In the Footsteps of the ‘Little Rock Nine'

For the entire month of February, NBC will showcase essays about Black Americans who pioneered change in United States history during the Civil Rights Movement that led to nationwide desegregation. Pioneers include those who led local efforts to desegregate schools, professionals who forged ahead to become luminaries within their industries, and advocates who stoked the wave of change head-on in the nation's bid for racial justice and equality.

Dr. LaVerne Bell-Tolliver, a Native of Segregated Little Rock, Arkansas

I was the only African American student that was [in Forest Heights Junior High School] for two years. That experience, as you can imagine, was life changing at the time.

Dr. LaVerne Bell-Tolliver, on her experience desegregating Forest Heights Junior High School

“In the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” Chief Justice Earl Warren declared in the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

While the Brown decision decisively put an end to decades of segregation in public education, lack of enforcement and coordinated resistance by segregationists solidified racial inequity in public school systems into the mid-1960s.

Dr. LaVerne Bell-Tolliver, a native of segregated Little Rock, Ark., grew up with an awareness of the gap between the city’s Black and white citizens. Key among her memories is the story of the Little Rock Nine, a group of black students who faced rioting mobs of segregationists on their mission to integrate Little Rock Central High School in 1957.  

The Arkansas National Guard escorts Carlotta Walls LaNier and a fellow member of the Little Rock Nine on the grounds of Little Rock Central High School, September 1957.
The Arkansas National Guard escorts Carlotta Walls LaNier and a fellow member of the Little Rock Nine on the grounds of Little Rock Central High School, September 1957.

For much of her childhood, Bell-Tolliver did not directly face discrimination. She was raised in a Black community on Little Rock’s Valentine Street. Life was peaceful, and while she later understood the realities of the world around her, Bell-Tolliver’s corner of the world was well insulated by her family and community.

“Children would be able to be outside,” Bell-Tolliver remembered. “[We] would be able to play until my mother would flick the porch light to say, ‘It is time to come in.’ It was a safe time. It was a very happy time.”

Bell-Tolliver attended Stevens Elementary, an all-Black school — a time she remembers fondly. But in 1961, life would be rocked when her family moved outside her Valentine Street sanctuary to a desegregated neighborhood in Little Rock.

“People would oftentimes curse at us or they would throw things at us,” Bell-Tolliver recollected. “We came face-to-face with a different world than we had known in the past.”

One summer day, Bell-Tolliver’s father grabbed the keys to his car and drove the family down to visit Forest Heights Junior High School, an all-white school. “This is where you’re going to school,” he announced to Bell-Tolliver. Shocked at the revelation, and unable to contest her parents’ decision, Bell-Tolliver processed the life-changing impact that would come with desegregating a school in Little Rock.

She saw how mobs reacted to the Little Rock Nine. She recalled the nearby bombing of the home of the youngest member of the group, Carlotta Walls LaNier. How would crowds react to Bell-Tolliver’s attempt to integrate Forest Heights?

Dr. LaVerne Bell-Tolliver, a native of segregated Little Rock, Arkansas, recalls her experience as the first Black student attempting to desegregate an all-white school following in the footsteps of the Little Rock Nine.

On the first day of seventh grade, a petrified Bell-Tolliver gripped her mother’s hand as they walked up to the school building. Unlike the events at Little Rock Central High School, mobs did not attempt to prevent her from entering the building. Instead, she was greeted with a “Hi” from a young classmate. But the welcome was short-lived.

“I would be ignored, or I would be pushed or shoved. Some students would … push another person onto me and say, ‘Will the black rub off [of] you?’,” Bell-Tolliver remembered. “If I sat at a table … then the table would clear. … Those kinds of things were a part of my everyday life.”

Bell-Tolliver was the only Black student at Forest Heights for the two years she attended the school. She found comfort in knowing that her faith and community supported her as she faced the incessant challenges and rejection that accompanied her peaceful quest for an equitable education — all the while dismantling the school’s identity as a segregated place of learning.

“The young lady [that said ‘hi’ on my first day] never said another word to me,” Bell-Tolliver reflected. The two would ultimately reconnect decades later, at their 40th class reunion.

Bell-Tolliver, who applied the lessons of the Little Rock Nine to her own experience integrating Forest Heights Junior High School, intimately understands how to channel hardship into opportunity. She carried these lessons throughout her life, harnessing painful memories to further her pursuit to earn a master’s degree in social work and Biblical counseling, and a Ph.D. in family therapy.

“My goal as a child was help this world become a better place in which we could live,” Bell-Tolliver noted. “My goal is still helping people to be able to help themselves.”

Comcast NBCUniversal’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement platform honors the legacy and impact of America’s civil rights champions. Watch Voices’ full interview with Elaine Brown, and more than 17 hours of firsthand accounts and historical moments, online and on Xfinity On Demand.

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