Reflections on Central: 1959 student speaks on integration and hopes for future

Dr. Sybil Hampton speaks on her time at Central High School. (KATV Photo)

The Lost Year: the year after the "Little Rock Nine's" courageous walk into Central High School. Every high school in the city was shut down as Governor Faubus invoked new state laws to put off desegregation. But in 1959, the schools reopened after a vote from a three-judge federal court and changes on the school board.

Limited desgregation continued at Central High School with five black students joining Carlotta Walls and Jefferson Thomas. Dr. Sybil Hampton was one of them - the youngest of the five - a tenth grader.

"My parents were involved in the NAACP, and my brother and I were involved in the NAACP youth, so we stepped forward when the question was asked, 'Are there young people who want to be in the queue to go to the high school?'"

Dr. Hampton - fortified with her faith, the support of her family and church - recalls a sense of calm and purpose on her first day of school, in spite of seeing what happened to the "Little Rock Nine."

"I did believe that I was engaged in cornerstone activity. You know, when you think of your church and there are all those names on the cornerstone, well the cornerstone is not the whole building, the cornerstone is the foundation. So, I really did understand that what I was doing was something others were going to be able to build upon," explains Hampton.

Her family told her the business community had a vested interest in ensuring Little Rock did not appear so violent. But that did not make her time at Central trouble-free. Dr. Hampton and her black classmates were shunned.

"Over the three years that I was there, not more than two people, students, ever spoke to me," adding she could no longer hang out with friends or walk home from school. Threats against the black students forced her to live differently.

But Dr. Hampton recalls, in spite of different pressures, the teachers treated her fairly: "Every teacher graded me fairly, called on me in class, and I did well academically because the teachers, in their own way, supported me. They weren't able to reach out to me personally, and to establish personal relationships, except for two of them: one was an exchange teacher from France, and one was a history teacher who had been grievously injured in the Korean war, and I think that he had a sense of what it was like to be the odd person out."

After her experience at Central, Dr. Hampton went on to become an educator herself, teaching teenagers across the country. Thinking on the 60 years since her experience at Central, she has mixed feelings about the progress that's been made.

"Bill Clinton once said, 'We're halfway home, with a long way to go.' I think this is a time to say, 'Thank God we began the journey, thank God we had... this bend in the road at this time.' But it's also a time we're I think people in the community feel great pain, because there was a hope in the community that we would go much further."

She hopes that moving forward the education system will work to empower black students to reach their goals.

"I would love to see every child in our community be in a school setting with teachers and other adults who believe that they are important, that they are the seed corn, that no matter where they are they can achieve a personal best. That education is the cornerstone for the lives a young people."

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