Carlotta Walls LaNier never had a teacher or school counselor to talk to about the riots, the bombing of her home and the racism she experienced firsthand as one of the first nine African-American students to attend all-white Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
She didn’t even talk to her parents about it for fear of further upsetting them. Instead, she endured the seething hatred and violence silently, knowing it was her opportunity for a better future.
LaNier told her story to a group of DePaul University College of Education alumni and Chicago-area teachers and school counselors recently as part of a three-day seminar to bring historical perspective to current school dialogues about racism, anti-Semitism, intolerance and bullying.
“Our event, in my mind, is somewhat similar to what is going on today, especially in classrooms,” LaNier told the group. “After 9/11, we started using the word ‘terrorism’ so much. Today we’re using the word ‘bullying.’ All of this is the same; it is all the same. And you have an opportunity to teach your kids inclusiveness, to teach your students about diversity, about respecting one another. It is a responsibility—not only of parents—it’s also a duty of teachers to try to incorporate that sort of environment for our young people today.”
Using Little Rock Central High School’s desegregation as a case study to explore the ways that teachers teach about race, difference and membership, the seminar was part of a multi-year initiative between DePaul’s College of Education and the international nonprofit organization Facing History and Ourselves. The first-of-its-kind collaboration is designed to provide practicing and future teachers with opportunities to learn powerful teaching approaches to link historical events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement to current conversations on intolerance, bullying and social justice. The collaboration has the potential to impact thousands of students in coming years.
In her talk, LaNier stressed the important role that educators play in encouraging and teaching social justice. “I do not believe that a child is born to hate. I think that is a learned behavior. It’s learned at home; it’s reinforced at school and on our playgrounds,” she said.
“I am here today to bring an important era of our history to another generation,” LaNier said. “Being teachers, you impress minds. This is promoting inclusion and diversity to the first order. I encourage you to promote anti-racism on any level; I encourage you to promote social justice.”
As a student, LaNier never wavered in her conviction to attend all-white Little Rock Central High School in 1957, despite being turned back by the Arkansas National Guard, the riots and the bombing of her home.
Her staunch conviction came from her parents and her desire for access to a quality education and the opportunity it provides.
“Fortunately I had parents who told me I was just as good as the next person. Things were going to change, I was told,” LaNier said. “That was how I was taught, and education was the road to success, so I had to do well in school to be prepared to go through that door whether that door was flung wide open or there was just a crack in the door. That was what I heard the first 12-13 years of my life.”
So when the opportunity came in spring 1957 to be one of the first black students to attend all-white Little Rock Central High School as part of a national desegregation movement that arose out of the Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court ruling, LaNier and eight other black students seized it.
Their first day, they were turned away by the Arkansas National Guard. The second time they tried to enter the school, riots erupted. Finally, President Dwight D. Eisenhower stepped in and had federal troops escort the nine black students into the school.
“My story comes out of the changing of the guard in our country,” LaNier said. “I grew up in the Jim Crow South, relegated to the back of the bus. I could only drink out of certain water fountains and use certain restrooms that said ‘Negro’ or ‘Colored.’ I could not use the public library in Little Rock, Ark. I could only go to the zoo on a certain day of the week—all due to the color of my skin.”
Those in attendance said they were moved by LaNier’s story.
“It’s pretty emotionally overwhelming,” said Ellen Grindel, a school counselor at Highland Park High School. “It gives me a deeper understanding and reminds me to keep myself open to all kids. We have kids dealing with these kinds of issues individually.”
Jennifer Healy, who has a master’s degree in American history, teacher’s certification and a law degree from DePaul, said LaNier’s story helps bring breadth, depth and perspective to the issue.
“I work in a high school and we’ve discussed the Little Rock Nine. Being able to hear her story and interact with her humanizes and deepens the knowledge and content,” said Healy, who teaches in Winnetka. “This workshop gives us so many different tools and strategies to teach this material.”
Bonnie Oberman, director of the Chicago office of Facing History and Ourselves, said hearing stories like LaNier’s helps teachers in the classroom.
“Today with Carlotta was a privilege. To be with students and teachers when history walks into the room and observe participants realizing the importance of story was a moving experience,” Oberman said. “We all have stories, some more powerful than others, but all worthy of our voices. It is so gratifying for teachers to help their students comprehend the importance of the choices they make and the power they have to make a difference.”
Paul Zionts, dean of the College of Education, said the initiative will have far-reaching effects in the schools and communities they serve.
“By the time the collaboration is fully implemented, more than 2,000 DePaul education graduates will carry forth these approaches in classrooms across the city and around the country,” Zionts said. “As these teachers work with their students, the numbers of elementary, middle and high school students educated in critical thinking around issues of intolerance and social justice will grow exponentially. This collaboration will have a huge impact in our communities.”
The eight-year collaboration is made possible through a generous gift from DePaul Trustee Jack Greenberg and his wife, Donna.
About Facing History and Ourselves
Facing History and Ourselves is an international educational and professional development organization whose mission is to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice and anti-Semitism in order to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry. By studying the historical development of the Holocaust and other examples of genocide and mass violence, students make the essential connection between history and the moral choices they confront in their own lives. Facing History has provided in-depth seminars for more than 29,000 educators, and its active teacher network reaches nearly two million students annually. For more information, visit facinghistory.org and watch a video at facinghistory.org/video/face-it.
About the College of Education
Currently one of the largest schools of education in Illinois, DePaul’s College of Education offers programs in early childhood education, human services and counseling, educational leadership, physical education, bilingual/bicultural education, curriculum studies, special education, and social and cultural foundations in education. More than 3,000 COE graduates are employed as teachers, principals and administrators in the Chicago area.
With more than 25,000 students, DePaul University is the largest Catholic university in the United States and the largest private, nonprofit university in the Midwest. The university offers approximately 275 graduate and undergraduate programs of study on three Chicago campuses and three suburban campuses. Founded in 1898, DePaul remains committed to providing a quality education through personal attention to students from a wide range of backgrounds. For more information, visit www.depaul.edu.