Dr. LaVerne Bell-Tolliver recounts path to desegregating Forest Heights Junior High School

Laverne Bell-Tolliver was the first African American student to desegregate Forest Heights Junior High School.

“This is your new school.”

These were the words that echoed off the eardrums of a 12-year-old LaVerne Bell-Tolliver in the summer of 1961, while sitting in the backseat of her parents’ station wagon as they drove past Forest Heights Junior High School, one of five all-white junior high schools in Little Rock.

Bell-Tolliver knew better than to object, knew better than to ask her parents why. She sat in silence as her father drove home and never muttered a statement about her confusion or displeasure about their decision until many years later.

Bell-Tolliver, associate professor of social work at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, grew up in an all-black neighborhood where black businesses thrived. Her optometrist, physician, and teachers all looked like her.

“That was probably the best childhood time of all because we could go outside and play until the porch lights started flashing,” Bell-Tolliver said. “In that area, I would consider that the safest place. There was no fussing or discrimination. All of the neighborhood members felt safe with each other, cared for, and watched over one another, whether the parents were there or not. Everybody was everyone’s parent during that time.”

“White flight”

The life that Bell-Tolliver had grown to know and love quickly changed the summer before she went to fourth grade. Her father had purchased a home on the corner of Monroe and Madison streets and moved the family to a primarily all-white neighborhood.

Before that time, Bell-Tolliver usually only saw two white people: the grocery store owner and the “vegetable man,” who delivered produce to the grocery store. Now, she and her family were in a neighborhood that was in the midst of “white flight.” As blacks moved in, whites moved out.

“That produced quite a bit of tension and quite a bit of fear,” Bell-Tolliver recalled. “[A group of white people] might drive by as I walked to the grocery store and throw bottles and call me bad words. That was my introduction into that environment where our race was really hated.”

As the oldest of six children, Bell-Tolliver often went to the grocery store alone, and although she walked in fear, she knew that she couldn’t disobey her parents’ orders. Her reverence for them seemingly outweighed her fear of the white men and women in her neighborhood.

Once the summer had ended, Bell-Tolliver and her siblings walked more than a mile to attend  Stephens Elementary in their old neighborhoody. Only high schools had been desegregated during that time, so they were happy to go to a place familiar to them.

“As my sister described, the closer we got to Stephens, the more friends started walking with us, so it didn’t seem like a long experience,” she said.

Selection criteria

Before she began junior high, Bell-Tolliver was told by her father that she would attend the all-white school, Forest Heights. She later found out that the Little Rock School Board had selected 24 additional black students to desegregate the all-white junior high schools.

“There were 16 criteria that went into that particular assignment, but part of them had to do with testing,” Bell-Tolliver recounted. “They used the testing to determine if our grade averages would be sufficient. They also used our conduct grades. They might have talked with teachers, I’m not sure, but that was what it looked like. They wanted to determine whether or not we would be emotionally equipped to handle going into the schools.

“Ironically, they only looked at the African Americans to make that decision of whether we were capable of entering their schools,” she said. “They didn’t look at those assignments for anyone who wasn’t desegregating a school, and at that time, only African Americans were being sent to the majority race or Caucasian American schools.”

The mere thought of attending Forest Heights frightened Bell-Tolliver, although she never let it be known. She’d seen on television the civil unrest caused by the Little Rock Nine’s integration of Central High. As a shy, petite, black girl with glasses who, as she described, had low self-esteem, she was instantly terrified.

“Will the black run off on you?”

On her first day at Forest Heights, Bell-Tolliver recalls her mother dropping her off and witnessing a student saying “hi.”  Bell-Tolliver saw relief on her mother’s face, but after that day, the student never spoke to her again.

Bell-Tolliver didn’t anticipate making any friends, but she certainly thought she wouldn’t be the only black student in the school. During the summer, her parents told her that another black child would be attending Forest Heights with her. Unfortunately, Bell-Tolliver learned on the first day of school that the student’s parents had pulled her from the school and allowed her to go to the all-black Dunbar Middle School.

Bell-Tolliver was forced to face the journey alone, which was often a reflection of how she felt. She was ignored in classrooms by both teachers and peers, left to sit alone at a table in the cafeteria, and had her own row during meetings in the auditorium.

In addition, Bell-Tolliver recalled walking down the hall and someone pushing another student into her and saying, “Will the black run off on you?”

Her saving grace

Although incidents like these hurt, Bell-Tolliver learned to endure.

She had to develop the same mindset when it came to losing her friends from Stephens Elementary who went to Dunbar.  

“At some point along the way, I realized there was a difference,” Bell-Tolliver said. “They had their own different experiences, and I was no longer a part of that. Then there were little slights about perhaps I thought I was better than someone else, and eventually we just did not visit with one another anymore.”

Despite her circumstances Bell-Tolliver had a saving grace – church.

“We had good, close family relationships within that small little church,” Bell-Tolliver remembered.

Each week when Bell-Tolliver’s family attended the church in their old neighborhood, she felt like she was at home, back in that safe environment that she had once known and loved.  

Was desegregation beneficial?

By the time Bell-Tolliver was in the ninth grade, two more black students had been admitted to Forest Heights. Because she was a bit older and still very shy, Bell-Tolliver didn’t make friends with them in the way she would have liked to because she was still in, what she called, survival mode.

Bell-Tolliver completed high school at Hall High with 12 other black students and went on to attend Drury University in Springfield, Missouri, which was predominantly white and included .3 percent of minority students. She later obtained her master’s degree in social work and biblical counseling from UA Little Rock and Dallas Theological Seminary, respectively. She also earned a Ph.D. in family therapy from Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas.

Many years following Bell-Tolliver’s experience at Forest Heights, she wondered if desegregating was beneficial to the progression of the African American community. She grasped the concept that her parents wanted her to have access to better equipment and books, but she couldn’t help but think that this transition was more of a drawback than an advancement.

“As a part of my service work here at the university, I go into Stephens Elementary, which is my alma mater, and I volunteer,” Bell-Tolliver explained. “I see so many children who are not doing anything to accomplish a goal that would help them to become successful. That’s very distressing, and that’s after desegregation.

“I see children that are sitting in a better building with better technology, but something is missing. Part of that may have to do with the fact that we lost something, and we’re looking, struggling to figure out what it was that we lost in these generations since desegregation. One person in [my] book described it as, ‘They took the top parts of our race, in terms of intelligence and put them into schools that were outside of the [African American] community, and then most of them moved away. We did not maintain that cohesive nature as an African American community that helped each other, that did live in safe environments, that did provide for each other.’”

To learn Bell-Tolliver’s full story, purchase her book, “The First Twenty-Five,” online or at the UA Little Rock Barnes and Noble bookstore, or for more information, contact her at lbtolliver@ualr.edu.

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