While the history of the integration of the Little Rock School District is largely overshadowed by the 1957 crisis at Central High School, 25 young African-Americans also faced daunting challenges in following years when they desegregated the city’s junior high schools.
On Saturday, many will be sharing their stories, some for the first time publicly, as part of the celebration of African American history month.
Dr. LaVerne Bell-Tolliver, who today is an associate professor in the UALR School of Social Work, will be among those taking part in the event. In the fall of 1961, she became the first African American to attend Forest Heights Junior High, which is today known as Forest Heights Middle School.
That year, Little Rock implemented phase two of its desegregation efforts for students in grades seven through nine as part of court-ordered desegregation.
Bell-Tolliver expected she would be joined by another black student at Forest Heights, but that girl’s parents changed their minds, leaving Bell-Tolliver to be the only African American student in what had been an all-white school.
"That was a shocking experience. It was one that was extremely frightening. In that year there were four junior highs that were being desegregated. Some of the other students also report some forms of violence that occurred for them, but none of them in that year in particular were alone," Bell-Tolliver said.
"I was pushed, I was called certain names. The most that would usually happen would be that I was alone and that people didn’t talk to me for the most part."
Bell-Tolliver says none of her white classmates befriended her. Some would occasionally speak to her during class, she said, but not outside of class.
"You have to understand there was pressure on them to make sure that they conformed to their standards," Bell-Tolliver said.
During Saturday’s event, she’ll be joined by some of the other students who integrated junior high schools that year, including Glenda Wilson, who attended East Side, Judge Kathleen Bell of Pulaski Heights, Henry Rodgers and Wilburnette Walls Randolph who went to Southwest, and Dr. Kenneth Jones and Judge Joyce Williams Warren who attended West Side Junior High.
It’s part of a larger effort to document the experiences of the 25 students, Bell-Tolliver says, with a book to eventually be published by the University of Arkansas Press.
"I have gone around the country interviewing a number of those students that I’ve been able to locate. To this date, I believe we have about 17 interviews. This is important because this information has never been told. Many of the students have started writing or did start writing about their experiences, but never quite finished, so they were excited to be a part of this process, this journey, where their voices could be heard."
Phase II: The Desegregation of Little Rock Public Schools with Dr. LaVerne Bell-Tolliver
Saturday, February 21, 9:00 to 11:30 a.m.
Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
2120 W. Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive
Little Rock, AR 72202