WASHINGTON — The matching skirt and top that Carlotta Walls LaNier wore on her first day of high school will join a hymnal owned by Harriet Tubman and Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The cotton outfit, her diploma and a report card rank contributed by one of the nine black students who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957 are among the most important acquisitions for the museum that is scheduled to open in 2015, said museum director Lonnie Bunch.
The everyday items of a 14-year-old girl, he said, will help the museum educate millions of visitors about how the actions of a few individuals – in this case young students – can create a truly transformative moment.
"It sends the signal that young people can transform the country. This was one of the most important moments in our history and for the Smithsonian to be able to document that is very special," Bunch said.
LaNier formally gave the items to the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Thursday. The museum building is under construction on the National Mall near the Washington Monument.
"It is important to me and my family to have these artifacts to be part of our history," she said.
The Smithsonian, she said, will allow school children from across the country to connect with her experience growing up in the segregated South five decades ago.
"I want them to know why they are sitting in a classroom with those who look different than they do. And, why it should remain that way," LaNier said. "You need to be prepared to work with people of different backgrounds and cultures. They are just as much an equal as you are."
LaNier was the youngest of the Little Rock Nine. She wore the matching skirt and top on Sept. 4, 1957, when the group first attempted to enter the school. The Arkansas National Guard, under orders from Gov. Orval Faubus, turned the nine away as an angry white a crowd mob looked on.
She wore the same outfit on Sept. 23, when the students returned and entered the school from a side door. But, a larger mob of more than 1,000 rioted outside and the students were swiftly escorted home.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to restore order and on Sept. 25 the Little Rock Nine began their first full day of classes, escorted into the school by federal troops.
Now 69 and living in Denver, Colo., LaNier vividly recalls those tumultuous days.
She said the outfit was a gift from her great uncle Emeril Halloway. Although her mother, an expert seamstress, made most of her clothes, he insisted that she go buy a "first day dress" at a department store to mark the occasion.
This was the Jim Crow South where blacks could not swim at the city pool, borrow a book from the public library, visit the city zoo except on specified days or try on clothes at a department store, she said.
"You weren’t able to try on the dress, the shoes or the hat," LaNier said. "So, it was important in his mind that I was treated as an equal."
The dark-colored outfit was among a handful that she liked and was ultimately selected for practical reasons. She would be able to wear it in the heat of September through the chill of November.
LaNier wore the dress on Sept. 4 because that was supposed to be her first day of high school. She recalled being excited and unafraid.
"You are 14 and you think you can go through a stone wall," she said. "This mob was across the street and yelling a lot of negative things. In my view, they were just ignorant people."
Turned away, the Little Rock Nine returned on Sept. 23 entering through a side door that avoided the crowd gathered in front of the high school. The police rushed them home as the mob attacked several black journalists covering the event.
"I was really scared when I heard the policeman say to the driver put your foot to the floor and don’t stop for anything. I heard the urgency," she said.
Two days later, the Little Rock Nine were escorted into the school by the 101st Airborne. Each was assigned a guard who took them from class to class.
During the school year she encountered "plenty" of spitting and heckling from "troublemakers" who wanted them to go away. While there were sympathetic whites, she made no white friends.
"There were white students that, if the circumstances were different, would probably have welcomed me more than they did. They would smile in the hallway or in the classroom. But those who were nice to us were chased or called horrific names. So, there was a price to pay — and you are a kid. You have to understand that piece too," she said.
LaNier said that her best day at school was walking up to receive her diploma. She graduated in 1960.
"My parents, they had always said that we were to get the best education available," she said. "I knew I was just as good as the next person, and I was told that by my parents."