Dedication of the Elizabeth Eckford Commemorative Bench: Honoring a Courageous American Life

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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.

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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).

ColinandMilofromGeorge1Students 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.”

MsEckfordStudentsBenchBrighterZaria 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

MsEckfordPodiumMs. 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.BenchPhotofromGeorge Crop

Panel Discussion on Japanese American Internment Camps Harnesses the Power of History for Positive Change

“Just the other day, they were talking about building another [immigrant prison] camp in Kelso, Arkansas. Whether you are a Republican or Democrat, a liberal or conservative, you know that’s a bad idea. I was out there the other day at Kelso. You could see the smokestack of the Rohwer camp from that site.” Richard Yada

RelocationPanelwithVivienneThe Ron Robinson Theater was filled with memory, emotion, and hope on Friday, July 13 at an unforgettable screening of Relocation, Arkansas: Aftermath of Incarceration.

Sponsored by the CALS Butler Center, the Clinton School for Public Service, and the Arkansas Psychological Association, the screening was followed by a panel discussion. Survivors and descendants of Japanese American internment camps appeared in person for the discussion, led by director Vivienne Schiffer.  President Bill Clinton was in attendance along with many leaders and well-known social justice figures from recent Arkansan history.

RelocationFilmIn the present day, the United States government faces an ethical crisis sparked by the incarceration of thousands of immigrants in prison camps. The audience heard in person from survivors of a similar imprisonment in American history that scarred psyches and families for decades. Testimony from survivors, descendants, and witnesses of past injustice brought home the power of historical lessons to change our present-day actions.

The film Relocation, Arkansas examines the aftermath of the internment of Japanese Americans in prison camps during World War II, when a wave of paranoia and prejudice caused the US government to imprison over 100,000 Japanese Americans nationwide. The families in the film were among the 8000 imprisoned in the Rohwer camp in Arkansas.

WomanRohwerPortraitThe incarceration had lifelong consequences not only for survivors, but for their children. The incarceration deprived these families of their jobs, their communities, and their homes, and left them to start over in strange towns. Even after release, the families still faced intense prejudice from many in the American population.

Paul Takemoto, cast member, grew up knowing that his mother Alice had survived the Rohwer incarceration. He had difficulty understanding or accepting the effects of that traumatic history on his own life and identity. At the age of 46, he met Rosalie Santine Gould, former mayor of McGehee, Arkansas, who had dedicated herself to supporting and hosting the survivors of the Arkansas internment camps.

“Sometimes you have these transformative single moments or events in life,” Mr. Takemoto said in the panel discussion. “For me, that event was hearing Ms. Rosalie talk about honoring the memory of events and people I had done my best to forget. There’s no greater gift you can give someone than their pride, and that’s what Ms. Rosalie did for us.”

Mr. Takemoto went on to relate how the artwork created by Japanese Americans incarcerated at Rohwer had been willed to Rosalie Gould, and was now on display at the Butler Center.

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President Clinton with film director Vivienne Schiffer and activist Rosalie Santine Gould

“Giving Ms. Rosalie their art was the most appropriate gift [survivors] could give,” Mr. Takemoto said. “Places like the Butler Center are now using that art as an expression of the humanness of the experience.”

Rev. Don Campbell, also on the panel, was in high school in Arkansas during the incarceration. He described the silence about the camps in the American media. “I read two newspapers a day and never heard of the camps until the summer of 1945 as a freshman at Yale.”

Rev. Campbell spoke movingly of the prejudice that dominated American culture then. “I think you need to know the mindset in this country at the time. I remember saying that we might one day make peace with the Germans, but that the Japanese were not human. I believed that because all the movies and propaganda depicted the Japanese as fierce and subhuman. You need to know how powerful propaganda can be, and how it can change people’s minds. And we need to remember that today.”

His words were followed by a loud burst of applause.

Director Vivienne ‘Lie’ Schiffer pointed out the courage of the Takemoto family, Richard Yada, and the others in the film who had exposed their personal lives with vulnerability in order to preserve the history of the camps and their consequences.

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Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine greets Alice and Paul Takemoto

That bravery was apparent to Elizabeth Eckford, a member of the Little Rock Nine who appeared in the film and was present at the screening. Ms. Eckford knows personally of racial prejudice and its effects, and though she had seen the film before, she saw a new aspect at this screening. “What struck me this time,” she said, “was that the older generation of survivors was reluctant to talk about this experience. So it was very brave that Paul’s mother [Alice Takemoto], was willing to come forward and speak in the film.”

The clear injustice and cruelty faced by the families in the film left attendees deeply moved.

WomanTraditionalPortraitAttendee Mariah Hatta said, “That is the hardest film I’ve ever watched. I am Japanese American, and my father is still a Japanese national. He fought in the Japanese army during World War II.”

Another attendee, Liz, had a very personal connection to the film. “My father was an assistant administrator at the Jerome camp [the other Arkansas internment camp]. I was living there when I was 3 or 4, though I don’t remember it. But the film gave me a new perspective, because my father never talked about it.”

Skip Rutherford, Dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, said, “The timeliness of the film can’t be overstated. We never thought it could happen again, but here we are today facing many of the same issues.”

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Butler Center Director David Stricklin and George West escort guests of honor Paul and Alice Takemoto

Butler Center Director David Stricklin said, “The CALS Butler Center work on the story of the camps in Arkansas is easily one of the most important things we’ve ever done. It is heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time.”

At the close of the panel discussion, Rev. Campbell emphasized both the need for action and hope for the present day. After telling the audience how certain young Arkansans had voiced fiercely racist sentiments and shunned the Rohwer survivors after their release, he explained that those persecutors later became the chief defenders of the Japanese Americans in school. He reminded the audience of one simple truth.

“Prejudice can be overcome.”

The artwork of the Rohwer camp survivors is now on display at the CALS Butler Center in Concordia Hall through December. The exhibition is a reflection on American identity entitled “A Matter of Mind and Heart.”