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Building on the Past

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For a few days in the fall of 1957, Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, became the setting for one of the most dramatic confrontations in the struggle for black civil rights.

But in the nearly four decades since, time has taken its toll on the historic building. The roof leaks, the plaster is crumbling, and dozens of windows need replacing. Central High has deteriorated so much that the National Trust for Historic Preservation has placed the school on its 1996 list of the nation's most "endangered" historic places. The trust, a nonprofit organization established by Congress in 1949, publishes the annual endangered list to raise public awareness--and money--to preserve important but threatened sites and structures.

Surveyors estimate that Central High needs more than $6- million in repairs. Administrators in the financially strapped Little Rock school district, along with officials from the trust, are hoping that a fund-raising campaign launched this summer will help restore the building.

"Central High School is a civil rights landmark and an important reflection of our diverse heritage," says Carol Cunningham, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based trust. "It was a flagship school when it was built in 1927, considered the most beautiful school in the country. We're trying to get people to take note of both its architectural importance and the significance of the events that took place there 40 years ago."

In 1957, Governor Orval Faubus summoned the Arkansas National Guard to prevent black students from entering the all-white Central High. But President Dwight Eisenhower instead ordered the National Guard troops to protect the students and allow them to enroll. Photographs and television news footage of the nine black students' arrival for their first day of school surrounded by hostile classmates are among the best-known symbols of the civil rights movement.

Central High remains in use despite its dilapidated condition, enrolling about 2,000 students and ranking among the state's top high schools for academic achievement. Principal Rudolph Howard says the building's beauty, like its place in history, has endured. Visitors to the city, he says, come to see it "by the bus load."

This summer, the trust placed full-page ads featuring the plight of Central High in major newspapers, including The New York Times. And in Little Rock, city officials held a news conference to focus attention on the building's condition. Among the speakers was Elizabeth Eckford, one of the original nine African-American students. "Central High is still going to be here," Eckford said at the news conference. "But we need to assure that it will be here with the kind of dignity it deserves."

Additional information about the fund-raising campaign is available from Doug Eaton of the Little Rock school district, 810 West Markham, Little Rock, AR 72201. Or call the district at (501) 324-2000.

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