Choices People Made: The Little Rock Nine and Their Parents

"Somewhere along the line, [staying at Central High] became an obligation. I realized that what we were doing was not for ourselves"
--Elizabeth Eckford, one of the "Little Rock Nine"


MINNIEJEAN BROWN 

"I figured, I’m a nice person. Once they get to know me, they’ll see I’m okay. We’ll be friends.” Minnijean Brown was sixteen in 1957 and in the eleventh grade. According to Daisy Bates, she “sang well, was good at sports, and liked dancing.” She was the oldest of four children and lived with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. W. B. Brown. She was also the only one of the “Little Rock Nine” who did not finish the year.


Ernest Green recalled an incident in the school cafeteria in December.

"Minnie was about five foot ten and this fellow couldn’t have been more than five-five, five-four. And he reminded me of a small dog, yelping at somebody’s leg. Minnie had just picked up her chili, and before I could even say, 'Minnie, why don’t you tell him to shut up?' Minnie had taken this chili and dumped it on this dude’s head. There was absolute silence in the place, and then the help, all black, broke into applause. And the white kids, the other white kids there didn’t know what to do. It was the first time that anybody, I’m sure, had seen somebody black retaliate in that sense."


Minnijean was suspended for six days. Soon after the incident, a white student emptied a bowl of hot soup on her. He was suspended for two days. In February, Minnijean verbally responded to harassment by a white student. She was expelled from Central High for the rest of the year.


Minnijean said of the incident:

"I just can’t take everything they throw at me without fighting back. I don’t think people realize what goes on at Central. You just wouldn’t believe it. They throw rocks, they spill ink on your clothes, they call you 'nigger,' they just keep bothering you every five minutes. The white students hate me. Why do they hate me so much?"


Minnijean finished out the school year at the New Lincoln High School in New York City. The New York Post welcomed her to the city with an editorial that said in part: "When a Negro girl is so drastically penalized for reacting as a human being under fire, it is no wonder that white youngsters in the school feel safe to resume the business of bullying. . . . Minnijean will find the [racial] demarcation line here less obvious. But part of the education she gets in Our Town will be the knowledge that we too practice racial discrimination, though more subtly than the folks back home. We hope it doesn’t come as too much of a shock to her to discover the difference between New York and Little Rock is not as great as it should be. Possibly her arrival will inspire us to be worthy of her and the cause for which other Southern Negro children have stood so stoically and so valiantly. Little Rock’s loss is our proud acquisition."

ERNEST GREEN


"My first day inside Central High was very smooth, smoother than I expected. Outside was the main cause. If it wasn’t for the people outside, we would have finished the day. But I don’t intend to quit. We’ll try again. It’s still my school, and I’m entitled to it."


--Ernest Green, September 24, 1959, in a New York Post article


Ernest Green was the oldest child in his family. His mother was a widow. His father, a veteran of World War I, died a few years earlier. Green was the only senior in the group. In May, he became the first African American to graduate from Central High School. He said of that day, “I had accomplished what I had come there for.” THE PARENTS OF THE "LITTLE ROCK NINE"


"We integrating students shared many things in common. All of our parents were strict, no-nonsense types. Several of them were teachers and preachers, or held well-established positions in other professions. All our folks were hardworking people who had struggled to own their homes, to provide a stable life for their families. We share many of the same family values traditional to all small-town Americans."


--Melba Patillo


Carlotta Walls was the oldest of three daughters. Her mother was a secretary and her father, a decorated veteran of World War II, worked as a brick mason. In a conversation with Daisy Bates, Carlotta's mother described her feelings:

"I try not to let Carlotta know how much I worry. I can’t say that I’m not proud of her. Sometimes she gets impatient with me when she’s talking about what’s happening at Central. And I’d say,'Now, Carlotta, it can’t be that bad.' Little does she realize that every time I see a bruise on her leg where some bully has kicked her with steel tips on his shoes, I’m just about ready to commit murder. I keep thinking each day, maybe tomorrow it won’t be her leg; it will be her eye."

The families of all nine African American students were constantly harassed. At first it was threatening phone calls late at night and rocks hurled through windows. Later the harassment took other forms. Gloria Ray’s mother lost her job in the Welfare Department after her fellow employees learned that her daughter was “one of the nine.” Carlotta Walls’ father had to leave the state to find work as a brick mason because building contractors in Little Rock refused to hire him. Elizabeth Eckford’s mother was fired from her job at the State School for the Blind where she was a teacher. The strain proved too much for Terrence Roberts’ family. They moved to California at the end of the school year.

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