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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

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A Tale of Two Cities, Part I

When my parents came to Little Rock for our wedding in 1997 (more on that very soon), one of the first things they wanted to do was visit Central High.

In 1957, fifty years ago this week, nine black teenagers attempted to enroll at Central, opposed by a hostile mob and the National Guard. Federal troops were sent by President Eisenhower to enforce integration. My parents were also teenagers at the time, living in small towns in New Brunswick and Newfoundland. I don't know that either of them ever met a black person before they reached adulthood. There was a literal and cultural ocean of distance between their experience and what was happening in Little Rock, and across the American south. But Central High was as meaningful a landmark of their growing-up years as John F. Kennedy and Sputnik.

And they wanted to see it.

"Okay," I said, dubiously, "but it's down in the 'hood."

Central High, a magnificent art deco building of yellow brick, is planted squarely on the south side of I-630, the freeway that neatly slices this city into black and white. Or rather, the freeway was thrust to the north side of it, in the seventies. I've heard that local rappers call the 630 "the wall". It's a good name for it. The Wall runs east-west, an artery to get white collar workers from downtown offices to gated communities and big box stores in the western suburbs. For a couple of blocks to the north, the racial divide is slightly blurred (police responding to a break-in at the home of friends in that area told them they lived in the "transition zone"). But beyond that, north is white. South is black. It doesn't take a sociology degree to extrapolate on which side property values fall and crime rates rise. Steeply.

In 1997 the National Park Service opened the Central High Museum and Visitor Center. The city was still grappling with a gang crisis that had been the subject of a 1994 HBO documentary, Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock. I remember scoffing when an acquaintance warned me against driving in a certain neighborhood. He was a good white liberal, a socialist and an expatriate, and I assumed he was being faecetious. Because who better to pass judgement on racial attitudes in the south than we who had never had to dwell in proximity to a sizeable, marginalized, minority population?

"I'm deadly serious, sweetheart," Nick said, his lilting Scottish accent diluted only slightly by his years in America. He drove his point home with tales of his own close encounters with random gunfire on the streets. Streets that were a short, wrong turn away from Central High.

Nonetheless, my folks wanted to see Central, and I drove them to it. My Dad was content to look around the campus, but my mother wanted to stay and visit the museum, so we dropped her off and I picked her up later.

"Why do they call it the Hood?", she asked innocently, gazing through the passenger side window at the once-gracious, turn-of-the-century homes that surround the school. I think she thought it was the official name, like something you'd see emblazoned on banners attached to lampposts. Welcome to the Historic Hood District.

I explained that it was slang for "neighborhood", and that it was synomynous with "ghetto". As we drove past boarded up doors and broken out windows, I told her what happened after Ike's troops and the international media withdrew from Central High. After one of the nine, Ernest Green, became the first African-American to graduate from Central High, the city's public schools were shut down to prevent further integration from taking place the next academic year. One year from the day the nine entered Central, Little Rock citizens voted 19,470 to 7,561 against integration. The district's schools were closed until a newly constituted school board reopened them on August 12, 1959, a "dark day," in the words of then Governor Orval Faubus.

I explained to her what "white flight" was, and how after integration, there had been an exodus of white familes to the west, and that the establishment of most of the city's private schools coincided with this era. I told her how Patrick's mother grew up around the corner from Central High, graduating with the class of '57, but that I couldn't show her the wonderful, rambling house that Patrick so warmly remembered from his childhood, because it had been torn down after the family moved his grandmother out. The neighbourhood was well into its decline by that point. I told her about gangs, and crackhouses, and drivebys.

My mother's face was crestfallen. I might as well have told her the moon landing had been faked, and we were still in Vietnam.

"What was it all for, then?" she asked. "What's changed?" I remember her voice sounding very young and small.

I turned onto the overpass to cross the ironically-named "free" way—the Wall—and headed back north. Exit here for White, here for Safe.

"I don't know," I said. "I don't know."

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Blogger Prisca said...

This story breaks my heart but I'm so glad you wrote it. The national media have been doing so much coverage on the historic 50 year anniversary that I really hadn't heard the back story about what happened in the following years. It is so painful to hear how little things DO seem to have changed.

I'm also in the South and the 60+ year olds I encounter who are willing to talk about segregation STILL believe that once the doors to Central (and its peer schools)were open everything was fine and the playing field leveled. Blessedly, I hear a different attitude from my contemporaries. Still a LONG way to go, though.

12:18 PM  
Blogger Meg said...

I am just returning to my desk after hearing a presentation by Doug Jones, the US Attorney who prosecuted and successfully won a conviction of 2 of the Birmingham Church bombers. The story was chilling-his victory 40 years later was inspiring.
But I can't help but think about all the modern day parallels--of all the hate that still exists in this country--that exists around the world. It is so dangerous to think that this is history-water under the bridge.
He ended his talk with a warning of complacency--of thinking we have won the battles and of allowing ourselves to slide back or worse still to think that it is all right now. Its true--both the economic reality in this country and the climate of hate around immigrantion in this country should give us all pause. Thank you for writing this piece

1:03 PM  
Blogger patsyrose said...

It's interesting that you write about segregated schools in the south and how battles were fought to bring about integration.

Here in Ontario we have a different kind of fight on our hands. Religious groups are demanding their own segregated schools, fearing the mixture of races and religions in a public school.

How can we ever learn to understand and accept our differences if we're kept apart? How can we ever learn the beauty of an interesting culture not our own if we "keep to our own".

Segregation just doesn't make sense.

6:51 PM  
Blogger Jen K-C said...

This is a conversation that could go on for a long time. What have we really learned? I live in a city that is broken into four quadrants and the differing socio-economic backgrounds in each quadrant is noticed and talked about, the invisible walls are hard to break down. I am familiar with the story of Central and I am glad it is still being told. Lest we forget.

9:44 PM  
Blogger Meghan said...

Beautifully poignant.

9:57 PM  
Blogger bluebird of paradise said...

beautifully written about a very important subject........the not so invisiblle lines.........

2:25 PM  
Blogger Jonivan said...

I went to Central for 1 year of High school and Its such a weird experience being there and knowing what history went on but still the school is almost/is dangerous today. I rode the county bus which was short (ha!) and I remember ducking and diving down to the bushes one afternoon when a car full of my classmates sped past in driveby fashion to scare the hell out of all the rest of us.

What strange environments these southern states produced and how I love and hate them at the same time.

5:13 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

Kyran, I think my students need to read your blog post. We recently read Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun and many of my (all white) students seem to think that racism is over and that segregated neighborhoods don't exist and that the 1950s are this antiquated and backward time in American history.

7:16 PM  
Blogger Kyran said...

Julie, bring 'em on. :)

I love all the insightful and provocative comments here.

Part II is percolating.


9:01 AM  

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