Nearly 70 years after Carlotta Walls LaNier walked into a Little Rock, Arkansas, high school as one of its first Black students, trailed by a seething crowd of white protesters, she sees the same kinds of fissures dividing the country again today.
History, Walls LaNier says, is repeating itself.
“Unfortunately, things that took place in 1957 (are) happening again, and if you’re not vigilant and if you don’t speak up, if you don’t get involved, it’s going to get worse,” LaNier told an audience of educators Monday morning at Clayton Early Learning in Denver.
But just as education thrust Walls LaNier ahead — despite repeated threats to her and her family because of her front-and-center role in integrating schools — education will lay the most promising path forward for kids during another era of history defined by racial and political division, she said.
“You as teachers and social workers and health care providers and so forth, you have to take the time to help plant that seed with these young people to understand what is important to be a good citizen in this country, to understand that they must learn as much as they possibly can and expand their horizon,” Walls LaNier told preschool teachers and staff during a keynote address at the Denver school as they prepare to start classes.
Her remarks helped launch teachers into a new school year at a consequential time for them, as Colorado introduces its expanded preschool program — which faces serious enrollment and funding challenges — while educators across the state also grapple with politically charged curriculum debates.
Walls LaNier was the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine, a group of Black students who began attending Little Rock Central High School in 1957, about three years after the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.
Doors open, but shut out of high school experiences
Now 80 and a resident of Colorado since 1962, Walls LaNier vividly remembers the early and violent days of school integration. While in ninth grade, she didn’t hesitate to sign up to start classes in 10th grade at Little Rock Central High School, which she walked past every day on the way to her Black junior/senior high school.
“It was about access to an opportunity to get the best education possible, to get the latest books, which was very key to me,” she said, noting that during most of her schooling she learned from well-worn books.
Still, Walls LaNier’s access was severely limited. As a Black student at Little Rock Central High School, she was forbidden from joining band and any school sports teams and barred from student activities like student council or even going to football and basketball games.
“All you could do,” she said, “was come to school every morning, go to class, leave the grounds when school was out and not return until the very next day.”
And on many of those school days, the ability to learn at a better school was overshadowed by racist and even deadly attacks. A mob of angry white demonstrators who trailed the Little Rock Nine on Sept. 23, 1957, as they attempted to walk into school hurled a brick at a tall Black reporter named L. Alex Wilson, hitting him in the back of the head, Walls LaNier recalls. He died a few years later, likely from the beating.
As the mobs grew overpowering, the only way that Walls LaNier and her classmates could safely go to school was with military troopers summoned by President Dwight Eisenhower descending upon Little Rock. Walls LaNier remembers climbing into a military station wagon on Sept. 25 as members of the 101st Airborne Division escorted them to the high school, lined up in the school hallways and protected them all day.
“As I tell high school students today, I don’t want anyone to have to go to school that way,” Walls LaNier said.
Her own family became the target of retaliation and violence. Walls LaNier said her father would lose his job every time employers found out he had a child attending Little Rock Central High School. On Feb. 9, 1960, efforts to keep Walls LaNier out of school escalated when a bomb exploded in her home. No one in her family died. She was on the other side of the house along with her mother and sisters, and her father was gone working at her grandfather’s place at the time.
“I got up the very next morning and went back to school because I didn’t want to think that they had won,” Walls LaNier said.
A couple weeks later, her teenage neighbor was wrongly indicted for planting the bomb, she said, and spent half of a five-year sentence in an Arkansas prison. Four white extremists were later convicted of the bombing.
Bridging cultures, instilling confidence in every student
Walls LaNier graduated in May 1960, the first Black female graduate of the integrated high school. Her family propelled her across the graduation stage, she said, with her parents and extended family members reinforcing to her that she could pursue anything she wanted as long as she stuck with learning.
But she worries that progress she’s lived through has unraveled in recent years, with Roe v. Wade being overturned and with many schools, including in Denver, continuing to be segregated. Walls LaNier is especially troubled over her childhood state, where Arkansas’ education department and conservative governor have objected to advanced placement courses in African American studies, adding to a surge of tense debates across states around how race is taught in schools.
“I don’t like seeing these schools being all anything — all Black, all Brown … all white,” Walls LaNier said. “I don’t like any of that. So reach out to others. You have to teach these kids to reach out to others and learn from them, learn about their ethnicity, their group of people, what their grandparents are cooking or doing. And learn from that.”
Her story resonated with educators like Linda McClure, who has taught at Clayton Early Learning for almost 20 years and now works as the preschool’s education manager.
McClure said the school tries to bring kids from different backgrounds together at the youngest ages, through classroom activities, speakers and an annual culture night, when families can learn about one another’s traditions by trying different foods and learning about forms of dress and entertainment. The school also tries to involve parents and caregivers in their child’s education so kids feel the same sense of encouragement from home that Walls LaNier did to carry them through their struggles.
“Children can succeed no matter what environment they came from,” McClure said after listening to Walls LaNier speak.
Walls LaNier also hit on how critical it is for teachers to go beyond instructing their students, making sure they know someone cares about them, especially kids who sit alone in class. That’s a key lesson that William Browning, president and CEO of Clayton Early Learning, hopes each educator learns from as the school year unfolds.
“That is what the teacher should be doing, which is really making sure that every kid … believes in themselves and actually has the optimism and the faith and the confidence,” Browning said. “To me that’s what equity is built on.”