“The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it.” (Chief Joseph, Nez Perce Tribe)
Getting a good education meant everything to fifteen year old Terrence as he looked forward to excelling in his class work during his upcoming junior year of high school. After all, he had been selected by a special school committee from a pool of academically elite high school applicants to become one of nine African American students to first break the color barrier of segregation to attend an all white, U.S. public school. Terrence knew that both of his hard working parents always supported his decision to transfer to this new school. But they also cautioned him about angry white protesters who might block his entrance to the school. After all, the tragic legacy of antebellum slavery and its racist overtones had never vanished in this ‘’Old South’’ region..
So as Terrance and these eight other courageous teenagers decided to move forward in their lives and attend classes there each weekday amid such racial tensions, they would develop a keen eye for whom to trust. They also learned to never stray far from those army men and city police who who seemed to be roaming everywhere around school those days. It thus seemed apparent to each of them that it was this militia’s job to protect all students, black and white, from harm when needed. So they embraced this joyous opportunity for them to compete with white students on equal terms and excel throughout the entire school year.
Terrance, in particular, also resolved to find places on campus where he could be most safe throughout the course of each school day. At first, he assumed that each of his classrooms would provide a secure place of refuge for him. Yet he soon learned that many of his teachers and fellow classmates seemed to hate him and often berated him regularly about why he chose to stay as a student at this school. However, Terrence noticed that in Math class, his stern looking teacher did not outwardly show dislike of him and the classroom atmosphere seemed relatively calm. He also noticed that she would would actually stick up for him when other students picked on him and and often called upon him regularly to answer challenging questions about assignments in class.
Clearly, Terrence had found a safe place in his Math classroom to maximize his chances for learning success every day. Yet he would now need to find other strategies to survive the school year in the face of such openly racist circumstances. Thus he would learn that “keeping his cool” to avoid physical retaliation when white students bullied him worked best. He would also spend more study time alone in the library when forced to be isolated from the eight other African American students who attended the school. He would in addition avoid drawing attention to himself after school by exiting the campus quietly each day through a basement garage. So as Terrence successfully completed this crisis ridden junior year of high school, the groundwork had been set to mold a future scholar whose will to succeed could never be denied. What other challenging deeds could be mastered in his future of endless opportunity?
Understand then my efforts to provide an authentic sense of Southern racism’s wrath in the above story of Dr. Terrence Roberts, one of the of the nine student members of the so – called “Little Rock Nine.” For during those tumultuous times of September 1957, they would put their lives at risk on several occasions to successfully enroll as African American students at all white, Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas. Racial integration of U.S. public schools as required by the 1954 legal outcome of Supreme Court Case – “Brown vs. Board of Education” had finally been achieved. Terrence would go on to earn his Ph.D. in Psychology from Southern University. He would also enjoy a long career as a distinguished professor, gifted book writer, and coveted speaker around the nation.
For a closer look at the historic events surrounding the “Little Rock Nine”, take a look at our road trip visit to Central High School/Visitor Center in these photographs below.