Guardian Angel

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Teacher and defender of Arkansas' Little Rock Nine dies.

Elizabeth Paisley Huckaby observed one of America's most important civil rights events as few could: from the inside of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, during its first year of desegregation. As vice principal for girls, Huckaby helped the female black students admitted to Central High in the late 1950s navigate the formerly all-white school and then wrote about her experience in Crisis at Central High. In March, Huckaby died of heart failure. She was 93.

Huckaby's memoirs, which were turned into a 1981 TV movie starring Joanne Woodward, offered a rare insider's view of the landmark event. Reporters had been banned from the school after the so-called Little Rock Nine were admitted, and for years, little was known about their lives as students at the once all-white school. "Ms. Huckaby did in fact get to see what went on as no one else did," says Craig Rains, a Central High senior at the time.

The black students who crossed the threshold of Central High for the first time on September 25, 1957, were escorted through angry mobs by the 101st Airborne Division, sent by President Dwight Eisenhower. Once inside the school's classrooms and hallways, they faced hostility and indifference.

Six of the nine pioneers were girls. In Huckaby, they found a protector. She escorted them to classes, listened to their problems, and reminded them of their courage. "I had an understanding of [the South's] prejudices," she wrote in her book, "but as I grew to realize that they were just that, I had set about eradicating them from my thinking. I knew now that I would welcome our black pupils and was eager to play my proper role in the integration of Central High School."

Huckaby taught at Central High from 1930 to 1954, then served as the vice principal for girls until her retirement in 1969.

--Kate Sullivan

Vol. 10, Issue 8, Page 15

Published in Print: May 1, 1999, as Guardian Angel
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