In 1954, the American Supreme Court declared the continuation of school segregation to be unlawful...though it would be 3 years until Arkansas' capital city, Little Rock, actually acted on this. Thanks to a huge amount of pressure from the Little Rock NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), it was agreed that in September 1957, nine black students could enroll at the until-then-whites-only Little Rock Central High School.
They became known as the Little Rock Nine. A group of teens, all specially picked for their intelligence and desire to learn. All of them were about to make history, and all of them would be ripped to shreds in the process.
Of those nine, one would became an overnight icon for American civil rights.
MEET ELIZABETH ECKFORD. IF YOU DON’T KNOW HER NAME, I GUARANTEE YOU KNOW HER FACE:
That day, that picture, would change everything for Elizabeth. But on the morning of September 4th, 1957, she had no idea of the dark path that lay ahead. Her biggest concern? What to wear for the first day of school. Elizabeth’s dad paced around the family home while her mom finished doing her hair, making sure it perfectly complemented the white and navy dress that Elizabeth had specially made for the day.
The family didn’t own a phone, so Elizabeth didn’t get the message that the Little Rock Nine were being escorted to school for safety reasons.
So while the others kids gathered together in the safety of a car convoy, Elizabeth grabbed her lunch money, said goodbye to her parents, and ran for the bus. Just like any other high schooler.
Which was how, totally unprepared and alone, 15-year-old Elizabeth was confronted with this:
Just like that, Elizabeth was set apart. She wasn’t just one of the Little Rock Nine, she was a symbol of the horrors of the Jim Crow era. Her image was indelibly seared into American history.
But this didn’t mean she was protected from her schoolmates. Documents from the school show that Elizabeth received a constant barrage of abuse.
Here are just some examples from her first term at Central High:
October: Elizabeth hit with a shower of sharpened pencils.
October 28: Elizabeth shoved in hall.
November 20: Elizabeth jostled in gym.
November 21: Elizabeth hit with paper clip.
December 10: Elizabeth kicked.
December 18: Elizabeth punched.
Elizabeth tried to defend herself, even creating a sharp shield by sticking dress pins through her binder. But it didn’t stop the constant stream of racist insults. And in the locker room, she was totally defenseless. Her classmates would scald her with hot shower water and leave broken glass for her to tread on.
In a 2018 interview with Vice, Elizabeth spoke of how she and the other members of the Little Rock Nine were treated, saying, "We were knowcked down stairs, kicked, scalded in gym showers, body-slammed into wall lockers. We were generally knocked-about every day. It never ceased."
Barely a year after Elizabeth walked into Central High, Little Rock voted to shut down all its public high schools, rather than desegregate them. Central High closed and Elizabeth and her family left behind the media circus. They moved to St. Louis, where Elizabeth got her GED. She studied for a college degree and became one of the first African Americans to work in a non-janitorial position in a St. Louis bank.
On paper, these accomplishments looked great, but Elizabeth’s reality was far from it. Little Rock had left her with a lot of trauma. She'd experienced the worst kind of abuse every day for a year. At the same time, she became a poster child for civil rights. Her picture was everywhere, holding Elizabeth up as icon of stoic strength, of fighting back and overcoming.
As she sank further into depression, Elizabeth felt far from the pillar of strength she was portrayed as. It was at this time that she made several suicide attempts.
Then, in a bid to start a new life for herself, Elizabeth joined the army in 1967. Keen to erase Little Rock from her past, she didn’t mention it to any of her squad mates and actively worked to keep any publication that might even feature her name away from the mess hall.
By 1974, Elizabeth had left the army and made the surprising decision to return to Little Rock. She told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, "I came back because I felt I was chased away and because I thought it was cowardly and I wanted to come back and prove I could live in this situation. I don't intend to be driven out."
Elizabeth got a job in Little Rock’s Welfare Office. Over the next few years, she had two beautiful sons, Erin and Calvin. Though her relationships with the boys dad's didn’t work out, she doted on her boys. It finally looked like things were falling together for Elizabeth and her little family. But there was one big issue: depression.
Depression isn’t something you can run from. It’s something you have to tackle head-on. It takes medicine, therapy, support and help. Something that a low-income, black single mom in 1970s Arkansas didn’t have.
When the depression caught up with Elizabeth, it hit her hard. She couldn’t work anymore and went on VA disability benefit. As her income dried up, she sank ever further into despair and hardly left the house. In addition to spending hours desperately trying to get out of bed, she would miss meals so she could afford toys for her children.
All the while, Elizabeth was dodging calls from journalists who were looking for an interview with a woman she didn’t recognize. That towering figure of silent strength, the famous Elizabeth Eckford. And so she stayed hidden away, trapped in a deep spiral of depression.
This lasted for almost 20 years. But then, in the late '90s, things turned a corner. Elizabeth finally received access to support and help, and she slowly regained the strength to move forward. In 1997, she reunited with the rest of the Little Rock Nine to commemorate the 40th anniversary of that fateful day in 1957. It was here where the world found out that Elizabeth had befriended perhaps the most unlikely woman.
In 1963, six years after Little Rock, a now 23-year-old Hazel Bryan called Elizabeth and apologized. Like Elizabeth she’d been scarred by Little Rock, but for very different reasons. Hazel could never forget her actions; the pictures of her 16-year-old self haunted her. Elizabeth accepted her apology (until then, she'd never known the name of the white girl that had hurled the abuse), and the girls went their separate ways.
Hazel married, had three children, and lived an affluent, middle-class lifestyle. As time went on, she tried to make up for her past. She volunteered as a counselor for black students and worked with low-income expectant mothers. She worked in peace groups and charities, and even confronted her mother over her racist beliefs, which caused a huge family argument.
She did everything she could for both personal and public atonement. But it never came. Then in 1997, ahead of Little Rock’s 40th commemoration, she was asked to meet Elizabeth Eckford. Once more, Hazel apologized to Elizabeth, who once more, accepted. The two mothers talked about their children and their lives ,and realised they had a lot in common.
So they agreed to take another picture together. Almost 40 years after Hazel followed Elizabeth to Central High while hurling racist insults at her, the women met again outside the school. This time, with their arms around each other.
The picture was immediately everywhere. Dubbed "Reconciliation," it was a symbol that America was moving on from its dark past and that its previous sins could be forgiven. It was hope for Little Rock and communities like it across America, all tied up in a neat package.
Elizabeth and Hazel took it all on, sitting together for interviews, documentaries and political calls. They bonded over their kids and would meet up to go to flower shows and have meals together.
In an unpredictable turn of events, Elizabeth grew protective of Hazel. Hazel was one of the only members of the white mob to publicly acknowledge their misdeeds, and Elizabeth stuck up for her new friend. When the true motives behind Hazel’s frequent public apologies were questioned by the media and other members of the Little Rock Nine, it was Elizabeth who came to her defense.
But gradually the friendship started to crack. The crux of the issue was Elizabeth's realization that Hazel hoped one day she would move on from her actions in 1957. Elizabeth later said, "She wanted me to be cured and be over it and for this not to go on anymore...She wanted me to be less uncomfotable so that she wouldn't feel responsible."
By the early 2000s, the pair weren’t speaking. Though Elizabeth had cut ties with Hazel, she made one exception. She allowed the famous photo of the pair, once called "Reconciliation," to continue being sold at a center commemorating The Little Rock Nine, so that the center wouldn’t lose funds from one of its best-selling items. Her only caveat was that all the pictures sold were labelled with a sticker that read, "True reconciliation can occur only when we honestly acknowledge our painful, but shared, past."
Elizabeth kept a low profile for the next few years. She rejoined the workforce in 1999, becoming a probation officer, renowned for both her firmness and ability to connect with her charges.
She also threw herself into speaking engagements and traveled to schools to talk to students about her experiences. At first, Elizabeth kept a wastepaper basket at hand, just in case she needed to be sick. But as time went on, the fear shed, and the wastepaper basket sat forgotten. Elizabeth was finally able to stand on stage alone, a woman who both embraced her past and had outgrown its trauma.
Then in 2003, Elizabeth's world fell apart when her son, Erin, was shot and killed by the police. Little Rock police were called by neighbors after they saw Erin, now a university student, firing an assault rifle into the air on New Year's Day. Police swarmed Erin and shot him with a beanbag round. Erin then pointed his gun towards the officers, who opened fire. Erin was shot six times and died from his injuries. He had suffered from numerous mental health issues for years. No charges were pressed, and Elizabeth later said that she feared her son had been trying to commit suicide by cop.
Friends and family grew increasingly concerned that, devasating blow, Elizabeth would once more sink into an unreachable pit of depression. But she didn't. Despite it all, Elizabeth rallied. Not as the iconic impenetrable pillar of strength of that photo, but with grit and determination. She fought and she struggled and she rose again. To this day, Elizabeth continues to work and give talks. She speaks about her experiences from 1957, of racism, and the everyday inequality black Americans face.
In 2017, Elizabeth used Kickstarter to raise fudns to publish a book on her experiences titled The Worst First Day. The book acts both as an autobiography and as a guide for children who, like Elizabeth, face overwhelming odds. It reminds them that that no matter how many people tell them otherwise, they can make something of themselves.
In September 2018, Elizabeth stood in front of another crowd of students as she received an honorary degree. Her speech outlined how anyone can make a difference in this world. Because as Elizabeth knows firsthand, "You don't know what you can do until you have been tested."
This was interesting, where can I find out more? Well, first off I’d suggest looking at Elizabeth’s book, The Worst First Day. Researching this, we also found this amazing article by David Margolick, which is incredibly illuminating. He has also written a book about Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan's friendship, titled Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, which is truly fascinating.
This post originally appeared on F Yeah History and is reprinted here with permission.
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Written by Natasha Tidd, Sara Westrop, and Helen Antrobus, F Yeah History is dedicated to unearthing history that's just too good for history class. From historic hangover cures to unsung historic heroes, all told with a healthy does of gifs and somewhat terrible jokes, it's history...just not as you know it. Follow F Yeah History on FYeahHistory.com and on Twitter @F_yeah_history.