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.”