Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock
By David Margolis
Yale University Press
It is one of the most searing pictures of the modern civil rights movement, and one with which I have always been fascinated: a lone black teenaged girl with her notebook hugged tightly to her chest, her face devoid of expression and her eyes obscured by sunglasses, is walking down the street. Behind her is a crowd of angry whites, one of whom’s face is contorted with rage as she yelled “Go home nigger!”

I always assumed the white girl was an adult whose face summed up the way many whites in Little Rock, Arkansas felt on that fateful day about integration in general and black people in particular. Imagine my surprise when I learned she was just fifteen years old and a student at Central High School, which Elizabeth and eight other black children were attempting to integrate that day. The white girl was Hazel Bryan, the black teenager was Elizabeth Eckford,, and David Margolis does a superb job of tracing their lives from the point of the photograph to the present.

Eckford was a shy, very smart–the neighborhood kids nicknamed her Professor–quietly ambitious girl who longed for a superior education, the kind she could not get at the colored high school. Hazel was restless, boy crazy, and always looking for excitement. Whites in Little Rock, led by their governor, Orval Faubus, were defying a federal court order to admit the nine students, and fed up with their intransigence, President Dwight D. Eisenhower called up the 101st Airborne to ensure that the black students could attend Central High. They remained there for the rest of the school year. At the end of the school year, Faubus promptly closed the public schools.

The nine students stoically endured the threats, taunting and harassment of the school year, although one lost her temper and was suspended after dumping a bowl of chili on one of her white tormentors. Ernest Green, the only senior, graduated, and the rest of them tried to move on with their lives. Eckford was the most traumatized by the ordeal; for years afterward she lived in a daze, suffering what surely must have been post-traumatic distress disorder.

Depressed and angry, she had difficulty finishing school, finding and holding a job, engaging in relationships and rearing her children. She refused to speak of her ordeal for decades. Her children were shocked to learn of her role in one of the most seminal events in American history.

Some time in 1962 or 1963 Bryan tracked down Eckford, and sent her a letter apologizing for her appalling behavior. She had moved on with her life; married while still in her teens, she became a mother of three, immersed herself in a series of causes, and abandoned the racism with which she grew up. Neither woman saw the other again until forty years later when Bill Clinton, the first southerner since Jimmy Carter to occupy the White House, joined the Little Rock Nine in marking the anniversary of their bravery. It was said that Eckford was still so traumatized by the event she had to be helped into the school. The two women posed together for a picture, and Clinton hailed their racial healing. Would that it were so.

For the next few years Eckford and Bryan began a friendship and traveled around the country to talk to college students about their experiences; they also made the obligatory appearance on Oprah. The two women even spoke of collaborating on a book. But soon it became clear that everything was not alright between them. Bryan seemed determined to put the episode in the past as though it were an isolated incident; Eckford was angry by what she saw as Bryan’s dishonesty. Bryan was stung by Elizabeth’s seeming inability to really believe and accept her apology; Eckford was angered by what she saw as Bryan’s refusal to admit her racism.

For Bryan, the story is over and she is ready to move on; for Eckford, a lifetime of living under Jim Crow and the pain of that day is not at all easy to dismiss. Angry, she pulled back and the friendship collapsed.

Therein lies the rub. The relationship between the two women is a microcosm of the American racial story. Whites see racism as something that was in the past and wonder why we all just can’t move on; blacks see it as something which haunts us to this very day. Neither side seems willing or able to budge.

To this day, Eckford is still angry, but wistful about the brief friendship. Bryan has tired of having her motives impugned by Eckford and the public; she simply cannot be bothered any longer. And racial understanding in America still seems hopeless.


Dr. Marilyn K. Howard earned a BA in criminal Justice from Ohio Dominican College; an MA in political science from The Ohio State University (Thesis: The Entrance of Black Voters Into the Mississippi Electorate) and her PhD in American history from The Ohio State University (Dissertation: Black Lynching in the Promised Land: Mob Violence in Ohio 1876 - 1916). She was an associate professor in the Social Sciences department at Columbus State Community College, where she now holds the same position in the Department of Humanities. Dr. Howard has twice received the Distinguished Teaching Award from Columbus State, and was twice recognized as an outstanding staff member by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. She was also named a top educator by Ohio magazine. Dr. Howard has served as an editor of the Southern Historian, a freelance book critic for the Columbus Dispatch and Ohioana Library. She has published essays in a number of anthologies, including the Encyclopedia of Racial Violence in America and the Encyclopedia of Jim Crow. She continues to conduct research on the lynching of black men by white mobs in Ohio.