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NEW VISITORS CENTER: Doors open Sept. 24.
  • NEW VISITORS CENTER: Doors open Sept. 24.

It's a month and a day before its grand opening and commemoration ceremony and the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site Visitor Center looks largely unfinished. On a muggy mid-August morning, two dozen hard-hatted construction workers seem well-aware of the work to be done as they shuffled around the grounds of the understated structure. Some hunkered over holes in the dry dirt to plant bright green shrubbery, bringing the site that much closer to life.

But today, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Central, the $6.1 million Visitor Center is complete, ready to tell the story of the civil rights movement in America. The center will be dedicated at 10 a.m. Sept. 24, the day before the anniversary commemoration at the school.

Across the street on the other side of the Visitor Center sits the Central High School National Historic Site and Museum. Housed in a refurbished red-and-white Mobil service station, it has served for the past 10 years as the educational and cultural hub for visitors interested in seeing the sights of the city and school where the 1957 desegregation crisis took place. Through video and audio footage, complemented by written and visual components, the museum tells the story of the crisis and its place in the civil rights movement. Though both informative and poignant, the exhibit occupies a decidedly small area — one that the National Park Service, which assumed operations of the museum in 2001, found incapable of accommodating the needs of a swelling number of visitors (44,293 in 2005 compared with 21,084 in 2001).

“The new exhibit will allow us to tell more parts of the story. At the old site we were very limited. We really had to make choices. In the new space, we'll be able to place the events in Little Rock in a larger context, events that happened that influenced the desegregation crisis and events that were influenced by it,” said Laura Miller, chief of interpretation and cultural resources at the Visitor Center.

The Park Service commissioned construction of the new Visitor Center in January 2005. The new attraction includes an archive, a multipurpose meeting room, a guest services area, a retail sales area, administrative offices and 3,000 square feet of exhibit space. The space allotted is roughly five times that of the current museum.

Designed to blend with the surrounding residential neighborhood, the two-story, 10,000-square-foot structure is made of wood, glass and buff brick — mirroring components of the historic high school across the street. The work of AJC Architects of Salt Lake City, the Visitor Center is intended to be compatible, not in competition, with what has been described as the most beautiful high school campus in the country. In keeping with other AJC projects, the building features eco-friendly “green” features, including a ground-source heat pump, which, as the name implies, uses the earth's natural heating and cooling processes to control the temperature of the building's interior.

Miller said the new space will provide room for an overview of the development of the civil rights movement, including events that led to the Little Rock crisis. The exhibit also will examine the crisis itself through the use of film footage, interactive computer stations, and written and auditory oral-history excerpts from the Little Rock Nine, other Central High students, and members of the 101st Airborne and the Arkansas National Guard. The exhibit goes beyond Little Rock to show what people in other parts of the country were doing then and are doing now to further the cause of civil rights.

Plans for the Historic Site and Museum include converting the space into a learning center, complete with classrooms, and taking the current exhibit on an educational tour of in rural Arkansas. Curriculum for the learning center will be modeled on programs at the Truman Library and Eisenhower Center. Most recently, the Historic Site and Museum teamed with the Clinton Presidential Center to bring students from Abilene, Kan., to work with students from Central High for a historical re-enactment of the Central crisis titled “Five Star Leaders: Crisis at Little Rock.” Using original documents and dramatic recreations, students portrayed 36 characters, including the Little Rock Nine, President Eisenhower, Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Gov. Orval Faubus and Daisy Bates. Miller said that was just one example of the programs that likely to take place at the learning center.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, will speak at the Visitor Center's opening and poet Nikki Giovanni will deliver a reading. The ceremonies will be held before a capacity crowd. All tickets, which were free and available by RSVP, have been claimed.

“While we're happy to commemorate the center,” Miller said, “we also want to recognize that [civil rights issues] are ongoing.”

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