A simple miscommunication stranded Elizabeth Eckford in a sea of angry, threatening white people on what was supposed to be her first day at Central High School.
The night before, she was occupied with the things any student starting a new school would worry about. "I was more concerned about what I would wear, whether we could finish my dress in time […] would it look good" (source). Her family didn't have a phone, so Eckford didn't get the message that the Black students were going to meet before school and go to Central together. On the morning of September 4th, 1957, she set out on her own.
"I noticed along the street that there were many more cars than usual. And I remember hearing the murmur of a crowd. But, when I got to the corner where the school was, I was reassured seeing these [National Guard] soldiers circling the school grounds.
And I saw students going to school. I saw the guards break ranks as students approached the sidewalks so that they could pass through to get to school. […] But when I stepped up, they crossed rifles." [A guardsman] directed me across the street into the crowd. It was only then that I realized that they were barring me, that I wouldn't go to school." (Source)
A photo of what happened next has become the most recognized symbol of the integration fight in Arkansas. Eckford hoped an adult would step in, but when she turned to a white woman she thought looked kind, the woman spat on her.
That's right: spat.
Eckford eventually met the white woman, Hazel Bryan, who shares that famous photo. Bryan was a Central High student at the time. She has apologized to Eckford for that awful day, and for a time, the two traveled frequently, bringing their story to students around the country.
"It was such a shocking, terrifying event that seemed to last a very long time before I could get away," Eckford said. "But it transformed me over a period of time. I had been a very, very shy, submissive child. I can never be that again. I'm an assertive person now" (source).
Along with her follow Little Rock Niners, Eckford was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Bill Clinton in 1999.