In early September 1957, every student at Little Rock Central High School was white. Today, a majority of its students are minority, and most are Black. They owe their presence there to the nine brave Black students who desegregated the school 65 years ago.
Central High’s significance in the battle for civil rights makes it a logical start to civil rights tours in the Arkansas capital. The school is a top 10 site on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.
Central High School is a National Historic Site
As students study inside the yellow brick walls of Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, visitors pour into the visitors center to learn about the events of September 1957. They are reminded that the situation was so volatile that President Eisenhower called in the military to protect the Little Rock Nine as they faced verbal, psychological and physical assaults.
Although the school interior is not open to tours, groups can visit the visitors center and its bookstore, walk the grounds and if they have reservations, take the
once-daily outdoor tour guided by the National Park Service. There are also self-
guided walking tours.
Locals fight for civil rights
From there, tours can drive by, or with planning, tour the home of Daisy Bates. She was president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP in 1957 and served as liaison for the Little Rock Nine. The students and their families gathered at her house during the three weeks that desegregation efforts were thwarted. Her role put Bates in danger, as her home was firebombed and crosses were burned on its lawn.
Bates is one of many Little Rock residents who championed civil rights. The Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail is helping tell their story. It is a series of bronze plaques that detail contributions residents have made to ensure equal rights. Plaques are added each year. The trail will eventually reach the William J. Clinton Library and Museum, also a U.S. Civil Rights trail site.
The Civil Rights Heritage trail begins at the Little Rock Nine memorial at the Arkansas Capitol. The bronze sculptures capture the looks of worried determination as the students prepared to integrate the school.
Mosaic Templars preserves African American culture
Like the heritage trail, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center is an Arkansas Civil Rights Trail site that keeps expanding the stories it tells. Starting soon, the center will begin a $2.5 million project to upgrade exhibits and make them more interactive and vibrant. Built on the site of the Mosaic Templars of America, a Black fraternal organization in the early to mid-1900s, the center preserves the history of Little Rock’s Black community. It is situated on a prominent corner in the West Ninth Street district, Little Rock’s once-thriving Black business district. During Jim Crow, when Blacks weren’t allowed in many white-owned businesses, the district provided services they needed — from barbershops and hotels to restaurants and pharmacies — and built community among Blacks as they were treated unfairly elsewhere.
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