On September 4th, 2018, Elizabeth Eckford walked slowly down Park Street to sit on a special commemorative bench dedicated in her name. Surrounded by an applauding crowd of over 300 people, Ms. Eckford was escorted with honor by students, including the team from the Little Rock Central High Memory Project that led the effort to create and install the bench. Ms. Eckford reflected on her historic experience after the racially diverse group of students presented their work to an audience that included numerous community sponsors and civic leaders. The moving event was covered by local and state press and featured in the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Honoring a civil rights hero, healing the wounds of history
The dedication ceremony took place on the sixty-first anniversary of the day when a young Ms. Eckford rushed down the same street to sit on the original city bus bench. That day in 1957, she was pursued by an angry white mob that opposed allowing her to integrate Central High School as a member of the Little Rock Nine. The bench now dedicated to her is a faithful replica of the one at which she took refuge from the mob.
The iconic, painful photographs of Ms. Eckford, only a girl at the time, have etched themselves into American history, a permanent record of the sacrifices endured by civil rights pioneers. That day was only the beginning of a long year of abuses from white students who objected to attending school with black students. In her speech at the bench dedication, Ms. Eckford referred to her long struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder after her high school years, but she added an unforgettable postscript. “I don’t cry anymore when I talk about the past, and that is because of the efforts of students,” Ms. Eckford said. “It is very, very endearing when students want to know about the past.”
Students design bench, mobile app for living history walking tour
The students on the Memory Project team researched and edited a living history walking tour adapted as a mobile app for digital devices. Now, visitors to the Little Rock Central High Historic Site can listen on their cell phones to the sounds of the time and hear about the desegregation crisis moment by moment as they retrace Ms. Eckford’s steps. The Memory Project student team also participated in the bench construction, and they are still at work on an ongoing oral history podcast project.
The initial momentum for the project came from student Adaja Cooper, who realized she could design the bench on her EAST classroom computer. Adaja spoke at the National Rotary Club meeting in Central High’s library on Martin Luther King Day, and the Rotary Club was inspired by her speech to pledge a generous $15,000. Stella Cameron (LRCH media specialist), Tamara McCormack (EAST Lab Facilitator) and David Kilton (NPS Ranger) worked with students to plan the event. CALS Butler Center historian George West mentored the team throughout the project. Many other individuals and organizations contributed time and financial support (see endnote).
Students gain insight, context from historical project
Jessie Bates, a junior at Central High, worked with the National Park Service and Oncell to create the app to house the walking tour, including an audio transcript and historical photos. She found her work rewarding. “The project provides a more personal view of the history we’re so familiar with,” she said. “Textbooks often gloss over it, but reading the primary sources in the words of the students who were there helps us connect to the history.”
Zaria Moore, also a junior working on the Memory Project, said that she enjoyed coming up with ideas to “bring history back,” such as the bench. “I appreciate getting to meet people who made history, like the Little Rock Nine,” she said. Zaria is related to another member of the Little Rock Nine, Thelma Mothershed-Wair, a connection that reflects the personal relevance of the 1957 crisis to so many people still living in Little Rock.
Words of courage and grace
Ms. Eckford conveyed dignity and peace as she described her successful decades-long journey to come to terms with her past experiences at Central High. Her stated desire to continue working toward “true reconciliation” exemplified the engagement and grace that has made her a beloved figure in the city. The CALS Butler Center salutes Ms. Eckford for her contribution to Little Rock and to American society. Thanks to the student team on the Memory Project for the successful completion of this well-deserved monument to a life of sacrifice and bravery.
The Elizabeth Eckford Commemorative Bench project was a collaboration between the Central High Memory Project and the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site (administered by the National Park Service). Other community partners included the Central Arkansas Library System’s Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, Bullock Temple C.M.E., Central High School and their EAST LAB, the Little Rock School District, the City of Little Rock, Good Earth Garden Center, Friends of Central High Museum Inc., Home Depot, Little Rock Club 99 and other Rotary International Clubs, Washitaw Foothills Youth Media Arts & Literacy Collective, Unity in the Community, Central High Museum Inc., and others.