Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Down Memory Lane

This was Capitol Avenue in Little Rock in 1958.

This is Capitol Avenue today. Where'd everybody go?

To see the large version, click on the picture.

The above pictures were found in the 2006 Mablevale, Arkansas high school yearbook, and they launched me on a trip down memory lane to my senior year at Little Rock Central High. And, what a year it was.

A new school, Hall High, has just been built, and the seniors who lived in the Hall school district were given the choice of staying at Central to graduate, or moving to the new high school. I decided to stay at Central because I knew that was where all the action was going to be. We were about to integrate the school, and make history. I was on the newspaper staff at Central - the Tiger - And knew that we would have some real news to write about that fall.

But, first, I had to convince my mother that I would be all right. I probably gave her ulcers that year. My dad had died the previous spring and Mother had gone back to work as a nurse and didn't really need any more stress. But, to her credit, she let me make the decision.

Little Rock in the 50's was such an innocent time. At least, it seems so from today's vantage point. My friends and I could go anywhere we chose in the city, and we were safe. And protected. We had no idea how the world was going to change in the next decade.

Teachers were authority figures. We didn't know every detail of their lives, and we didn't call them by their first names. For that matter, we didn't know every detail of our parents' lives either. There might have been all manner of problems in the family, but we never heard about it until we were old enough - meaning, adults.

So, like lambs to the slaughter, we looked forward to the beginning of school the way we might have looked forward to the circus. It didn't take long for reality to set in.

In the mornings, we had to fight our way through angry crowds and show an ID card in order to get into the school. The first attempt at bring the nine black students into the school failed. People came in busloads from places outside of Little Rock, just to stand on the corners and sidewalks around the school and shout racial slurs and obscenities. Governor Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard and posted them around the school. Inside, all was quiet. Finally, President Eisenhower was forced to call in Federal Troups in the form of the 101st Airborn Division. We spent a lot of time hanging out the windows and watching the crowds.

One morning, from inside the school, some student yelled, "They're in the school!" Nine scared black kids. But, they made it. Little Rock Central was integrated. Then came all the politicking and posturing and lawsuits, etc., etc., that always surround major change. Ultimately, the school was closed for the next school year. But, when it opened again, it was still integrated.

Those were the days, my friend.


saz said...

Good post Betty - I so remember seeing this on the news and being very puzzled and a little scared. I attended integrated grammar schools in San Francisco and it really confused the kids. Not that there wasn't racism here - there was!

About the pictures - is there really that big of a difference in the city now? Or was the newer one taken on the weekend?

Betty said...

Saz: There's really that big a difference. Like most cities, the downtown gave way to the 'burbs and malls. They're trying to make a comeback. I hope they can.

saz said...

Wow - that's a HUGE difference! We've seen just the opposite here.

Dogwalkmusings said...

My, oh my. It feels like a parallel universe. I have this knot in my gut that suggests the scenario might return but it won't be the integration of schools that brings it about!

F&W said...

What a fascinating story. Sometimes, I think I was born too late. I often find myself yearning for simpler times (e.g., teachers being authority figures, kids beings safe).

I sometimes think we've come so far in our social tolerances and, yet, when I read your story, there isn't much that's different than society today. We're just a little quieter about it. It's sad, really.

I was raised to honor all colours, creeds, religions and such so I only want folks to do the same for me. Too bad that doesn't really work in real life.

You've given me stuff to think about...

Alan G said...

Morning Betty….

Gosh, what a ton of memories came tumbling down stimulated by your post. But more so by the old photo. I loved downtown Little Rock when I was growing up. What a thrill to see so many memories held within one photo.

First to catch my attention was the fellow sitting there on his Cushman Eagle motor scooter at the intersection. I use to go to the Cushman Eagle dealer on Spring Street if I recall and hang out there for hours when I was a kid dreaming of someday owning one. At the age of around fourteen my parents finally got me a used one.

Across Main Street and on the right was Capitol Hat & Sporting Goods. Noting the bus parked there, that was one of the major ‘bus transfer’ locations in downtown.

Directly across the street was Patterson Jewelers. And next door of course is the famed “Frankes’ Cafeteria”. That was my family’s favorite place to eat for years and years. My mother and I would eat there at least once a week when I was young and as the family grew we would eat there on Sundays after church. And Patterson Jewelers would have little electro/mechanical animated displays in their front window that were so neat – especially for a kid. Still remember Frankes Cafeteria moving down the block and around the corner probably not too long after this photograph. They were across from the Arkansas Theatre on Louisiana Street.

Then of course, down the street on the right about three blocks was the Capitol Theatre. Remembering they remodeled it in the late fifties and it was our nicest theatre for a time.

I am about nine years older than my oldest sister but when she was around five or six years old I would take her by the hand and we would sometimes walk about a mile and a-half from where we lived to downtown and go to all the variety stores. Let’s see…the was Kresses, McClellans, Woolworths,…seems like there was one more. In the world we live in today that is not something a five year old sister and fourteen year old brother could really safely do. That is so sad.

This photo is of course at 5th and Main Street. Up at 7th and Main was a Walgreens drugstore that my grandfather worked at for most of his life as a pharmacist. It was the M. Clerkin’s Drugstore in the thirtys and forties as I recall. That was also one of the major ‘bus transfer’ locations.

As far as the infamous year of 1957, I completed the tenth grade (1956-1957) at Central High. Then when all hell broke loose I remember we were schooled for a period of time on the television. Then my dad moved us to the Riverdale area of Little Rock so that they could enroll me in Hall High. Then the next year we moved to North Little Rock where I finished high school. It was a bad time and unfortunately many parents made it very hard on their kids because of their own prejudices.

Betty said...

Alan G: Speaking of 7th and Main, my dad had his office in the Donaghey Building on that corner. And, yes, my favorite was Franke's Cafeteria, too.