. But they wouldn’t say anything outside of class. … There was this somewhat-understood pact that I might be talked to inside the class. That’s as far as the students went. There were a couple of teachers that seemed to be at least—I wouldn’t say friendly, but accommodating in some kind of way. I had a home economics teacher who was rather kind, and even though there were several negative incidences that happened out of her sight … in the home ec class, they didn’t happen while she was around, so she wouldn’t have known some things. It’s amazing how students can find ways to do things.
The gym teacher—I learned years later when we were talking at some kind of reunion—seemed to have attempted to befriend me, although at the time, I didn’t understand that. But she [said she] really was hoping … I would join some of the organizations. I had no knowledge. I did join the pep squad, by … the way. I had a choir teacher who allowed me to join … the group. I say “allowed” because I was hoarse at the time that I was trying out, both years. … So I don’t know if he ever knew whether I could sing or not, but that was so kind! (Laughs.)
I also remember one teacher who did a kindness. I’m not sure if she was kind, but she did a kindness … and that was a day when it was minus 5 degrees. I happened to arrive at school … so early that the doors of the buildings were locked. … She saw me standing against the wall trying to just find a way to keep warm. … Initially she unlocked her door and was preparing to walk in, and … turned around, and just told me to come on into the room. She never said a word to me or anything [during that time]. It was my teacher, by the way. … But she never said a word to me. But she allowed me to come into the room where it was warm. That was a kindness.
Did you attend a predominantly white high school as well?
Yes, I did. … I attended Hall High School, and some of the school board record’s meeting notes indicate that they really wanted to keep that—I don’t know a polite way to say it—but as white as possible. So … they deliberately did not allow very many African-Americans to attend. It does not appear that … many African-Americans wanted to attend. … They wanted to attend Central, more than likely. And the school district lines kept changing, so that if more African-Americans lived in that area, all of a sudden the school district lines changed again. … Consequently there [were] never any more than nine or ten students … that were African-American in that school at the time that I was there. I think there were about seven in my class, so I never attended … any class that had any other African-Americans in the class. … Nevertheless, … having five to seven students [attending the school] was a huge difference to me. … I felt much more comfortable. There were people that were sitting with me at lunch.
I forgot to mention that when I was in junior high school, absolutely no one ever … sat with me at lunch, except for when I was in the ninth grade and those two students were there. But I had become so desensitized to the situation, I couldn’t even appreciate the fact that two students were there by that time. … By the time that I went to high school, I knew a couple of the students, and I was just so excited to be able to have someone to sit with me. It was so different, not being ignored, … even though the same can’t be said of being in the gymnasium during assemblies or those kinds of things, because similar things would happen. … When I was in junior high school, I would have a whole row to myself … because no one would sit on the row. In the high school, they would just not sit on either side of me, or they would ask for me to scoot down … so that their friends could sit with them. … I think the difference for me, being in junior high and high school, was that I knew that there were other African-Americans that were there, … and I felt better at that time.
How do you think your experiences [of] attending a white school influenced your adult life?
I think that it has had untold effects on my adult life, in that it affects the way that I need space to myself. I think … even if I had attended other schools, I probably would have been more of an introvert, but I need huge amounts of space. … I have, on the other hand, learned how to do things by myself because of the fact that I had to do them then. … It has also affected, unfortunately, relationships … because I never learned how to … during that time, junior high and high school, is where you develop socially, emotionally, and all of those kinds of things. So it’s been a challenge to learn how to relate from that social aspect. I can do very well in a work environment or where there’s a purpose, something to accomplish … because that’s what I learned in school. I learned how to accomplish tasks … and to move forward … those kinds of things. … I have been successful in the work world and in the professional settings. … But in that emotional setting, that’s the piece that still seems to have ragged edges or gaps, no matter how hard I’ve worked on that piece. …
How do you think your actions [of] desegregating the schools influenced our community and our city?
I look around this community now that I’ve returned to Arkansas, and I see, really, some positives and some negatives. The positives seem to be that on the surface, people do seem to get along a little bit better interracially. From time to time, there seems to be more interaction; there are people that are employed at a lot of different levels. … There’s been an African-American mayor here, and there’s an African-American city manager. Those situations would have never occurred without desegregation beginning in the schools and in other types of areas, so that is a positive kind of thing. Even the fact that people are able to live in the [state] of Arkansas in various communities—maybe not in every community … that seems to be positive.
On the other hand, with regard to the schools, things are in a horrible situation. There’s what you call “re-segregation” in many areas. Even though—say, for instance, at Central High and in other places, people attend the schools that are Caucasian and African-American … Latinos attend those schools—they re-segregated in certain areas. … There are many more charter schools and other types of private schools where many Caucasians attend. In some ways people have re-segregated.
Ninth Street, I just can’t help but mention how our black community was decimated … decimated. People lost jobs as teachers in the various schools. Businesses just completely went away because of the desegregation process. … I think there’s a complex way of looking at it. It’s not all good or all bad, but some people lost almost everything. … I think that may also speak to why the students are not performing as well. We lost something else, culturally, that we haven’t been able to regain. Whereas, in the past, the strengths of the African-American families that I really hold dearly and have researched, education, and hard work ethic, and extended family—those kinds of things have taken a huge hit … in part as a result of the desegregation process.
What recommendations would you have for parents who were contemplating placing their child into an environment where the child will be a minority?
I would recommend to the parents that they think long and hard about that … and consider whether … they have provided that child with the proper care, confidence, consideration that they need to have in order to help that child be prepared to be okay wherever they are. Consider whether or not they as a family are able and willing and committed to talking with each other more in a democratic style, if they’re committed to listening to that child. Explore that decision, and whether they’re willing to support that child throughout the entire process. All children are not able to handle situations along that line. … Whether it’s a racial issue, or whether there’s something else that would place that child in a minority role, they need to have every type of emotional and spiritual support possible to be able to make that move into that community. … As a child, being seen as different is a reason for many people to bully them, or to cause challenges for them. … Some children would not be able to handle that. Making the decision to place a child, whether it’s in an academic setting or in other places, might be helpful for them in terms of making progress … academically or physically or whatever. However, it may hamper them, as it did for me, in many other areas. So the child needs to have parents who understand the potential repercussions and are willing to provide that network of support in all those other areas. … They also need to have a strong faith network and a strong ability to plug into God, because … that child will need to be able to have that resource available. If they don’t have that, I would not place that child there. Of course they would still need that wherever they’re going, … but they would need it so much more when they are intentionally placing that child in a situation where they will be … different, and they will be seen as different.
Excerpt courtesy University of Arkansas Press. For more information, visit uapress.com/product/the-first-twenty-five.