The Good, the Ugly, and a Happy Ending

Friday, November 08, 2013 Road Junkies 0 Comments

On the Road Again, Day 3:  Little Rock, AR to Oklahoma City, OK

Having arrived yesterday with just enough time to explore the Arkansas State Capitol, we wanted to stop by a few other Little Rock sites before moving on west today.  Searching for letterboxes led us to the city's Riverfront Park, a vibrant 33-acre green space stretching eleven blocks along the southern bank of the Arkansas River in downtown Little Rock.  The park provides large spaces for group events, creative play areas for kids, walking trails, sculptures, and a glimpse of the city's history.  The "little rock" which gave the city its name has even been put on display here.

Junction Bridge
The Arkansas River Trail, comprised of 17 miles of pedestrian trails on both sides of the river traverses the park and encompasses Junction Bridge, one of two repurposed railroad bridges which now carry pedestrian and bicycle traffic across the river between Little Rock and North Little Rock.  The vertical lift section of each bridge stands permanently in the 'up' position to accommodate boat traffic, with elevators and stairways provided at each end of the span.

In the park's history pavilion, drawings and verbal accounts from settlers interpret the early history of the city and the state.  The pavilion also houses one of Peter Toth's Whispering Giant statues.  Standing 20 feet tall, the oak carving was one of Toth's early works, completed in 1975.  Sadly, we were unable to locate the related letterbox which was supposed to be hidden nearby.

Another site we were eager to see before leaving the city was the Central High School National Historic Site.  Little Rock Central High was the center of world attention in 1957 when America's commitment to its founding principles of equality was put to the test as nine black students attempted to desegregate the school in accordance with the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the epic decision that struck down all laws in the nation which established segregated schools.

Our first surprise when we arrived at Central High was the massive size of the school.  We wondered how the National Park Service could afford to maintain such a large facility.  Making the official visitor center diagonally across from the school our first stop, we found our next surprise.  Central High School is still very much an active school facility, the educational home of 2,600 Little Rock students in grades 9 through 12.

Little Rock Central High School
Central High's Gothic revival/Art Deco gem was completed in 1927 at a cost of $1.5 million.  With 600,000 square feet of space, the school was the nation's largest and most expensive high school of its day.  For its first thirty years, Central served white students exclusively.  Then the Little Rock school board conceived a plan to gradually and quietly integrate the city's schools.  Unfortunately, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus decided that taking a stand against desegretation would help him achieve re-election.

Visitor Center exhibits
Faubus underestimated President Eisenhower's deep belief in the rule of law and his willingness to use military force when needed, even at home.  In the early weeks of the school year before U.S. Army troops were dispatched to ensure that the nine courageous African American pioneers could attend classes safely, Central High School became the center of a constitutional crisis and an ongoing news event.  Hellish scenes of vicious physical and verbal abuse of the black students played out on TV screens across the nation, an ugly stain on our national history.  The visitor center exhibits relate the events of 1957 compellingly.

Though Central High is still a vital, and now multicultural, part of the city's school district, its immediate neighborhood has become the victim of urban decay.  Dozens of houses in the vicinity have been boarded up and many others have fallen into disrepair.  The school itself appears to be well maintained, and we were surprised to see no security in view.  Visitors are allowed to visit the school grounds, but not the building itself.

With only a mild interest in visiting the Clinton Presidential Center and Park, we decided to foreo it and head west on I-40 toward Oklahoma City, which we decided this morning would be our destination for the evening. On the way, we contacted our cousin Ann, hoping their schedule would allow for a short-notice get together for lunch tomorrow.  We were delighted when she accepted for lunch and also invited us to attend services at their local synagogue, where she would be leading the music for tonight's service.

The stunning Temple B'nai Israel Chapel (photo from Bockus Paine Architects)
Arriving with just enough time to check into our hotel and freshen up a tiny bit, we darted over to Temple B'nai Israel for a lovely Friday evening service with lively contemporary music provided by Ann, her guitar and her percussionist friend.  The energetic Rabbi Harris offered the perfect counterpart with her humorous and insightful sermon relating biblical events to our contemporary world.  Who could argue with her designation of Rachel and Leah as "the first sister wives"?

Daily Stats
  • Miles:  367
  • Letterboxes:  2 found, 2 attempted
  • States:  2 (AR, OK)
  • Weather:  41° to 66°, clear to partly cloudy
  • Cousins visited:  2