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Students in Arkansas recreate civil rights history to learn, teach

Posted at 4:31 PM, Jun 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-22 16:31:38-04

On the corner of South Park Street and West 16th in Little Rock, Arkansas, sits a bus bench.

To the untrained eye, it is nothing more than some wood and concrete, but to the students at Central High School across the street, it is a reminder of the racism our country has faced.

In 1957, Central became the first high school in a major U.S. city to desegregate when nine black students were escorted through crowds of white students by the National Guard so they could attend class.

One of those black students, Elizabeth Eckford, was mercilessly heckled as she approached the school. So much so, that she turned away and retreated to that bus bench as a safe haven while she waited for a ride home.

"Even though it’s history, it didn’t happen too long ago,” said Adaja Cooper, who graduated from Central High School last year.

Years after the 1957 Little Rock Nine crisis, the bus bench Eckford had sat on was removed for no particular reason. In the decades that followed, most did not bat an eye, until Cooper, a black student, was in her junior year of high school and wanted to recreate the piece of history as part of a school project known as The Memory Project.

“It’s not just the story of building a bench, but the retelling of the history,” said Cooper. “It created a bond, and it’ll last for the rest of my life.”

With the help of sophomore Milo Williams Thompson and history teacher George West, Cooper began pouring concrete, cutting wood, and reassembling the bench.

It was not the first piece of history recreated by The Memory Project, but it was the most technical.

"It was supposed to be a one year project, and we couldn’t stop after we saw the experiences the students were having,” West said.

By 2018, when Cooper was a senior and Williams Thompson was a junior, the bench was completed and placed on the corner once occupied by the original. For the students, it marked an achievement in craftsmanship, as well as personal growth.

"It’s that relationship that students begin to create, build, and experience beyond just the small universe that they arrive in,” said West. “They have a voice in the community."

"We have to recognize that racism didn’t end in the 60s,” added Williams Thompson. “It’s still around and it’s still a national problem.”

The Memory Project has created walking tours that supplement the ones taken by tourists at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. It has also constructed plays where current students will research and portray past students who played integral roles during the 1957 desegregation, helping them become purveyors of history and change.

“It’s on their shoulders to tell these stories and to become, not the voice of the past, but the action in the present,” said West.