Wednesday, September 26, 2007

FROM THE PUBLISHER >>Classmates meet, recall friendship

Ernest Green, perhaps the best known of the Little Rock Nine, was walking up a couple of flights of stairs at Central High School after Tuesday’s ceremony marking the integration of Central 50 years ago this week.

Green was walking quickly up the stairs as if he were still 17, and he was heading for the physics class where three white students had befriended him.

The floors were shiny and the walls clean. Even if they’d been spruced up for the anniversary, the old school was holding up well. Central is perhaps the most famous high school in the world, where history was made and American society changed forever.

Green had been back at the school several times before, he told me when I caught up with him, but this was his first reunion with the three students in the physics lab.

“I first came back to Central in 1977 or 1978, when I was assistant secretary of labor,” Green told us when we were on the third floor, still walking toward the physics lab.

He’d given the commencement address back then, but the reunions with other classmates and anniversary celebrations weren’t held for another decade.

The 50th anniversary was a sure thing as students approached old age and perhaps wounds were finally healing.

We arrived at Room 309, Mr. Barnes’ old physics class. Inside were Green’s former classmates — Glynnys Oakes Johns, Charles Oakley and Steve Swafford, the students who had helped Green with physics.  

No one remembered Mr. Barnes’ first name, and his students thought he was long dead, but they didn’t think it was a big deal to have a black student in their class and were eager to make friends with him.

Green had missed three weeks of classes, because the mob outside wouldn’t let the Little Rock Nine in, except for a few hours, until federal troops escorted the Little Rock Nine into the school on Sept. 23, 1957.

Green, now an investment banker in Washington, sounded bitter when he recalled Barnes’ refusal to help him catch up with three weeks of lessons.

“Physics is a difficult subject,” Green said as the group stood near a lab table not far from where they’d do their lab assignments.

Swafford, an engineer from Houston, said they were building radios or other electronic gadgets and did their best to ignore the noisy mob outside.

Johns, a retired math and algebra teacher from Dallas, had invited Green to sit with her group at lunch, even if some of the white kids resented it.

She told Green, “We thought you were the best dressed boy in the school.”

Green, wearing a suit and a tie but with a small paunch hanging over his belt, smiled and said, “With all those cameras, we wanted to make sure we were well dressed.”

Oakley, Swafford and Johns insisted that they had no problems with blacks going to their school.

Green, too, thought integration wouldn’t be a problem at Central. He said he’d worked at a country club the summer before and talked to some Central students, and he didn’t think there’d be any problems.

“We were shocked” when the troubles started, he said.

But the Little Rock Nine weren’t harassed in the classroom, he added.

“The problem was in the hall and physical ed and the showers, and they’d steam up the locker room,” Green recalled.
Through the physics classroom’s windows, you could see the front of the school and the street out front where the mob screamed and threatened the Little Rock Nine.

A half-century later, you could tell the four former classmates in the physics lab were among the brightest kids at Central. Oakley, a lawyer from Sunnyvale, Calif., said the troublemakers were the less intelligent kids who did not succeed later in life. One could infer they did not grow up to be lawyers, teachers, engineers and investment bankers.

Oakley thought the troublemakers “would get over it” and leave the nine black students alone.

Green, Central’s first black graduate, and the other civil rights pioneers had been honored by former President Clinton and other luminaries earlier that morning. The national and worldwide media covered the anniversary as a milestone that pushed the civil rights movement forward.

Many of the participants are now in the history books. There are many villains — the angry mob, the hysterical students and, above all, Gov. Faubus — and there are the heroes — the Little Rock Nine, President Eisenhower, who made sure they could enter the school, and all the decent people of Arkansas, including the three students in physics who reached out to Ernest Green.

Yesterday, Arkansas celebrated the Little Rock Nine but also other great Americans like Glynnys Oak Johns, Charles Oakley and Steve Swafford, who can hold their heads high because they did what was right back in 1957.