By Madison Monroe
We ran this story in our very first edition of Brave Magazine. Since then, Congressman French Hill (R-AR) and Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), along with Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), introduced legislation that would expand the boundaries of the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site.
If passed, the Federal Government would help restore the homes across the street from Central High School to be included in the school’s national historic site designation and preserved by the National Park Service thus preserving the history of desegregation in Arkansas.
“To be able to see exactly how it looked when the Little Rock Nine walked their way into Central High – and into history – will do a lot of good for our country. It will help keep this park as a living monument to the courage of the civil-rights movement,” Cotton said in a statement.
September 25, 2017 marked the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine.
My Dad always said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” The energy, the idealism, the belief you can change the world…it usually is, but not in this case. Meet Grace Hayes Blagdon.
With the idealism of a teen and the energy of a cheerleader, she is a force to be reckoned with and one to be acknowledged. In making her introduction to my children, I told them, “you are in the presence of greatness,” and they were. Who holds the prospect of world peace emitting from a row of houses across the street from Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas? As if that’s possible!
Grace believes it is. I believe in Grace. When I met her, she was seventy years old and had braces. Take a moment and let the optimism of that sink in. That’s brave. I have learned throughout my association with her, it is the least brave thing about her.
I met Grace about eight years ago. She had just purchased some of the houses across the street from Central High School.
Grace grew up in Little Rock, but when the Reverend Jesse Jackson visited in 2004 and scorned Little Rock for letting the neighborhood surrounding such an important landmark go into disrepair, she was living in California and had for several decades. We in Little Rock were uncomfortably embarrassed by Jackson’s comment, but Grace took it personally.
She flew to Little Rock and, with her own retirement savings, began purchasing houses with the intention of fixing them up. She was there during construction and remodeling — rain, shine, heat and cold. She moved from house to house overseeing the work and the workers. As the houses began to take shape, so did the feeling on the street.
Many days, I would go to check on the progress and there would be Grace, sitting on the stairs of one of the front porches, greeting each person by name as they walked past. She was always quick to introduce each passerby with a detail about their character and the importance of their contribution to the renovation project.
The scary, abandoned, boarded-up feeling and look of the street was being replaced by a confident, neighborly openness that made you forget you were in a ‘bad’ part of town.
Everyone that was on that project had an ease and friendliness that Grace planted and cultivated. No one was going to be afraid on her street! It was a magical time and everyone involved was touched by the experience.
As the exterior renovation neared completion, Grace began formulating a vision of how this enchanted experience could go on. She dubbed the houses a Global Humanitarian Park to promote peace and hurried about making a conference room and exhibits in 1417 Park, and envisioning 1411 Park to one day be the guest house for visiting dignitaries, and 1501 Park to be a bed and breakfast.
She would say, “here is where the video conferencing will be,” and “this is where important documents will be signed.“ She said it as if she was seeing it happen right in front of her.
“Little Rock thinks they are the capital of the world. Everybody pitches in to get things done, so why not? Why should world peace not start here? People need a place to sit. That is what this is, a model of collaboration and compromise.”
When you look across the street to Central High School and remember what happened there 50 years ago, the bell rings and every variety of human spills out of the door. One can see how far we have come. It is a visual reminder of what people can do when they put their energy into making the world better.
On the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine, Park Street was blocked off and the motorcade came down the street, slowing to look at the majesty of Central.
Grace stood on one of her porches and as Jesse Jackson rode past, she waved and yelled, “What do you think of my houses now, Reverend?”
He turned toward her and with surprise on his face and disbelief in his eyes, he gave her a smile and a big thumbs up.
Interiors in Need of RestorationWant to help renovate the interiors of the homes on Park Street across from historic Central High School?
Visit Park Central Little Rock for more details.