The Storytellers: A Local Mother-Daughter Team Helps a Civil Rights Icon Share Her Story
Updated: Apr 29, 2020
by Eurydice and Grace Stanley
Eurydice Stanley, Elizabeth Eckford and Grace Stanley at a speaking engagement in Shreveport, LA. (Photographer: Christian Stanley)
Elizabeth Eckford was only 15 years old when she first attempted to attend Little Rock Central High on September 4, 1957. She and a group of African American students who would later become known as the Little Rock Nine were part of the challenging social experiment of desegregation. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled segregation unlawful in the Brown v. Board of Education decision, but schools were making very limited strides toward following the court’s mandate and desegregating their classrooms. The Little Rock Nine became famous for being the first in Little Rock to have the opportunity to take advantage of that decision.
“I wanted to attend Central because I hoped to go to college,” said Eckford. “Central High was the best school in the city.” Governor Orval Faubus tried to prevent the desegregation of Central High by surrounding the school by armed Arkansas National Guard soldiers. Eckford was blocked from entering the school by the soldiers and enraged segregationists. Ultimately, President Eisenhower had to send in the 101st Airborne to ensure the safe passage of the Little Rock Nine into school.
The members of the Little Rock Nine did not know that they would be signing up for a year of abuse from teachers, administrators and their fellow classmates. “We were physically, mentally or verbally attacked every day,” notes Eckford. “We stayed at Central because we knew there were many people counting on our success."
Indeed, Elizabeth Eckford has an incredible story to tell, but given her experiences at Central High, she shunned interviews and did not think anyone would be interested in her story. Eckford and, Pensacola resident, Eurydice Stanley have been friends for more than 20 years. Stanley met Eckford while conducting military training at Camp Robinson in Little Rock. “I interviewed Elizabeth and Hazel Bryan Massery, the student who was captured in Will Counts’ famous picture taken while Elizabeth was being attacked the first day of school. The two had reconciled. I interviewed them hoping that the two could share suggestions that would help me as I wrote my dissertation which addressed racial reconciliation,” Eurydice says.
“She has been after me for 20 years trying to get me to tell my story,” notes Eckford. “She finally wore me down I guess.” Eckford has been a mentor to Grace Stanley since she was a child. “I have learned so much from Auntie Elizabeth about being resilient,” said Grace. “I wanted to share her insights with others.” Grace, a junior at West Florida High School, was 15 years old when she co-authored The Worst First Day, the same age Eckford was when she first attempted to attend Central High 60 years earlier.
“I truly don’t know what I would do if I had to face the same circumstances,” said Grace. “You would do what you have to do,” assured Eckford. “The civil rights movement was conducted by ordinary people who had an extraordinary mission,” noted Eckford.
The Little Rock Nine being escorted from Central High by the 101st Airborne. (Image courtesy of the Little Rock Central High National Park Service.)
"The Worst First Day" tells Eckfords autobiography in verse. It is filled with images from the era, graphic artwork commissioned from Rachel Gibson and intriguing essays. It was written to share overlooked leadership insights from the Central High Crisis with the next generation. “Too many students do not know the truth about the Central High Crisis or that a President had to send soldiers to an American school. That is a great shame,” said Eckford.
Since the book's release last year, the writing team has travelled extensively to share Eckford’s anti-bullying message of resilience, tenacity and inspiration. “I never ask students to place themselves in harms way when they see someone being bullied, but I do encourage them to befriend the person being bullied so they know they are not alone. Many times, we were hurt more by the bystanders who watched than the bullies who attacked us,” said Eckford.
"The Worst First Day" is available on Amazon. The book has received rave reviews from numerous agencies and several awards including the 2018 Moonbeam Multicultural Nonfiction Gold Children’s Book Award and the 2019 NABE Pinnacle Book Award for Social Justice. The book is also a finalist for the Indie Author Legacy Award in the Children’s Book category. Additionally, Eckford received an honorary doctorate last year from Knox College for her contributions to the civil rights community. “This has all been more than I could have ever hoped,” said Eckford.
The authors enjoy sharing the crucial messages shared in The Worst First Day, particularly Eckford’s favorite, #WalkPastHate. “I consider this book to be my legacy,” said Eckford. “This was my first time telling my story my way.”
The cover of "The Worst First Day."
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