Our American Story

The Little Rock Nine

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Elmer J. Whiting, III, © Gertrude Samuels. Object number 2011.17.201.

In 1954 the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were illegal. The case, Brown v. The Board of Education, has become iconic for Americans because it marked the formal beginning of the end of segregation.

But the gears of change grind slowly. It wasn't until September 1957 when nine teens would become symbols, much like the landmark decision we know as Brown v. The Board of Education, of all that was in store for our nation in the years to come.

The "Little Rock Nine," as the nine teens came to be known, were to be the first African American students to enter Little Rock's Central High School. Three years earlier, following the Supreme Court ruling, the Little Rock school board pledged to voluntarily desegregate its schools. This idea was explosive for the community and, like much of the South, it was fraught with anger and bitterness.

On September 2, 1957 the night prior to what was to be the teens' first day in Central High classrooms, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus ordered the state's National Guard to block their entrance. Faubus said it was for the safety of the nine students.

On September 4, just 24 hours after a federal judge ordered the Little Rock Nine to begin attending Central High immediately, a belligerent mob, along with the National Guard, again prevented the teens from entering the school.

Sixteen days later a federal judge ordered the National Guard removed. Once again on September 23, the Little Rock Nine attempted to enter the school. Though escorted by Little Rock police into a side door, another angry crowd gathered and tried to rush into Central High. Fearing for the lives of the nine students, school officials sent the teens home. They did, however, manage to attend classes for about three hours.

Finally, 52 years ago today, on September 25, 1957, following a plea from Little Rock's mayor, Woodrow Mann, President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the National Guard and sent U.S. Army troops to the scene. Personally guarded by soldiers from the National Guard soldiers and the Army's 101st Airborne, the Little Rock Nine began regular class attendance at Central High.

Four students and an Army escort on their way to Central High, with a crowd waiting in front of the school.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Ernest C. Withers

However, their ordeal was far from over. Each day the nine teens were harassed, jeered, and threatened by many of the white students as they took small steps into deeper, more turbulent waters. That spring, on May 27, 1958, Ernest Green became the first African American graduated from Central High.

Try to imagine the torrent of emotions that ran through those young men and women. Imagine the courage they had to muster each day. Try to picture the white students who jeered and harassed them. Imagine also what it would have been like to be a white student or teacher who supported the Little Rock Nine.

The task of a great museum is to not merely revisit historic events, but rather to help stir our minds and souls. African American history is vital to understanding America's history. Our nation's epic stories should be presented in a way that enables us when viewing an exhibition to be immersed in the moment, to be able to feel some of the emotion of the event and, perhaps, see it from a new or different perspective. We hope the visitor experience will open the door to conversation and understanding.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture will be far more than a collection of objects. The Museum will be a powerful, positive force in the national discussion about race and the important role African Americans have played in the American story — a museum that will make all Americans proud.

Lonnie Bunch
Founding Director