Photographs courtesy of University of Arkansas at Little Rock Center for History and Culture

 

It was a Tuesday morning, Sept. 3, 1957, the first day of a new school year in Little Rock. Elizabeth Huckaby left home at 6:55 and headed toward Central High School.

“As I drove up the Sixteenth Street hill,” she wrote later, “I could see National Guardsmen in battle dress standing thick around the perimeter of the school grounds, their trucks and jeeps parked on the streets and behind the building. They had guns. I stopped at the entrance to the campus and … identified myself to the guardsmen. I parked my car in the teachers’ parking lot. It was 7:05. This had been my school since 1930. Now I felt like a foreigner.”

The above account is included in Huckaby’s book, Crisis at Central High: Little Rock, 1957-58. She was an English teacher and vice principal for girls at the school.

In a nutshell, here’s what happened the year the Little Rock Nine became Central’s first African American students: On Sept. 2, Gov. Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the Nine from entering the school. Sept. 20, a federal judge ordered an end to the interference; Little Rock police were tasked with protecting the students. Sept. 23, the students entered the school; police were unable to control a mob and a riot broke out, so the students left the school in a patrol car. Sept. 24, Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower sent 1,200 members of the 101st Airborne Division to restore order. May 25, Ernest Green became Central’s first African American graduate.

Huckaby is not as well known as others associated with those events, but given her perspective as a school administrator, it might be interesting to briefly spotlight her life. The following comes chiefly from Huckaby’s book, an Arkansas Gazette article about her retirement, and an entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.

The Gazette article, published June 12, 1969, stated, “Probably as much as any member of the school staff, Mrs. Huckaby became the object of intense vilification by the segregationist forces … and conversely a champion of the forces of law and order.”

Little Rock high schools were closed during the 1958-59 school year, known as the Lost Year. According to the encyclopedia, during this time “legislators targeted Huckaby and other teachers who had befriended the black students during the 1957–58 school year, appeared to support desegregation, or had made public statements in support of following federal court mandates. In May 1959, the segregationist Little Rock School Board members fired her and forty-three other teachers without due process.” However, the encyclopedia continues, “Support within the community, especially from the members of the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC) and Stop This Outrageous Purge (STOP), finally led to the recall of three segregationist board members during a recall election, and schools reopened in August 1959.”

So what shaped Huckaby’s beliefs and led to her being part of the Central story?

Born Elizabeth Paisley on born April 14, 1905, in the Southeast Arkansas town of Hamburg, she was one of five children. Her parents were Henry L. and Elizabeth Merrel Paisley. Her father was a Presbyterian minister.

In the Gazette article, she gave her parents credit for raising her without racial bias. Prejudice “simply wasn’t in any of our pattern of thinking,” she said.

The Paisley family moved from Hamburg to San Marcos, Texas, where she attended grammar school, and then to Fayetteville, Ark., where she went to high school and the University of Arkansas.

After earning a teaching degree, she took a job in Fort Smith, and returned to Fayetteville after three years to pursue a master’s degree. It was the early days of the Great Depression. Learning of an opening at Little Rock Senior High School, later named Central, she left the university and went to work at the school in 1930 at mid-term. She returned to Fayetteville the next summer to complete her master’s work.

In 1933, she married Glen T. Huckaby, a longtime Little Rock educator. They had no children.

She was asked in 1946 to take on the additional responsibility of vice principal of girls, a post later called dean of girls.

After her retirement in 1969, she worked to complete her book, basing it on her journals, records she gathered as an administrator, and newspaper articles. She had done most of the writing during the summer of 1958 and the Lost Year. According to the encyclopedia, she once said, “My goal was to produce a book after I retired when I couldn’t be fired.”

Her efforts led not only to the book, but also to a made-for-television movie.

Elizabeth Paisley Huckaby died March 18, 1999, at age 93. She is buried in Saline County’s Pinecrest Memorial Park.

Photo at top of page: Elizabeth Huckaby in front of Central High School in Little Rock; circa 1980.

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Actress Jane Woodword as Elizabeth Huckaby in front of Central High School.
Actress Jane Woodword as Elizabeth Huckaby in front of Central High School.

 

Getting a book published can be a challenge. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the retired teacher tried several times to find a publisher. She was “successful only after Time-Life Films Inc. began production of a made-for-television movie of her work.”

Louisiana State University Press printed the book in October 1980. The movie, titled “Crisis at Central High,” aired the following February on the CBS Television Network. Huckaby received a writing credit for the movie. Joanne Woodward played the role of Huckaby and received an Emmy nomination.

In a 2008 article in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Sondra Gordy wrote, “Elizabeth Huckaby’s diligence in recording her experiences and views during the Little Rock Crisis and, more particularly the ‘Lost Year’ opens a window on a mostly unreported perspective. She, her fellow teachers, and the high school students of Little Rock were forced to come to grips with the issue of desegregation in an unusually personal way.”

An example of this can be found in Huckaby’s recollection of a flag-raising ceremony when the National Guard troops were outside Central and a mob lined Park Street in front of the school. “The pupils and I stood with our hands over our hearts as the bugle sounded ‘Call to the Colors’ and the flag went up out front. As we started the words, ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,’ I heard clapping, and I looked from the flag to the mob; there they stood, applauding as if they were at a parade. The irony overcame me, and I choked out the final words, ‘indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’”

Another, especially vivid example appears in Huckaby’s obituary in The New York Times. One day, with federal troops now at the school, about 50 white boys stood at the top of the stairs at the school’s entrance as the black students approached. When no troops were in sight, the boys shouted racial epithets. The obituary then quotes from “Warriors Don’t Cry,” a memoir by Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the Nine:

“Vice Principal Huckaby made her presence known at the bottom of the stairs. Tiny, erect, and determined, she stood there all alone between us and our attackers, demanding they leave us alone. One by one she challenged the leaders, calling them by name, telling them to get to class or there would be hell to pay.”


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