Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine black students who first integrated Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957, walked to a bus-stop bench last week on the corner of 16th Street and Park Street as hundreds of people watched, much as she’d done exactly 61 years ago.
This time, though, the onlookers weren’t furious and violent white protesters who blocked her entrance to the Arkansas high school but friends and community members who gathered to watch her and current Central High students dedicate a commemorative bench as part of the school’s Civil Rights Memory Project.
Eckford, 76, told the crowd how lonely she’d felt that first day of school and how local reporters had tried to shelter her from the angry protesters by forming a “human barrier.” Now, she was “very, very happy” to return, she said, noting how important it is to discuss and learn from history.
“I believe that we can only have true reconciliation after there has been an honest acknowledgment of the painful but shared past,” Eckford said.
Eckford also said how grateful she was to the students who led the bench-construction effort. “I don’t cry anymore when I’m talking about the past, and that is because of the efforts of students,” she said.
High school senior Adaja Cooper, who led reconstruction efforts, said she began to consider the idea of reconstructing the bench during 60th anniversary events last year when she heard oral histories from the Little Rock Nine. She saw pictures of Eckford on the bench and wanted to find it for herself.
“I was looking for the bench all around Central, all around Little Rock. I couldn’t find it so I was like, you know, we should just build it,” Cooper said. She contacted architects and community partners, and after she spoke to the local rotary club, she said they donated $15,000 “on the spot.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2018 edition of Education Week as Bench Honors Memory of Little Rock Nine