- The First Twenty-Five: An Oral History of the Desegregation of Little Rock's Public Junior High Schools ed. by LaVerne Bell-Tolliver
The school desegregation experiences of the Little Rock Nine have been extensively discussed, but far less attention has been granted to the students who followed them. LaVerne Bell-Tolliver's collection of oral histories, The First Twenty-Five: An Oral History of the Desegregation of Little Rock's Public Junior High Schools, aims to correct this absence through interviews with the students who desegregated the Little Rock, Arkansas, junior high schools in [End Page 220] 1961. Bell-Tolliver, herself one of these twenty-five students, wants to better understand her own history through an examination of the existing archival record and through conversations with the other pioneering students.
Bell-Tolliver frames five research questions as guidelines for her study, balancing questions about structure with issues of individual experience. Structurally, she asks why the entire school district was not desegregated at once and how school officials designed the desegregation plan for the junior high schools. Experientially, she asks how the students felt about how the adults in their lives prepared them for their task, how they felt about the quality of the education they received at the desegregated junior high school compared with the education they had received at the segregated elementary schools, and how their experience of desegregation influenced their adult lives. She addresses the structural questions in two brief chapters at the beginning of the book, using news coverage, legal documents, and transcripts of school board meetings. These opening chapters function primarily to give the reader some basic context necessary to understand the interviews.
The interviews make up the deeply engaging core of the book. This section offers an invaluable trove of material for better understanding the varied experiences of the students on the front lines of desegregation. The interviews are organized by school; each junior high school gets its own chapter. This organization sets up contrasts between the experiences of students who desegregated in a small group versus those who did so alone. It also allows readers to see how differently two students could experience the same school. For example, Henry Rodgers saw the principal of Southwest Junior High School as being supportive and fair, whereas Wilbunette Walls Randolph remembers being taunted and intimidated by the very same principal. Other areas of interest include the extent to which students were given a choice about participating in desegregation and the extent to which they felt their traumatic experiences were ultimately worthwhile. Some interviewees commented on the adverse effects of desegregation on the vibrant black businesses and neighborhoods, and others commented on the resegregation that has been in process for several decades. Bell-Tolliver has edited the interviews for clarity, noting where redactions were made and where readers can locate the full recordings. She is careful to observe that the interviewees were recalling events that had occurred many years earlier and that their recollections may differ from what they might have felt at the time. She argues persuasively that the interview material is nevertheless valuable to the historical archive; moreover, she frames her questions skillfully, encouraging her subjects to become interpreters of their own pasts and of their own roles in the historical record.
In the last two chapters, Bell-Tolliver analyzes some of the overarching themes that permeate the interviews and offers recommendations for adults who are preparing children to enter a situation in which they are in the minority for any reason, whether it be race, gender, or disability. In doing so, she reminds readers that racial justice and educational equity are ongoing projects belonging to the present as well as to the past. This volume will be of interest to scholars of desegregation, education historians, and social workers and school administrators concerned with supporting marginalized children. [End Page 221]