Located in Little Rock, Arkansas, Little Rock Central High School is a notable site of the American Civil Rights Movement, serving as a focal point of mandated school desegregation with the integration of nine African-American students in 1957. Though the school still operates as an accredited Arkansas state public high school, the site’s historic significance is commemorated as part of a National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service, offering tours and multimedia exhibits.
The high school’s origins come out of the Sherman School, established in 1869, which operated out of a small wooden structure on the corner of the city’s Sherman and 8th Streets. The school was renamed the Scott Street School as the result of a facility move in 1885, although it was commonly referred to as City High School during this period. The school was combined with the nearby Peabody School in 1905, moving to a new facility at the corner of 14th and Cumberland Streets. The combined school, named Little Rock Senior High School, renamed to Little Rock Central High School in 1953, was intended to serve as the city’s only public high school.
The current school building was constructed in 1927, modeled after the Gothic Revival architectural style. At a final budget of $1.5 million in construction expenses, the school was billed as the nation’s largest and most elaborate high school building, with its opening drawing national attention. At the time of its opening, the school only served white students, but the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s fostered increased public concern over the issue of segregation in the public school system. The culmination of the debate was the landmark Brown v. Board Supreme Court case of 1954, which declared segregation unconstitutional and mandated the integration of public schools throughout the country.
The upholding of the Supreme Court decision facilitated an integration crisis in the city of Little Rock, which culminated in a denial of entrance for nine African-American students at Little Rock Central High School on September 23, 1957. A mob of more than 1,000 protesters met the students at the school’s doors in the morning, resulting in the issuing of United States Army protections to escort the students to school the next morning. The escorting event was the first major test for the Supreme Court decision’s implementation and resulted in a delay of full integration for the state until the start of the 1960 school year.
In 1977, the school was added to the National Register of Historic Places for its role in the American Civil Rights Movement. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1982, and in 1992, an adjacent facility was established as a National Historic Site, under the operation of the National Park Service.
Permanent Attractions and Exhibits
Today, a Visitor Center, opened in fall of 2006, operates across the street from the high school, serving as the main site for the Historic Site park. Open daily throughout the year, the Center offers a range of multimedia exhibits contextualizing the events of the Civil Rights Movement that led to the desegregation mandate, and a short interpretive film is shown periodically, chronicling the events of the Little Rock Integration Crisis. Nearby, the Central High Commemorative Garden memorial, designed by Michael Warrick, showcases nine trees and benches to honor the Little Rock Nine, and features archways with embedded photographs of integrated students participating in school activities. Across the street, a Mobil gas station, formerly used as a site for news reporters and later as a makeshift visitor center, remains preserved in its condition at the time of the integration.
Ongoing Programs and Events
Guided tours of the high school are offered twice daily on most days aside from holidays, school breaks, and student body special event days. Tours embark from the Visitor Center facility and cover school facilities and grounds as daily student body activities allow. An elevator within the school provides handicap access for tour participants with disabilities. As the school is an operating public education facility, tours are provided by reservation only and must be made at least 24 hours in advance, although scheduling of at least two weeks in advance is recommended. Field trip opportunities are also available for school groups, incorporating history and social studies curriculum.
Periodic events are held at the high school in commemoration of its role in the Civil Rights Movement, including lectures, workshops, and public talks regarding diversity topics. Cultural events, including concerts highlighting African-American music styles and film screenings pertaining to the Civil Rights Movement, are also hosted at the school’s auditorium. A yearly Civil Rights Educator Institute professional development program is offered, bringing together educators and cultural activists for discussion of diversity issues facing modern public schools.
2120 W. Daisy Gatson Bates Drive, Little Rock, AR 72202, Phone: 501-374-1957