The Gingham-trimmed Girl of Sorrow - Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Featured Review on this writing by Sharief Hendricks

A compelling nonfiction short story about Elizabeth Eckford, the Fractured Flower of the 1957 Civil-rights Milestone at Little Rock’s Central High School.

IF YOU HAVE THE TIME, I WOULD APPRECIATE A COMMENT

The Gingham-trimmed Girl of Sorrow

 

Elizabeth Eckford, the Fractured Flower of the 1957

Civil-rights Milestone at Little Rock’s Central High School

 

Elizabeth was too excited to sleep.  After all, tomorrow morning, the pretty fifteen-year-old would walk into her new high school for the first day of class.  Since she was still awake, she ironed the pleated white skirt she had just made, one more time for good measure.  The skirt’s navy blue and white gingham trimming also received a last-minute touchup.  Like her mother and sisters, Elizabeth Eckford was an expert seamstress.  This outfit had not come from a basic McCalls or Simplicity pattern, but a more complicated one from Vogue.  Yes, with the addition of her new bobby socks and white buck loafers, this should be the ideal look when she entered Little Rock’s Central High School the next day.

When morning came, Elizabeth’s mother set about her routine inspection of her children,  making sure they all had notebooks in hand, pencils sharpened and lunch money in their pockets.  When she was satisfied, she gathered them around her and read the 27th Psalm.  Although morning family-prayer time was always an Eckford family tradition, this morning Birdie Eckford gave her Bible reading a special emphasis, as if it were her first time.  In the background, Elizabeth’s father, Oscar Jr., a night-shift worker, who would ordinarily be sleeping at that time, paced back and forth chomping on an unlit cigar.  Then, with a flourish of her new pleated skirt, Elizabeth walked out the door and into history. 

She knew exactly where her new school was.  She had passed it many times on a city bus.  Hopping off at the stop nearest Central High, Elizabeth set out walking the two blocks to the front entrance.  The neighborhood looked a little different to her, with more cars parked along the street than usual.  As she came nearer, she heard the murmur of a crowd.  Approaching more slowly now, she heard the murmur steadily turn into a roar.  As Elizabeth advanced, step-by-tentative-step, a bizarre scene materialized.  National Guard soldiers stood encircling the school grounds. 

“I saw the guards break ranks as the students approached the sidewalks,” Elizabeth later recalled.  Thinking the soldiers had been posted merely to prevent any unfortunate incident, she walked to the place where she thought the other students had entered.  When she did, the soldiers closed ranks.  Believing she had not picked the right entry point, Elizabeth walked a little further down the line to another sidewalk.  As she turned to cross, the guardsmen crossed their rifles.  Still supposing she had simply not yet found the right entrance spot, she continued along the row of guardsmen to the walkway near the school’s main entrance.  This time, the guards’ message came across with crystal clarity.  Once again blocking her way, the soldiers directed her across the street, toward a crowd of angry protestors.  “It was only then,” Elizabeth reflected, amazed at her earlier naiveté, “that I realized that they were barring me.”

Magazine articles, books and documentary films have since recorded that September 4th, 1957 morning in appalling detail.  As Elizabeth anxiously paced toward a bus stop away from the seething crowd, New York Times reporter, Benjamin Fine, would later describe the scene as, “This little girl, this tender little thing, walking with this whole mob baying at her like a pack of wolves.”  Desperately seeking a friendly face in the crowd, Elizabeth recalled she focused on that of an older woman.  “It seemed like a kind face,” she noted, “but when I looked again, she spat on me.”  The sad horror of the morning was preserved with a split-second shutter-click by Will Counts of the Arkansas Democrat.  Later in the day, under the dim red light of the newspaper’s darkroom, the image of the ferocious screaming face of Hazel Bryan behind the despondent Elizabeth Eckford, would slowly develop.

Perched on the edge of the bus stop bench for over a half hour, the "tender little thing" with the pretty homemade dress, was bombarded with screeches of,  “Go back to Africa” and “Drag her to a tree and lynch her!”  Sensing potential danger, several reporters covering the event, formed a protective ring around her.  Benjamin Fine, in fact, sat on the bench beside Elizabeth, with his arm around her.  “Don’t let them see you cry,” he whispered.  Years later, Fine was asked if he felt he had stepped beyond his role as a reporter.  “A reporter,” he countered, “has to be a human being.”

One of the saddest aspects of Elizabeth’s ordeal is that it really didn’t need to happen. The brave teenage volunteers, forever remembered as the Little Rock Nine, were supposed to go to the school together.  The day before the fateful episode, Daisy Bates, the president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP, had called the other eight students.  She told them to come to her house the next morning, where they would leave together in the company of a number of community ministers.  Elizabeth’s family, however, didn’t have a telephone.  Amazingly, no one bothered to drive to the Eckford house to inform Elizabeth and her parents.  Although the other eight would encounter the stern faces of the soldiers and growling chants of the angry crowd, the forgotten Elizabeth’s solitary excursion into the terrifying terrain stands alone.

Daisy may have forgotten Elizabeth, but Elizabeth would never forget the morning when the “baying pack of wolves” tracked her to the bus stop.  As a writer for Vanity Fair later summarized, “Something descended on Elizabeth that has never fully lifted.”“Afterward, she walked with her head down," observed Jefferson Thomas, another one of the Little Rock Nine.  He said it seemed "as if she wanted to make sure the floor didn’t open up beneath her.”

Although her spirits would eventually improve, her response, years afterward, would summarize the tragic impact of that September day.When nagging reporters knocked on the door and asked her children if they could interview their mother, the previously excited gingham-trimmed girl, wiped away a tear and said, “Tell them I’m dead.”  No, the floor never opened up beneath her, but sadly the door to her traumatic memories never totally closed.

 

I hope you enjoyed the story - if you have time, please comment.  Thank you!

 


Submitted: July 23, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Dennis L. Goodwin. All rights reserved.

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Comments

Sharief Hendricks

What a sad but topical story Dennis

A well written and accurately documented work !

Sadly this is still so relevant even today !

Loved it sir...

Well done !

Thu, July 30th, 2020 8:33am

Author
Reply

Thanks for the good words, Sharief. You're so right about the sad reality of today. This should have all faded into the past, but unfortunately it hasn't.

Have a good one,
Dennis

Thu, July 30th, 2020 5:49am

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