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The Worst First Day: Bullied While Desegregating Little Rock Central High introduces the next generation to Civil Rights Icon Elizabeth Eckford, a modern-day heroine. Eckford of the Little Rock Nine was the first African American student to arrive at Central High September 4, 1957 to desegregate the school. An iconic image by photographer Will Counts captured Eckford surrounded by an enraged mob of segregationists, showing the world the “face of racism”, and it did not like what it saw. Eckford shared her tumultuous experiences at Central High after 60 years with mother-daughter team Dr. Eurydice and Grace Stanley to create their six-time award-winning book. The Worst First Day is written in verse and features graphic artwork, captivating photography from the era and compelling essays. Readers are encouraged by Eckford's resilience as she navigates a challenging year at Central High enduring hatred and bullying with grace and dignity. She and the Little Rock Nine understood the importance of their success on future generations. Readers are inspired to follow Elizabeth's lead and #WalkPastHate. Learn more at www.worstfirstday.com.

What will people learn from this book about the power of resilience? (Eurydice)

The entire book conveys the power of resilience. Readers are encouraged as they follow the devastating experiences endured by Civil Rights Icon Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine while merely a teen. She withstood some form of physical, emotional, or verbal abuse every day while desegregating Central High in 1957, but she kept coming back to school (and serving as the poster child of resilience) because she and the Little Rock Nine knew how important it was for them to succeed. 

Although the Supreme Court ruled against segregation in 1954 in the Brown v. Board of Education case, many states refused to put the decision into effect. Elizabeth, the Little Rock Nine and the other “first” African American students to attend schools across the country were the trailblazers who implemented change. They did not quit and proved that Black and White children could attend school together, opening the doors to the beautiful diversity seen in schools today.

For those familiar with the story of the “Little Rock Nine”, how will this book expand upon that knowledge? (Eurydice)

“The Worst First Day” takes readers far beyond their basic knowledge of nine African American students being escorted into high school by the 101st Airborne in 1957. This book provides insights regarding key issues that took place in the civil rights movement prior to the Little Rock Nine desegregating Central High as well as sharing little known truths that took place during the tumultuous year that the Little Rock Nine were at Central High from young Elizabeth’s perspective. 

This book also focusses on the power of kindness. One key aspect of Elizabeth’s story was the fact that two White students, Ken Reinhardt, and Ann Williams Wedaman, befriended Elizabeth during her last class of the day despite repercussions from their peers. When Elizabeth speaks to students, she stresses the importance of being kind because they could literally save someone’s life…she knows that to be true from personal experience!

Why is it important for this story to be told now, 60+ years after these events? (Eurydice)

I have been friends with Elizabeth for more than 20 years. I met her while I was working on my dissertation while in the Army. I never understood why she did not have a book given that she was the most recognized member of the Little Rock Nine due to the Will Counts’ iconic photo. Incredibly, she didn’t think anyone would be interested in her story. She had internalized a lot of the pain experienced at Central High. I was active duty in the Army at the time and purposed to help her write her story, but I was overwhelmed by the challenges of being an Army Officer and raising small children. 

 

Thankfully, over the years she has been able to release a lot of her pain by speaking to students about her experiences at Central High. The students’ support has meant the world to Elizabeth. She was also concerned about the rising number of students who are being bullied in school and deciding to commit suicide and I shared her concerns, especially since I was grieving the suicide of my baby brother, former Specialist Aaron Weiss, who we lost in 2016. 

 

The impending 60th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High in 2017 was a catalyst for finishing the book when we did. Little Rock has a large event every 10 years in recognition of the desegregation of Central High. I didn’t want this event to be yet another time that Elizabeth did not have a book to represent her experience. When we presented The Worst First Day to Central High during the week of the 60th Central High desegregation celebration, it was a great source of pride. 

 

This story is critical now more than ever before due to the resilience exhibited by the Little Rock Nine during life-threatening circumstances. They were determined and tenacious. Most importantly, we wanted students to learn from Elizabeth’s experiences, hold their heads high and learn one of our central tenets, #WalkPastHate. 

What has Elizabeth Eckford learned during these historic events and since? Has her perception changed over the years? (Elizabeth) 

Yes, my perception has changed. As a child, I didn’t realize that change would take such a long time to come. It came when more and more people took risk in order to force change such as the Freedom Riders and the Voting Rights Campaign in the rural south. Local people who became involved were aware of the possible economic costs to their families and that they could be killed. Another thing that continues to surprise me is that there are people who continue to deny what happened, both in Little Rock and in the Civil Rights movement. For example, there continues to be attempts at voter suppression. School desegregation was a long struggle that continued for decades in the courts and is still a battle. Obtaining equal access for all in the schools has been a continuing struggle.

What is your definition of a ‘hero’ or an ‘icon’? (Grace) 

Although we aren’t related by blood, I call Elizabeth Eckford “Auntie” because she has mentored me my whole life. An icon is a symbol of something, and the photo of Auntie Elizabeth being surrounded by segregationists as she attempted to attend Central High is truly iconic. In fact, it was voted as one of the most iconic photographs of the twentieth century! Auntie Elizabeth is a Civil Rights Icon because of what she endured as a member of the Little Rock Nine to help desegregate America’s schools. My Mom and Auntie Elizabeth both served in the Army. I consider both to be my “Sheros” due to their determination and the positive impact they have had on the lives of so many. 

What was the motivation for penning this book in verse, paired with images, instead of through a narrative format? (Grace)

My family loves the play, “Hamilton.” Every time we travelled, we listened to the soundtrack which we know entirely by heart. One day, Mom asked what Auntie Elizabeth’s story might look like as a “civil rights Hamilton”. From that day on, we began telling her story in verse, which made it easier to read and comprehend for young readers. We also incorporated the photography of Will Counts to bring the words to life. Unfortunately, there were no images taken to reflect the horrible things that Auntie Elizabeth experienced, so we commissioned a graphic artist, Rachel Gibson, who brought those memories to life.  

What was the process for creating this book? (Grace)

My Mom and I knew Auntie Elizabeth’s story, so we started writing. We would call to ask Auntie Elizabeth questions along the way and my Mom would conduct research to fill in any gaps in information from the civil rights movement that we had. Since Auntie doesn’t have a computer, we would email our drafts to friend in Little Rock, Stella Cameron, who would print out each section for Auntie Elizabeth to review. Auntie would mail her handwritten feedback to us and we would incorporate it, then we would continue to the next section of the book. It may sound tedious, but it worked for us. We were willing to take the extra time because we wanted to ensure everything was accurate.

What is it like living in the public eye and being a part of history? (Elizabeth)

Most of the time my life is very private except for the times when I am speaking in public, or when I am visiting on the campus of Central High School. When students recognize me on campus, it is very pleasing to me because it lets me know that the students are learning about what happened to us (the Little Rock Nine) at Central High and they are aware of American history. The questions they ask are insightful and engaging. I enjoy speaking to students.

What message(s) does this book hope to instill in the reader? (Elizabeth)

I encourage students to choose to act without getting hurt or fighting and encourage people to speak out when they witness bullying. Silence can be viewed as consent to harassment. Anyone can do something simply by speaking out. Inaction is a decision and action is a decision. 

I never want students to confront bullies because that can be dangerous, but they can support someone who is being bullied by speaking to them or trying to encourage them. I don’t want students to fight, I want them to speak, acknowledge what is going on and support someone who is being pushed down, even if it is only to speak to them kindly. I want readers to always treat others in the same way that they want to be treated…it makes a world of difference!

Why did you join this trio to write this book, and what did you learn from the teamwork, sharing the story and the final outcome of launching the book? (All Three)

Elizabeth noted, “Examining the past sometimes has been a painful struggle, but also that examination has helped me to eventually talk about it more freely. Hopefully, the book can be a way of showing young people their voices too are important and what they do matters. Failing to act has consequences, too. Doing nothing counts.”

We wrote this book as a multigenerational project. Each one of us brought something different to the table. There was great synergy that took place between the three of us. Elizabeth was happy that Grace and I were helping her tell her story, but how could we not? We consider it to be an important part of American history. The final outcome turned out to be wonderful and has opened so many doors of opportunity. 

For example, when we presented the book for the first time at the Little Rock Central High National Park Site in Little Rock, Arkansas in January of 2018, Professor Wendel Hunigan was in the audience with his wife Elvrie. He worked at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois and was visiting his father-in-law in Little Rock at the time. After listening to our presentation, Professor Hunigan went back to Knox College and told the University President Dr. Teresa Amott about our book and Elizabeth’s life because Elizabeth was a Knox College alumna who attended for a year after she left Central High. He also shared Elizabeth’s contributions to society and recommended that she be given an Honorary Doctorate. His request was granted, and Elizabeth received an Honorary Doctorate from Knox College for her contributions to the civil rights movement on October 15, 2018! 

In 2019, Elizabeth and Eurydice travelled to New Zealand to share “The Worst First Day” with more than 4,000 students across the country. It was an incredible experience! We’re looking forward to Covid clearing up so we can get back on the road, but in the interim, we are open to Zoom presentations. 

Personally, Grace and I see every “Worst First Day” presentation as an opportunity for Elizabeth to receive the appreciation and adoration that she deserves from grateful students, teachers, and organizations. It is long overdue. Elizabeth Eckford’s sacrifices for this country were substantial. Every American should know her incredible story!