Choices People Made: White Students and Teachers at Central High School

"Will your knowledge of science help you determine your action or will you let customs, superstition, or tradition determine the decision for you?"
--Jane Emery, Co-editor of the Central High School student newspaper

"Fifteen-year-old Hazel Bryan was one of the girls who harassed Elizabeth Eckford the day she tried to enter Central High for the first time. Photographer Will Counts captured her with her mouth open and her face distorted with hate.

Elizabeth Huckaby, the vice-principal at Central High, said of the photo:
"The picture of the girl screaming after Elizabeth Eckford as she walked through the mob on the day the National Guard turned back the black students haunted me. No one seemed to be able to identify the girl, and small wonder. We were not used to seeing our students look like that. But by noon on Friday, I discovered she was someone I knew, and I sent for her in the afternoon. When she readily admitted she was the screaming girl I told her how distressed I was to hear it since hatred destroys the people who hate. She shrugged. 'Well, that was the way she felt,' she said. Undeterred by her shrug, I said that I hoped I’d never see her pretty face so distorted again, that I never would have recognized that ugly face in the picture as hers. Wasted breath."

In 1962, five years after the crisis in Little Rock, Hazel Bryan called Elizabeth Eckford on the telephone. She later told an interviewer:

"I don’t know what triggered it, but one day I just started squalling about how she must have felt. I felt so bad that I had done this that I called her and apologized to her. I told her I was sorry that I had done that, that I was not thinking for myself. I think both of us were crying."


Marcia Webb was also a student at Central High. She was there the day that Hazel Bryan and other whites harassed Elizabeth Eckford. She later said of the choices she made then:

"I remember the picture in the newspaper of Elizabeth Eckford with jeering white faces behind her. And at that moment I thought, 'Marcie, you were there and you never once thought about what was going on with Elizabeth Eckford. You were glad there weren’t any violent demonstrations, you were glad no one was hurt physically,' but then I realized what hurt can come from words, from silence even, from just being ignored. And when I think about it now I think about it with regret."


In 1957, Robin Woods was a junior and a member of the Central High School Student Council. The day after federal troops escorted the “Little Rock Nine” to their classes, she told a reporter for the New York Post: 

"If there was trouble at Central High yesterday, it was all on the outside. We didn’t have anything at all going on inside. I got integrated yesterday. It was in my first English class. There was only 15 minutes to go, and a Negro boy came into class. That was the first time I’d ever gone to school with a Negro, and it didn’t hurt a bit."

In October, Robin participated in a roundtable discussion that aired on NBC. She spoke of the events that shaped the choices she was beginning to make:

"And when Elizabeth had to walk down in front of the school I was there and I saw that. And may I say, I was very ashamed—I felt like crying—because she was so brave when she did that. And we just weren’t behaving ourselves, just jeering her. I think if we had any sort of decency, we wouldn’t have acted that way. But I think if everybody would just obey the Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have others do unto you—might be the solution. How would you like to have to walk down the street with everybody yelling behind you like they yelled behind Elizabeth?"

Terrence Roberts, one of the “Little Rock Nine,” was assigned to Robin’s algebra class. Realizing he didn’t have a math book, Robin made “a gut level decision” and pulled her desk over to his so they could share her book. There was “a gasp of disbelief.” For the rest of the year, segregationists harassed Robin and her family.


There were teachers at Central High who showed their hostility toward the “Little Rock Nine” in small ways and large. Thelma Mothershed, one of the “Little Rock Nine,” later recalled: "My homeroom teacher . . . did strange little things. I remember that when we were absent, we’d have to go to the office and get a readmittance slip. When I would come in to give her my readmittance slip, she wouldn’t take it. So I would just put it down on the desk, and then she would sign it and put it in the book and slide it back across to me. Now, that was really strange. I guess she had to do something to show her class that she wasn’t particularly happy about me being in there. And then she—well, they set us in alphabetical order and in the row where I was, there were about two seats behind me—and she started the next person at the front seat in the next row, because she knew nobody wanted to sit behind me. She just kept those two chairs empty. So she did little strange, subtle things—subtle as a ton of bricks."

There were also teachers who tried to help the “Little Rock Nine.” Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP, wrote:

"Many of the teachers, particularly the younger ones, did everything within their power to protect the nine students. Some went out of their way to help the students catch up with work they had missed when they were barred from entering the school in the first weeks of the term. Concerned over the lack of protection given the Negro students within the school, the teachers took it upon themselves to oversee the hallways in between the class breaks."


Troublemakers made up a tiny minority within the school, less than 3 percent. The students and teachers who went out of their way to welcome the “Little Rock Nine” were also a small minority. Most students at Central High were bystanders. Yet, they too made choices.

Not long after the “Little Rock Nine” entered the school, Melba Pattillo told a reporter for The New York Times:

"When I got to my English class one boy jumped up to his feet and began to talk. He told the others to walk out with him because a 'nigger' was in their class. He kept talking and talking, but no one listened. The teacher told him to leave the room. The boy started for the door and shouted: 'Who’s going with me?' No one did. So he said in disgust, 'Chicken!' and left."

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