Finding the Lost Year: What Happened When Little Rock Closed Its Public Schools (University of Arkansas Press Poetry Series)

 

John Taylor’s Story is found in the “Afterward” on pages 177-179.

Finding the Lost Year: What Happened When Little Rock Closed Its Public Schools

 

(University of Arkansas Press Poetry Series) (Hardcover)

 

~ Sondra Gordy (Author)

   Review

"Gordy's razor-sharp analysis of Little Rock's 'Lost Year' is wonderfully balanced by first-hand accounts of the often devastating effects on those students who could least afford to lose a year of their lives." - Grif Stockley, author of Ruled by Race and Blood in Their Eyes"

 

Afterword[1]

 

And all of that hate just left me

–Edie Garland (Barentine), Lost Year Student

 

The loss of part or all of the 1958-59 school year was more than an inconvenience for 3,665 students, 177 teachers and administrators, their families and their community.  Both race and class brought disproportionate suffering to displaced Black and some poor white students.  Public schools lost support in the segregationist community.  Public school teachers lost their civil liberties at the hands of the legislature and governor.  School closure for these teenagers was a life-changing event, often to their personal detriment.  More important than the disruption of their physical world was the molding of their identities, their egos, and their views on race and desegregation within a cauldron of racial turmoil.  The general tendency of historians to dismiss the Lost Year as a footnote to the media-drenched Little Rock desegregation crisis of 1957-58 obscures its true significance.  Beyond the public tragedy for the community and the schools, the personal stories remain.  For the students, the private victims, the consequences of this year have been playing out quietly over lifetimes.  Students were separated from friends and families, and parents watched as their aspirations for their children dissipated, young people delaying or deferring their young dreams.  There was no one outcome for these young people–some redirected themselves toward personal achievement and a higher vision.

 

 

Dick Gardner, who lived near Central High and was a sophomore the 1957 crisis, now runs a successful heating and air-conditioning company.  When schools did not open in 1958, Gardner asked his parents for permission to join the U.S. Navy.  He served four years and earned his GED.  He now looks back on how his life and career were affected by closed schools and denied access: “I think things would have been different if I had not left home...I know I would have finished high school at Central.  I’d have gone to college, my daddy would have seen to that.  He would have seen to it.”  Gardner mentioned several times that his father wanted him to be an engineer: “The navy was better than what so many others were doing.  So many didn’t go to school, they didn’t have a job, they were just kicking the gravel around.  It wasn’t a good situation.  Daddy was scared I would get into trouble...kids all over the place with nothing to do, seventeen-year-old kids loose on the streets.  He always wanted me to be an engineer, to get an education, and I did, not like what he wanted...It just didn’t work out that way.”

 

P.H. Gilkey, a Black junior who did not return to school, also remarks on the Lost Year: “Well, it separated from the people I knew and loved.  I was seventeen years old, and I was away from home.  I had not completed high school and was having to depend on the military to complete it.  I was suddenly thrust among people from all over the world who had no idea what I was even thinking and who didn’t really care.”

 

Shirley Collier Stephens, a Black eleventh-grader who after tree months finally left town to attend another Arkansas school, felt betrayed.  She and so many other students spent weeks in anticipation, hoping that with the passing of time their schools might open.  Her experience living with an aunt out of town was not a particularly good one, but the following year she refused to return to Horace Mann: “I would never go back to Horace Mann.  I told my mother I could not.  I told my father that I could not go there after what they did.  I felt so violated and rejected.  There was probably a lot more pain within me that even I didn’t realize because when they opened the school my mother just so anxious for me to come back and I said, “No.”  Denied access, she summed up her feelings about the Lost Year: “I lost everything.  I lost friends.  I lost my home and my family for a time.  I lost my community.  It wasn’t just about school.  I lost everything.”

 

Edie Garland (Barentine), from Hall High, was sent to Oklahoma to live with relatives for her senior year.  Prior to that, she had been active in her church, served as a white counselor at an all-Black Methodist camp and participated in mixed-race discussion groups at the YWCA and in private homes.  She remembers saying: “If I ever come face to face with Orval Faubus, he will hear what I think of him.  I wanted someone to blame for what happened in the Lost Year and what happened at Central High.  Many, many years later I ended up alone on an elevator with him.  He was much older.  I noticed his suit was ill-fitting and his shoes were dirty.  We made no eye contact and in that short rid, I thought, this is a man and he is vulnerable, and he is old and tired.  And all of that hate just left me.  His shoes were dirty, and I had never stood in his shoes.  As he exited the elevator, I looked at him and was able to say, “It’s good to see you, Governor.  Though her statement appears to absolve Faubus, she can now forgive the person so many in the community blamed for their loss only through her own personal moral growth.

 

 

 

 

P.H. Gilkey, who went on to serve for over twenty years in the U.S. Navy before earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees, was the principal of the Step One Alternative School operated by Pulaski County within the juvenile justice system for twelve years before his retirement.  He was able to use his own history to inspire the incoming students, telling them that they had been given a second chance at getting an education, something he was denied.  If a student made it through the Step One program, his expulsion would become null, he would receive credit for the semester, and would be allowed to return to school.  Gilkey, now, is proud of the 86 per cent success rate this school had under his leadership and feels his example played an important part in its achievement.

 

Faye Perry (Russ) remained in Little Rock after graduation from Horace Mann in 1960, earning her LPN degree and working at the Veterans’ Administration Hospital from 1966 to 1973.  But when the second of her three sons entered preschool within the LRSD, she quit her nursing job and volunteered with the public school’s pre-K program.  Soon she was offered a position to work in the program and became is home school coordinator.  In that capacity, she gained even more interest in cultural diversity and heard of the work of the Panel of American Women, which chose her as its facilitator and coordinator of culturally diverse teams.  The Panel, started by WEC member Sara Murphy in 1963, consisted of about thirty women representing different religious and racial groups who talked informally about how prejudice had affected their lives and the lives of their children.  Each team included a Catholic, a Jew, a Black, sometimes another minority, and a white Protestant and appeared by invitation to speak before organizations in public settings.  By 1979-80, when Faye joined the croup, the Panel received federal funding that allowed it to work with all sixth-graders in the LRSD.  Russ state3d: “That was the best job I’ve ever had in my live.  I believe I could see so much growth from our work.”  Sadly, the funding ended in 1980, but Russ mentioned that some of those young people, no grown live in her neighborhood and still talk to her about the program.”

 

John Taylor was a sixteen–year-old junior at Little Rock Central High during the 1957-59 school year.  He describes himself during that time as a “science nerd” who was brand new to Little Rock and just trying hard to fit into his new surroundings.  His father, a psychiatrist, was the new clinical director at the Arkansas State Hospital, and the two drove into the city the weekend of ‘August 31 from Alexandria, Louisiana.  The family was to have a house on the grounds of the hospital, but he and his dad were to “bach” it in smaller temporary quarters until his mother arrived within six weeks.  Taylor was small in size, and he recalls now that for sixteen-year-old boys “all that matters is going to school, doing your job of learning, earning good grades, and trying to be something your are not–an athlete.  So I played in the band and did science instead.”  His experiences during the first year of integration revolved around his own new world, his classes, and the new white friends he had made.  In 1997, as a long time college professor of chemistry, he began to tell others about “some of those dark memories of eleventh grade.  How I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. How I was part of the silent minority as my father talked equality for all...I was ashamed for never speaking up.  Too scared.  Too stupid, just a kid being a teenager wanting a normal school year.”  As for the Little Rock Nine, he says: “I did not even know their names.  They kept to themselves, and we kept to ourselves.  I did learn one of the Nine’s name early in the year, Minnijean Brown, as she was a target for group of white students.  At graduation I learned the name of Ernest Green, as I was in the band playing that evening...I did not know who Martin Luther King [Jr] was or that he was in the stands.  Just that Ernest was in danger of being shot at the ceremony and security was high at the stadium.”  The following year, when schools were close, he kept his two summer jobs “to make more money for school which certainly would begin soon.”  He started two correspondence courses, one in English and one in solid geometry.  After six weeks had gone by, he says, the hope of school starting was fading, and reality was setting in: “There was no school.  There would be no senior year.”  In October, he went with his mother to southern Louisiana, where two former classmates and their mothers offered to allow him to live with them.  His father refused, offering him the possibility of living with the family of one of his former patients.  “I didn’t know them, but I should have gone.  I didn’t want to leave home...I wanted to with the moms of my friends, not someone I didn’t know.”  When Raney High opened, John enrolled in physics and trigonometry for the second six weeks.  Then he dropped out to go to college, after taking his College Boards.  He began at Little Rock University as a college freshman at just seventeen years of age, one of 64 of Central High’s 535 “seniors”.  He went from being an honor student in high school to a struggling B/C college freshman, attempting to survive without the proper preparation.  He did well in chemistry, but he knew he did not have the conceptual understanding to continue in engineering.  Since that time, he says, “I have devoted my life to education, especially community college education, where underprepared adults come for a second chance to attempt postsecondary education in a caring environment.”  John has just completed his forty-forth year as an educator.  In recent years, he has begun speaking in public venues during Black History Month, telling his story of life in Little Rock.  He spoke in April 2008 at the eighteenth International Conference on Teaching and Learning.  He begins each talk with the following, “When you lose your health, your understand what you have taken for granted.  When they take school from you, you realize the value of education, that education is a privilege and should not be taken for granted or wasted.”

 

Robert L. Brown has been an Arkansas Supreme Court justice since 1991; has had a career in the legal profession; and has published extensively in journals such as Arkansas Lawyer,  Arkansas Business, and Arkansas Times.  He was scheduled to be a senior at Hall High in 1958-59.  His father, Robert R. Brown, the Episcopal bishop of Arkansas, had called for the integration of Little Rock Episcopal churches in 1957 and been roundly criticized by many for doing so.  Brown recalls that his father lost friend because of his principled stands.  In some cases, old friends would cross the street to avoid speaking to him, and he received harassing telephone calls.  Brown was sent away to an Episcopal high school in Texas during the 1958-59 year, but even from that distance he knew that “the fiery glow of racial hatred continued to burn unabated in Little Rock...Raised in this crucible of racial ferment, my personal views began to take shape.  I supported integrated schools in 1958-59, and my commitment was strengthened by a trip to Morehouse College in Atlanta my senior year in college, the 1963 March on Washington, the 1966 race riots, and the assassinations s of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy in 1968.  Through it all, I recognized that affording equal education was the only chance for our multicultural society to survive and prevail and that it would take several generation for progress to be truly obtained and gauged.”

 

In 1982, when his only child, Stuart, entered the Little Rock public schools, it was at the height of white flight and much turmoil.  His desire to understand these problems led to his 1999 report to the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation entitled “The Second Crisis of Little Rock.”  From researching that report, he says now: “I concluded that much remained to be done.”  Today Brown says: “No doubt, my personal history and my participation and connection with the Little Rock public schools gave me a unique perspective when the issue of public school funding for adequate and equal education raised in my court in 2002 in the Lake View case.  The future of this state and, indeed, this country, rests on the education of all of our children.  Our state constitution requires adequacy and equality in education.  And my court did not shrink from this challenge int the Lake View cases.  I am convinced that the seeds of what we sowed will bear fruit in the succeeding generation for races in this state.”

 

The voices of the Lost Year still resonate–if we will only listen.  Those who remain bitter warn us to never take away the right to a free public education for all.  The voices of those who have on to higher personal achievement or to a higher vision inspire us in their triumph.

 

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Finding the Lost Year: What Happened When Little Rock Closed its Public Schools?

Finding the Lost Year: What Happened When Little Rock Closed its Public Schools?

Sondra Gordy

 

During the Little Rock School crisis, the governor of the state closed the public schools for a year. Although much has been written about the crisis itself, little has been published on the lost year when the schools were closed to students, both black and white. Finding the Lost Year is the first book to examine how a desegregation crisis turned into a community crisis. In Little Rock in 1958, 3,665 students were locked out of a free public education. Teachers’ lives were disrupted. Students were scattered to schools outside the city, some left the state, some joined the military and ot hers took correspondence courses. But fully half the black students went without schooling that year.

Author Sondra Gordy draws on personal interviews with more than 60 former teachers and students, detailing the long-term consequences for students affected by events and circumstances that were out of their control.

Gordy, a history professor at the University of Central Arkansas, also has produced a documentary on the topic, which can be ordered at thelostyear.com.

 

                                               



[1]Finding the Lost Year, What Happened When Little Rock Closed It Public Schools, Sondra Gordy, University of Arkansas Press. Fayetteville, Arkansas