Elizabeth Jacoway: Historian's look at 1957 LR integration opens family secrets

Historians in the News

Though she grew up in Little Rock as the city divided itself over the integration of its largest high school, Elizabeth Jacoway said she never thought much about Central High School or the nine black students at the center of the desegregation crisis.

Jacoway's mother's cousin, Virgil Blossom, was the superintendent of the Little Rock School District when the black students were escorted into the school by members of the 101st Airborne, but as a 13-year-old, Jacoway was hardly curious about the showdown between Gov. Orval Faubus and President Eisenhower.

It wasn't until she took a Southern history course in graduate school and she felt the weight of the events that had occurred around her.

"I realized I had grown up in a racist culture and hadn't thought about it," Jacoway said in a recent interview in her home. "I had lived through a major episode in American history and really didn't know anything about it."

She eventually wrote "Turn Away Thy Son," a history of the Little Rock desegregation crisis Jacoway published this year, in time for next month's 50th anniversary of Central's integration.

Thirty years in the making, Jacoway's book traces the history of the integration battle, including the "lost year" when Faubus closed Little Rock's schools rather than allow them to be integrated. Jacoway said the book started with questions about what members of the white business community did to oppose segregation.

"My real question as I started was, where were the businessmen?" Jacoway said. "Obviously, I was asking how did my daddy and his friends _ who were in influential positions at that point _ how did they let this happen in their city?"

Jacoway said initially her research showed that the schools reopened in 1959 partly because of an effort by white businessmen who realized that the crisis was hurting their community and the economy. The businessmen, however, were more motivated by protecting the city's image than a desire to see integration, she said.

"Basically, what they were interested in was getting Little Rock off the front pages and salvaging her image. Again, they weren't interested in justice or racial change," Jacoway said....

Jacoway's book, however, almost didn't make it to publication. Jacoway received a grant in 1976 from the National Endowment for the Humanities for her work and has spent half her life researching and writing on Central High.

She stopped writing for about 10 years when she realized that Blossom, who she grew up calling "Uncle Virgil," wasn't the heroic champion of integration she was raised to believe.

Though Blossom was credited with developing a plan to gradually integrate Little Rock's schools, Jacoway's book portrays him as panicky and working behind the scenes to find a lawsuit that would delay the school's integration.

"He realized the program he had developed, that he was confident was going to work without difficulty, was going to be very difficult," Jacoway said. "He realized it had lots of opposition and it carried with it the danger of violence. ... He panicked in the crisis."

Jacoway said that realization didn't change her own feelings about Blossom, but said it made her reconsider writing the book....

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