Voices From A Forgotten Desegregation: An excerpt from The First Twenty-Five: An Oral History of the Desegregation of Little Rock’s Public Junior High Schools (Arkansas Life)
LaVerne Bell-Tolliver interviewed by Kyle Kellams of KUAF.
LaVerne Bell-Tolliver and Dr. Kenneth Jones interviewed at KUAR.
“It was one of those periods that you got through, as opposed to enjoyed. It wasn’t an environment that . . . was nurturing, so you shut it out. You just got through it. You just took it a day at a time. You excelled if you could. You did your best. You felt as though the eyes of the community were on you.”—Glenda Wilson, East Side Junior High
Much has been written about the historical desegregation of Little Rock Central High School by nine African American students in 1957. History has been silent, however, about the students who desegregated Little Rock’s five public junior high schools—East Side, Forest Heights, Pulaski Heights, Southwest, and West Side—in 1961 and 1962.
The First Twenty-Five gathers the personal stories of these students some fifty years later. They recall what it was like to break down long-standing racial barriers while in their early teens—a developmental stage that often brings emotional vulnerability. In their own words, these individuals share what they saw, heard, and felt as children on the front lines of the civil rights movement, providing insight about this important time in Little Rock, and how these often painful events from their childhoods affected the rest of their lives.
Listen to LaVerne Bell-Tolliver interviewed on KUAR.
LaVerne Bell-Tolliver, herself one of the “first twenty-five,” is an associate professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Social Work. She has worked in the fields of mental health and child protective services and is senior pastor of Bullock Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Little Rock.
“LaVerne Bell-Tolliver focuses on stories that haven’t been told before, which automatically makes them important for just about any community. I almost think those stories could be about anything—childhood games, ghost stories, eccentric relatives—and she could have written a version of this book. But her work has special power because it concerns the entry of some brave people into the previously forbidden world of the white schools. This is an important book.”
—David Stricklin, Director, Butler Center for Arkansas Studies
“LaVerne Bell-Tolliver’s work is a critical benchmark for American ethnographies; her narrative is deeply revealing, accessible, sensitive, and insightful. This is an illuminating text for all scholars interested in how ethnic groups undergo and experience social change through key moments in American history. As such, this work will likely inspire generations of scholarship in cultural history and social ecology in Arkansas, the American South, and beyond.”
—Justin M. Nolan, associate professor and chair, Department of Anthropology, University of Arkansas
Feb. 3 – Pyramid Books, 1001 Wright Avenue, Little Rock, 2:00 pm
Feb. 4 – Bullock Temple, 1513 S. Park Street, Little Rock, 2:00 pm
Feb. 15 – UALR Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity, 2801 S. University, Little Rock, 3:00 pm
Feb. 26 – ALLPS School of Innovation, 2350 Old Farmington Road, Fayetteville, 6-8 pm
June 6 – Butler Center Legacies and Lunch, Main Library Darragh Center, 100 Rock St., noon
“The collection extends our understanding of school desegregation in Little Rock beyond the iconic events of 1957-1959. It places emphasis on the next generation of “firsts” at the junior high school level, but many of the participants also went on to attend Central High in the mid-1960s, and the interviews provide valuable insight into the ongoing process of desegregation there as well. The First Twenty-Five calls attention to the evolution of school desegregation policy in Little Rock at the crucial juncture when massive resistance gave way to a focus on pupil placement procedures that were designed to keep the number of black students attending the city’s white schools as small as possible. … The First Twenty-Five assembles a useful set of interviews that will afford readers access to multiple and divergent perspectives. It may be a particularly useful tool for middle and junior high school teachers because it will enable young people to sec this history through the eyes of students like themselves.”
—Erin Krutko Devlin, Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Spring 2018
“It might seem redundant to remind ourselves that the people featured in video footage of news stories — the black-and-white images capturing a precise moment in our shared past — are actual human beings, not simply a visual complement. We forget this, though; the images today move too quickly. The impressions are too fleeting, and there’s a future-seeking urgency to click or swipe to the next thing before we even have a chance to fully grasp what we’re seeing. Often, it takes a book like Dr. LaVerne Bell-Tolliver’s “The First Twenty-Five: An Oral History of the Desegregation of Little Rock’s Public Junior High Schools” to cut through the Hollywood sheen of made-for-television history and punctuate the lives of those who shaped and changed our world. ”
—Matt Baker, Arkansas Times, February 2015