Two members of President Obama’s cabinet visited Little Rock Tuesday, getting a firsthand look at the historic Central High School. It was part of a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.
Walking in front of the school, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx were told the story of how it was there that one of the nine black students who integrated the school in 1957 was surrounded alone by an angry white mob. They also met with that former student, Elizabeth Eckford, and another of the nine, Thelma Mothershed-Wair.
"It’s so humbling to listen to people who actually took that walk in 1957 describing what they wanted, which was an education: an education without hand-me-down books; an education without inferior facilities, but an expectation that they as human beings should aspire to what everyone else aspires to," Foxx told reporters afterward.
The situation pitted then-Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who was opposed to the integration of the all-white school, against President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a crisis that drew international attention. Today Central and a visitors center across the street is a National Historic Site, having received that designation by legislation signed by President Bill Clinton in 1998.
"This is an important site that tells the story of our country's struggle for civil rights," said Secretary Jewell. "It's a place where nine students and their brave parents came and integrated this school."
Jewell and Fox said it was the first time either had visited the city.
They also met behind closed doors with area leaders, said to include Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, Little Rock School District Superintendent Michael Poore and Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO Gretchen Hall. The discussion included the importance of preserving such places and how they can be economic engines for local communities.
Secretary Jewell said they also talked about the importance of planning.
"How can we continue working closer together at every level of government, between transportation and historic preservation or parks and so on, to make our cities richer and more connected. So, there was a lot of discussion about how highways can bisect cities, and they have in this city, and how we have examples of bringing them together."
Secretary Foxx said they also talked about the rails-to-trails program, with federal funds going to convert former railroad beds into pedestrian and bicycle trails. One such plan seeks to link Little Rock with Hot Springs.