National Park Service Honors Member Of The Little Rock Nine With Commemorative Bench

May 17, 2018

A mock up of what the bench will look like on display at the groundbreaking.
Credit Colton Faull/KUAR News

The National Park Service is celebrating the groundbreaking of a replica city bench where Little Rock Nine member, Elizabeth Eckford, sought refuge during the 1957 desegregation crisis.

On September 4th, 1957 Eckford sat on a bench at the corner of Park and 16th street, after walking through a mob of protestors to enter Central High School. She was the only member of the Little Rock Nine to show up that day because hers was the only family that didn't have a telephone.

Recalling the incident that occurred when Eckford was 15-years-old she told Art History Hub:

"I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the mob—anybody who maybe would help. I looked into the face of an old woman, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me. I turned back to the guards, but their faces told me I wouldn't get any help from them. Then I looked down the block and saw a bench at a bus stop. 'If I can only get there, I will be safe.' I don't know why the bench seemed a safe place to me, but I started walking towards it. I tried to close my mind to what they were shouting and I kept saying to myself, 'If only I can make it to the bench, I'll be safe.'"

Elizabeth Eckford sitting on the bench in 1957.
Credit University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Now the National Park Service is recreating that bench in to commemorate Eckford's story. The memorial is also a part of Central High School's memory project, which aims to preserve the history of the building. Eckford says she was surprised when students wanted to return the bench to its original spot.

"The thing that impresses me the most is when students from the memory project went and made a presentation to Rotary International, they got pledges from one group after another," she says. "They got most of the money they needed just from that presentation and it's an example of the power of language."

David Kilton with the National Park Service says the power of place is important and hopes visitors will feel the same way.

"I think the commemorative bench and the opportunity to learn about the story and then sit in that place and reflect on what Elizabeth experienced that day is going to be so much more powerful than even what we might be able to tell as we do mass research and relay what happened at those events," he says.

Kilton also says they are constructing a backup bench.

"They will be building two benches so in case one of them starts wearing down, we can actually bring in another one in while the other is being refurbished," he explains. "They're being built in the basement of Central High actually."

Sanford Tollette, who spoke at the groundbreaking and is a graduate from Central High, said Eckford's story had a major impact on him.

"Well I was a little boy but I learned aobut her courage, her dignity, her belief that she was equal as a human being," says Tolette. "That, because her skin was dark, didn't mean she was less than a human being. But she had to go through an unbelievable dehumanizing experience and to be the beautiful well-spoken lady you heard today is a testament."

The new bench is expected to be installed on September 4th of this year to coincide with Eckford's anniversary.