Friday, January 27, 2012

Elizabeth and Hazel from Little Rock

 I was 14 when Elizabeth and Hazel were 15 years old.  I lived in Massachusetts and they lived in Little Rock, Arkansas.  But just about everyone in the U.S. got to know Elizabeth and Hazel through a black and white photo by Will Counts that became iconic.  Little Rock was being forced by the federal government to integrate Central High School in 1957.  Nine selected black students tried to go to school that day.
     The photo branded Elizabeth and Hazel -- black Elizabeth as stoic and strong, white Hazel as the ugly personification of racial hatred.  It was a shameful day in American history that has not been forgotten even 50 years later.  The National Guard prevented the nine black students from attending school that day, but Elizabeth's camera-caught "mix of hesitancy and resolve"  lasted a lifetime.
Elizabeth had wanted the advantages of a white high school over a black high school.  In reality, along with the other eight black students, that year was mostly a nightmare of being subjected to daily humiliations dealt by their white classmates.  There were a few exceptions to that, but far too few.  Hazel, although not identified by name in the photo, didn't return to Central.  After suffering through a year, Elizabeth dropped out.
     A newly published book by David Margolik, "Elizabeth and Hazel:  Two Women of Little Rock," documents the rest of the story of these two women about to enter their 70s.  Their stories follow lives that diverged and intersected.  Elizabeth fought depression and suicidal thoughts.  Hazel could not forget the image of her face contorted in rage and hatred in that picture.  About five years later, after having married young and having a couple of children, Hazel called Elizabeth and apologized.  She then embarked on a "life of self-discovery and activism, much of it in the black community."  She atoned for her prejudice any way she could.
     In 1997, Hazel reached out to Elizabeth again.  As they drew closer and became friends and confidantes, they provided a much needed "source of hope and inspiration to a community intent on moving beyond its troubled history."  They posed for newspaper pictures, made joint speaking engagements, and enrolled in a seminar on racial healing.  Even Oprah invited them to appear together on her tv show.  Elizabeth gained strength from her relationship with Hazel, got a job she loved, and set her life on a smoother course.
     Far from being forgotten, the Little Rock nine were often honored.  There were many news stories about them, especially on anniversaries of that 1957 attempt at desegregation.  One of Elizabeth's proudest moments in 1998 was hugging President Clinton after he presented her (and the other eight) with the Congressional Medal of Honor.
After a few years, in little ways, Elizabeth began to sour on reconciliation with Hazel.  By 2000, "quietly, unceremoniously, their great experiment in racial rapprochement was over."  And herein lies the crux of the story.  "As Margolick charts the labyrinthine turns of this complex relationship, and acknowledges the pain that persists between the two women, the fissures and misunderstandings that continue to divide the races are laid bare."
     I didn't learn that my parents were prejudiced until my husband and I adopted a black child.  When I asked my mother why I hadn't known she was prejudiced, she said, "Because I knew it was wrong and I didn't want to pass it on to you and your brother."  When black speakers came to talk to our group of white parents who had adopted black children, almost all of them tried to convince us that, as whites, we had to face the fact that we were prejudiced against our black children.  And, in the mid-70s, black social workers in California stopped trans-racial adoptions dead.  They said that white people were not capable of raising black children.
It's very complicated.
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1 comment:

  1. There is an extract from the audio book on the latest Elaine Charles radio show. You can listen to the archived shows on That got me interested.
    This is a book that we should all read. We should never forget how far we have come and how far we still have to go.