There is no blood or spittle on the black skirt set, the honor roll report card and the 1960 diploma from Little Rock’s Central High School.
These ordinary markers from a girlhood education, being donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, bear no obvious testament to their power to rend a nation.
But in the middle of the American Century, as the country reckoned with its oldest business, battles over race and citizenship were fought by people who placed their highest stakes in ordinary places — lunch counters, water fountains, schools. For Carlotta Walls LaNier, the youngest of the “Little Rock Nine,”who in 1957, under escort from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, became the first black students to desegregate Central High, these items are artifacts of assertion.
Sept. 25 is the 55th anniversary of the first day the Nine were allowed to stay at Central High School. Their first attempt to walk through the school doors was blocked by National Guard troops called by Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus. Their second try was cut short because of the threat of mob violence. LaNier wore her new dress both times, and now, in a small ceremony at the museum’s Capital Gallery Building offices scheduled for Sept. 27, she will donate it and the other items to its collection.
She wants people “to know about the Little Rock Nine, because our young kids are sitting a a classroom with people who don’t look like them, and they think this is the way it’s always been — but no, we had a separate school situation,” says LaNier, 69, who was reached by phone at her home in Denver. “I think this is a learning tool for any and everybody who walks through that museum.”
“Part of what moves me about these artifacts is that they are so simple,” says the museum’s founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch. The Little Rock Nine are particularly important to “the notion of children changing society and bearing the sorts of searing pressures of that change that really inspired more generations,” he says. “When you see the pictures, the hatred and the venom, it makes you admire so much these young people who went through this.”
LaNier’s mother used to make all her clothes, but for her first day of high school, “my uncle wanted me to have a store-bought dress, and he gave me the money.” As a 14-year-old, LaNier didn’t know that she was about to make history. She was a good student, thought Central High — which, like all-white schools around the nation, was under a Supreme Court ruling to desegregate — offered great educational opportunities, and thought it important to look good. “We grew up knowing that other people thought less of you, so you were always on guard about being representative of your family, your race, your community, your church,” LaNier says. “You didn’t want to let anyone down.”
She hadn’t known that getting into the school was the first step in a years-long, deeply painful ordeal. She calls her first semester report card meaningful because with all “that was happening to us — being pushed down steps, spat upon, people walking on my heels — I still made the honor roll.” Some whites said black kids couldn’t get good grades, she says, “and this just shot all of that down.”
Only three of the Nine graduated and LaNier, who was the only woman to graduate, calls the third artifact, her diploma, a “vindication.” Faubus, who capitalized on segregationist sentiment to win a rare third term as governor, shut down the three Little Rock high schools during the 1958-59 school year rather than continue desegregation. While segregationists opened their own whites-only school, some students simply sat out, while the families of LaNier and others scraped together money for correspondence courses and textbooks until the courts forced the high schools to reopen the following year.
LaNier’s home was bombed while she, her mother and little sisters were inside. After police officials first accused her father, a childhood friend who she believes was innocent, was jailed for the crime. Her diploma meant that “I accomplished what I started,” LaNier says. And it belongs to everyone who helped her along the way.
Senior curator Bill Pretzer says the museum, scheduled to open in 2015, is planning its inaugural exhibitions. “The Little Rock Nine was an absolutely critical event in the civil rights era, and we absolutely wanted to represent it in some fashion.” LaNier is the only one of the Little Rock Nine to donate memorabilia, although others are considering it, Pretzer says. In addition to the three items, she’s donating 15 boxes of material: programs from commemorations, and letters, including missives from President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957 and President Bill Clinton in 1999, when the Little Rock Nine were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. At the 100th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine’s first day at Central High, “someone will be looking back and say how did they think about that” 50 years later. It’s rare to have so much material, but LaNier “acted like her own historian, and curator of the history she had made,” Pretzer says.
LaNier credits her mother with keeping the dress, and she says that with all her Little Rock Nine items, I always “felt like somewhere down the line, it needs to go somewhere. That it’s going to be of some use.” After high school, LaNier’s family relocated, eventually settling in Denver. LaNier, who graduated from what is now the University of Northern Colorado, worked for the YWCA before founding her own real estate brokerage firm. Her memoir, “A Mighty Long Way, My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School,” was published in 2009 and she speaks to student groups around the country about the importance of personal responsibility and about the most painful parts of the American story. “We need to be open-minded and need to discuss issues without being adversarial,” she says, and hopes she can help with that. She’d always thought history was about dead people. But “I’m standing before you, and yes, I’ve finally accepted the fact that I’m a part of history.”