Updated: Sep 8
This January, I took to the road with a friend to explore Black history, food, and excellence Little Rock, Arkansas and beyond. At the top of my list was a visit to Little Rock Central High School, which was highly ranked in travel guides and recommended by multiple friends. What I expected to be an informative but not necessarily exciting stop on our trip ended up being the highlight of our experience and a must-do when you're in Little Rock.
The focus of historic battles over desegregation in the late 1950s, Little Rock Central High School is still a functioning school and also a National Historic site. There's a visitors center with exhibits and visitors can also take a free ranger-led tour that explores overlooked details, first-hand anecdotes, and thoughtful reflections surrounding Central High School, the Little Rock Nine, and school desegregation in the United States. It was one of the best tours I have ever been on - and should definitely be on your list for a trip to Little Rock!
So, why should you take this tour? Here are my top 3 reasons:
1. This tour goes beyond the superficial textbook story most of us are taught in school about the Little Rock Nine and desegregation in the US.
Did you know that one year after the Little Rock Nine enrolled in Central High, the then Governor closed ALL public schools in Little Rock for a FULL YEAR rather than allow integration to continue? We definitely didn’t before this tour! Who were the real heroes in the story of the Little Rock Nine? Why were there only 9 students selected to desegregate Central High? What were the long-term repercussions of the push for integration in Little Rock? This tour will answer all of those questions and more for a more nuanced look at the history of the Little Rock Nine.
2. On the tour you will hear personal stories from the Little Rock Nine as well as bystanders you won’t get anywhere else.
One of my favorite parts of this tour was an anecdote the ranger shared from a white bystander who attended the tour decades later, expressing deep remorse at her lack of courage (listen to an excerpt). After years of giving tours of Central High, the ranger had seen and heard it all and was willing to share - from idle bystanders reliving their shame for the first time in decades, to conversations with the Little Rock Nine themselves, and beyond. Hearing these unique stories felt like peeking behind the veil of the common rhetoric and was one of the most rewarding elements of this tour.
3. This tour is totally free!
Because Central High as a National Historic Site is under the administration of US National Park Service, this tour is available free of cost. For travelers on a budget, tours offered through the NPS are an amazing resource since they are usually free and led by highly-qualified rangers.
Things to know before you go:
1. You have to book it in advance
Book this free tour in advance to secure your spot. Tours are currently limited to 15 people and visitors must reserve their spots 2 days in advance. Tours take place Tuesday through Saturday at 1 PM CT (based on availability), and meet at the Visitor's Center, where we had a quick 5-minute intro with our ranger guide. After the intro, the tour is completely outdoors (so bundle up if you're visiting in winter months!). This was also a relief since we are still being cautious about COVID and were able to remain socially distanced - for this same reason, tours currently do not go inside Central High. While I am sure that would have been fascinating, in my opinion, its omission didn't detract from the overall value of the tour.
2. Plan for it to take three hours
Tour length can vary depending on who is leading it, but plan for three hours from start to finish so that you can also check out the exhibits at the visitor's center after your tour. Our group of seven covered only about two blocks during our 2+ hour tour around Central High School but we were highly engaged and barely noticed the time passing.
3. This tour is as much about Black excellence as it is about anything else
Yes, you will discuss horrific instances of racist and white supremacist violence on this tour. But the tour is as much about Black excellence, resilience, and drive as it is about anything else. Hold onto that when you listen to the incredible stories of these children who faced down angry mobs and more for the right to an equal education.
For more information on the tour visit the NPS website. For more things to do in the area check out my 2-day itinerary for exploring Black excellence and food in Little Rock, Marianna, and Helena Arkansas!
And if you have any questions about this activity, drop them in the comments below.
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