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Little Rock Nine icon Elizabeth Eckford speaking in Pensacola Thursday night

Elizabeth Eckford.jpg
Will Counts
Yale University Press
Elizabeth Eckford

Elizabeth Eckford, who was one of nine black students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, will speak about her experience Thursday in Pensacola. In honor of the occasion, WUWF’s Sandra Averhart is digging into the archives for a look back at a 2017 autobiography Eckford co-authored with a Pensacola mother and daughter.

Eckford was just 15-years-old in September 1957 when she and eight other African-American students vaulted into the spotlight as they integrated the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, as a result of the historic Brown vs. Board of Education ruling.

“At one point, we were in a military van that was olive green and there were gun-mounted jeeps fore and aft," Eckford recalled the group’s victorious return to the school on September 23, some two weeks after they were initially turned away by an angry mob of about 400 on the first day of school. This time, they were guarded by members of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.

“And, I remember the soldiers walking us up those steps and there were students who were kind of like in a barricade and the soldiers went right through them. That was a triumphant moment for me to have our protectors have them part, like parting the red sea.”

Eckford shared her experiences in the book, The Worst First Day: Bullied While Desegregating Central High, which was awarded one of the 2018 Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards.

She co-authored the book with Pensacola area resident Dr. Eurydice Stanley and her then 15-year-old daughter Grace. They came to the WUWF studios in November 2018 to talk about it.

"It is just truly a testament to the message that we are trying to share, the civil rights history that we’re trying to share, tempered with message of anti-bullying," said Eurydice Stanley.

Stanley is a retired Army Lt. Colonel, who met Ms. Eckford during a military training in Little Rock, Arkansas more than 20 years ago. For her dissertation on racial reconciliation, she interviewed Eckford and Hazel Bryan, a white student protester. A famous photo of the two captures the anguish and turmoil of that first day of racial integration at Central High in 1957.

Elizabeth Eckford, left, one of the Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High School in 1957, talks with Hazel Massery in front of the school in Little Rock, Ark. Monday, Sept. 22, 1997. Massery (whose name was then Hazel Bryan) was a student protestor captured in photos heckling Eckford after she was turned away from the school by the Arkansas National Guard Sept. 4, 1957.

“Thankfully, Elizabeth and I remained friends, and kept asking her ‘why don’t you have a book,'" she said. "Other people had written about her, but she had not told her story. And, we are very proud to have helped her bring her story to life.”

With Eckford’s blessing and her focus on speaking to youth, Stanley chose to make the book a children’s book aimed at helping people understand the impact of bullying. Eckford had to endure the attacks more than 60 years ago, and today, bullying, particularly on social media, is leading some students to commit suicide.

"She wanted to make a difference and this was an opportunity to do so by really digging down deep, getting into the history, helping people understand that there was a time when the President of the United States had to send in the 101st Airborne just to ensure that nine students could attend Central High because the governor had sent in the Arkansas Army National Guard to prevent them from going to school," Stanley said.

"We’ve been able to see her evolve, because before she would sometimes cry or get very upset because it’s a very emotional, very traumatic experience that she went through," Grace added.

Grace Stanley, (who in 2018 was 15-years-old and) enrolled in the Biomedical Sciences Academy at West Florida High School. She says before collaborating to write the book, Eckford mainly focused her talks on the general subject of civil rights and desegregation because of the Brown V. Board of Education decision. After their collaboration she was has been able to talk the experience from a personal standpoint.

"She’s changed and become so much more outspoken," Grace said. "We’ve been able to see her now smile and so much more and she’s much more comfortable talking about it now. And, that’s definitely made us very proud."

Eckford and the Stanleys wrote the book in prose and targeted it towards middle school readers and above.

“And, we’ve included a picture, or more pictures, on every other page, so that you wouldn’t be overwhelmed," Grace added.

Most of the historic photos are from the Will Counts Collection at the Indiana University Archives, taken by civil rights photographer Will Counts.

"And he is the one that took the image that is one of the 20th century’s most iconic images, of Ms. Elizabeth Eckford being attacked on the first day of school," said Eurydice Stanley. "That is the image that was on the front cover of international headlines and that made Elizabeth one of the most-known teens in the world. We also, since they weren’t taking pictures in the school — no one cared about the Little Rock Nine experience — we commissioned the wonderful artist Rachel Gibson and she drew Ms. Eckford’s memories."

That brings us to the special dress that Eckford wore on September 4, 1957, that hopeful first day of desegregation at Central High. Grace Stanley reads a passage about from the beginning of the book.

“There’s a picture that Rachel Gibson drew of Elizabeth looking in the mirror, proud of her dress.”

"'The blouse was white with a sleek collar and the skirt had navy blue gingham trim. Today I would integrate an all-white school and I wanted to look my best for them."

"I love this stanza because she was so proud of this dress that she had made for her first day of school in order to make a good impression. And, as you go through the book, you find out later her dress was essentially ruined by the protesters," Grace recalled.

The book is The Worst First Day: Bullied While Desegregating Central High, by Eurydice and Grace Stanley and Elizabeth Eckford. Made possible in part by the Equity Project Alliance, the upcoming public program, “An Evening with Elizabeth Eckford: Little Rock Nine Icon” will be presented Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at Pensacola State College’s Ashmore Auditorium.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.