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Change at central historic site

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COMING AND GOING: Robin White (left) and Michael Madell.
  • COMING AND GOING: Robin White (left) and Michael Madell.

There's a changing of the guard — and of accents — coming to the Central High National Historic Site this summer.

Site Superintendent Michael Maddell, a native of Michigan who shepherded the site from plan to reality during his five-and-a-half-year tenure, will be leaving early next month to take a post up the National Park Service ladder in South Dakota.

His replacement is Robin White, currently superintendent at the William Howard Taft National Historic Site in Cincinnati. White was raised in Indiana but spent summers with relatives in New Orleans, Mississippi and the coastal islands of South Carolina — home of the Gullah culture. Her speech has a lilt that reflects her Gullah roots.

“My education was in the North, but I'm married to the South,” she said.

Madell became superintendent of the Central High site in December 2002, when it was still largely in the planning stages. He'd been involved with that process as the park service's regional chief of planning from 1997-2000, so was excited to take the superintendent's job.

“I had a plan on my desk, and my boss said ‘Here's what we need you to do, now go with it,' ” Madell said.

The Park Service had taken over the original Central High visitors' center, in the restored Mobil gas station, from the local non-profit organization that created it. But it wasn't nearly big enough.

Madell oversaw the planning and construction of a new, larger visitors center across the street; it opened just in time for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Central last fall, and has interactive exhibits, space for educational programs and a larger parking lot.

“He came to Central very goal-oriented,” said Dr. Johanna Miller Lewis, a history professor at UALR who worked with Madell on the new center's exhibits and has served on the board of the non-profit that created the original visitors center. “He came in, he took a look around and said, ‘This small visitors center is not going to cut it. We need to have something bigger.' … He knew all the steps to take, what needed to be done.”

The construction involved cleaning up contaminated soil from the site, which had housed commercial greenhouses until the 1980s.

Before the completion of the new visitors center was the restoration of Central High's reflecting pool, which was part of the original 1927 design but had been covered by a concrete patio.

But there's plenty of work left for White, Madell said.

“We're not done by a long way here,” he said. “We've got a great building, but the neighborhood is national historic district. It's turning around, but we've got more work to do.”

That part of the equation has been challenging and required Madell to form partnerships with other agencies — the city, the neighborhood association.

White will also inherit the job of reopening the Mobil gas station facility. Plans are for it to be an educational center, but the project has been delayed because remodeling uncovered lead-based paint, and because the position of facilities manager is currently vacant.

White's 20-year-plus career with the National Park Service includes time at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kan., the elementary school where Linda Brown tried to enroll in 1950.

“It is living history,” she said of Central, “and so is Brown v. Board. The Brown family is still living, still in the community, still involved.”

She said she's looking forward to building relationships with others to tell the complex story of the integration of Central High.

“It's not a history we have to be ashamed of,” she said. “It's a compelling story. ”

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