S.2 E.1 Little Rock 1957 / Minneapolis 2020

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews historian Misti Harper.
Posted on July 20th, 2020 by

Dr. Misti Harper, Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Gustavus, discusses the role of “respectability politics” among black women in the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School, the Minnesota context of Mr. George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis 63 years later, and her undergraduate course on Prince.

Season 2, Episode 1: Little Rock 1957 / Minneapolis 2020

Transcript:

Greg Kaster:
Learning for Life at Gustavus has produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

There are certainly photos from the past that are iconic. Photos that circulate widely at the time and there after and come to symbolize and even stand for a particular historic moment or event. One such photo with from the African integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. Near the center of it is a white girl, Hazel Bryan, angrily screaming at the African-American girl, Elizabeth Eckford. Walking in front of her, sunglasses on, clutching a folder, walking towards Central High. Both were 15 years old.

Professor Misti Harper (third from left) leads class discussion.

This photo and the racial clash and gender complexities it condenses are the subject of important and fascinating research by my colleague Misti Harper, a visiting assistant professor in the Gustavus history department, where she teaches courses in African-American and U.S. women’s history. Given the recent police killing of Mr. George Floyd in Minneapolis and the nationwide and global protests that have followed, I thought it would be a good time to check in with Misti for some valuable historical perspective on our present moment, including any lessons the photograph and experiences of Hazel Bryan and Elizabeth Eckford might hold for us today.

Professor Harper completed her PhD in history at the University of Arkansas Fayetteville in 2017 and her book manuscript growing out of that research titled Ladies of Little Rock, Black Femininity and Respectability of Politics in the Fight to Desegregate Central High School, is under contract with the University of Georgia Press. She is also the author of Portrait of an Invented Lady: Daisy Gatson Bates and the Politics of Respectability, published in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly in 2019, as well as the author of numerous book reviews and scholarly presentations. It’s great to have you on the podcast Misti. I’ve been looking forward to hearing your historian’s perspective on the events of the past two weeks in Minneapolis and elsewhere, both in this country and abroad.

Misti Harper:
Thank you so much for having me Greg. I really appreciate you reaching out.

Greg Kaster:
You’re quite welcome. Let’s begin with your own background, which I think is interesting. Talk to us a little bit about how you came to be a professor of history and I think you can tell us a little bit also about your theater background.

Misti Harper:
Sure. Absolutely. I’m not a traditional graduate student. I didn’t have the typical path to the academy. I did begin my undergraduate career as a theater major. As it happened, I was often cast in a lot of historical shows. A lot of historical musicals and straight plays as well. It just came to be that whenever I was putting my professional portfolio together, so whenever I was doing professional theater in the summertime, I was only ever cast by summer stock theaters that were doing some kind of historical based production. So I did The Sound of Music. I did a show called, Young Abe Lincoln. Part of a ballet called Civil War Ballet. It was a very original title that, right? There’s a massive production in panhandle Texas called Texas Legacies. It is all about the colonization of Texas, that I did one summer. So I kept finding myself in these particular productions.

That dovetailed really nicely with an interest that I’d always had in history. I’m from Southwestern Arkansas and what most people don’t realize about that part of the state was that after Little Rock fell to the Union during the Civil War, the capital of the Confederate Arkansas was moved to Southwestern Arkansas in a place called Washington. Today it’s called Old Washington. I grew up doing a lot of work there because my friend’s mother worked in a gift shop there and everybody who was on staff at this state park was encouraged to take part in different productions that they put on throughout the year. So I grew up being really involved in what was going on at Old Washington and that just really peaked my curiosity about history. Like most white children in the south, I saw Gone With The Wind so many times that I can quote the entire movie to you. So I had those kinds of cultural markers in my background, so that what led me to declare a history minor.

Then flash forward a few years after I had graduated from undergrad and I found myself as an unemployed actress desperately needing work. I was able to put that history minor to use. I was hired at Camp Robinson military base in Little Rock Arkansas to teach the social studies portion of the GED to soldiers who wanted to enlist, but did not have a high school diploma. That was my first teaching job and because of the material I was teaching, I was able to tap in not just to my history minor, but also my theater background, because I didn’t have a teaching certificate. I didn’t know what I was doing. They were literally hiring anybody with a bachelor’s degree. It was kind of the Welcome Back, Kotter of professional gigs. So, I was just really fortunate that I found that I had a talent for teaching, and that I really loved teaching historical materials. That was what led me to enroll in the University of Central Arkansas master’s history program.

Initially I just wanted to get my MA, because that’s whenever online courses were taking off and my idea was I could probably be a work at home parent and teach online courses. But basically from the second that I got into that first seminar at UCA, I decided, no, I need the PhD. I want to be a part of what this world is. So that’s how I came to earn my PhD in history and here I am now.

Podcast host and historian Greg Kaster

Greg Kaster:
I love that story for so many reasons, including that the stereotype is study history and you’re looking at unemployment. But in your case, that minor in history helped you. That became your bread and butter so you weren’t a hungry unemployed actress. How did you come to study what you’ve been researching and what your forthcoming book is about? Talk to us a little bit about that photograph and your research around it. I know it’s not about the photograph per se.

Misti Harper:
Sure. So that’s kind of a long strange trip also. Whenever I initially was accepted into the UCA master’s program, I definitely knew that I wanted to study southern history. So I got into those first few classes, one of which was on the order of basically learning to write a major paper on the way to writing the master’s thesis. But then, the other two in my first year were courses specifically in southern history and while I was there, I became fascinated with these white women segregationists. I knew next to nothing about any women’s roles in the civil rights movement, much less white women’s. Much less, that white women had a history, a very long history of being the stalwarts of segregation and regression in the south. It’s a hallmark of how green in the academy I was, that I thought I had stumbled onto something really big here. I was like, “Ah, nobody’s ever talked about these women before.” And then of course I was hit with the whole historiography of, actually segregationist women have been very studied.

So I took that foundation from UCA and when I went into Arkansas, because UCA didn’t offer a doctoral program in history, I had to go to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. My advisor there Calvin White Jr. looked at my research and he thought that I had talent and he thought that I had something of a quality product here. But he was the person who was like, “You know who’s actually understudied, are the black women who are at the heart of this story. The black women that white women are reacting to. The black students that the white women are reacting to.” He was the first person to take me as a white southern woman and really show me all the things that so many white students across the country in general miss because of the way our education curriculum is centered on whiteness and is centered specifically to feature white voices in the narrative.

That was how I came to study African-American history and to recognize that it’s American history, it doesn’t need the extra adjective. It’s history that’s often hidden and often on purpose. Often erased in favor of centering a white narrative. But that’s how I came to look particularly at middle class black women who really made that movement in Little Rock.

Greg Kaster:
What about the issue of respectability, which is central to your research? Can you tell us a little bit about what that? Respectability politics I think might be the phrase you use, which I find quite interesting. And by the way, I should note, you’re noting just for our listeners, that your work is really part of a whole trend to get at the role of African-American women in the civil rights movement and the struggle against segregation, more broadly the African-American freedom struggle. But any case, I’d like to hear a little bit more about that politics of respectability or respectability politics among the African-American women in Little Rock, you’ve looked at.

Misti Harper:
Sure, absolutely. I really think that that was what peaked my advisor’s interest in my initial project, was that I had already on my own figured out that the way that southern white women were framed in the narrative of disgregation was that they were working class white women and that there had been a lot made of their class standing. So whenever I began doing my research for my dissertation, we were able to take that and juxtapose that to the way that middle class black women positioned themselves in the desegregation of Little Rock. They essentially poised themselves as everything that white women were not. White women who were protesting desegregation were not. That in fact, these women by virtue of their class standing within the black community, by virtue of the attributes that recommended them in general, so college education, church participation, literally their deportment and carriage whenever they were out in public. These were intangible status symbols that marked them as definitively higher on the social ladder than the people who would degrade them, except for the fact of race.

That was fascinating to me because as it turned out, lots of the women who I interviewed, women who had been the young girls who had integrated … who had desegregated, rather Central High School. So Minnijean Brown-Trickey, Elizabeth Eckford, Gloria Ray, Carlotta Walls. All of them argue now that they were not middle class. That they were working class and that besides the differences between white and black class structures are radically different to understand. All of that is completely true, but what I argue in my work and in what a lot of the respectability politics historiography is, whenever we talk about black womanhood, is that they were intentionally projecting a kind of image that was unassailable. That white people had to recognize, that they had to see as inherently worthy, based through a lens of white people argued that they valued.

So that’s the way that I unpack respectability politics in my book. It’s not necessarily about reflections. It’s about the strategy of showing that blackness was just as inherently worthy as whiteness if not more so, based on a lot of the qualifiers that white folks used, in addition to how black people within their own community valued tangible and intangible markers of what made a person a quote/unquote best man or best woman. It’s a really rich and complex theme to try to unpack.

Greg Kaster:
I just find that fascinating in the way it intersects with the way respectability brings together in your work and similar work, class, race and gender, in the case of women. Although, I’ve done some work on white working men also, where respectability is an issue when they’re trying to project respectability even as they’re resisting wage cuts and long hours. I think that’s a really important theme of your work. What about the white women? Were they in fact what people saw, that is sort of angry working class whites? Or were they middle class, or was it a mix?

Misti Harper:
That’s a really good question. The white women who are featured in my work, were working class by white and black definitions. Their economic standing was certainly more limited than other white people in the community and they were quite angry at several factors within Little Rock particularly. The white women who feature in my work, had a sense that they were being intentionally left behind by middle class and elite white Little Rock. These were people who were generally excluded from upper crust whiteness in the city anyway. Their economic standing prevented them from belonging to country clubs or belonging to the right kinds of the quote/unquote kinds of women’s clubs. These were not generally business owners in the community. They didn’t sit on the chamber of commerce. These were people who actually often lived very integrated lives with black families in the south side of the city.

That’s one of the fascinating things about the south is that despite the fact that Jim Crow was legal in that region, it was actually integrated and that was the point of Jim Crow. Working class white families often lived a street over from black families. In some cases, black and white families actually lived literally next door to one another in poorer parts of southern cities, and that certainly was the case in Little Rock. What made working class white women angry was that they were in fact being classed with black families as new high schools in Little Rock were being built that were not specifically targeted for integration or desegregation of any kind. For example, Hall High School, which still exists today and interestingly it’s a majority black and brown school now, but when it was built, it was built in the north side of the city and it was not to be desegregated. It was to be an all white school for upper class white families who lived in the Heights and Hillcrest neighborhoods, which are still majority white, very wealthy neighborhoods in the city.

Working class white people really resented that. They resented that the one claim that they had to any kind of status, which was whiteness, was essentially being taken away. That was how they viewed that move by the Little Rock school board, was that they were inherently outcast from whiteness, from the rest of the city. So these women who I look at, really were angry. They didn’t qualify as southern ladies in that mythological sense. This was one more insult to that for them in their minds. They saw it as insulting. So there was a lot of anger. It was directed, or rather it stemmed from other white people. It stemmed from maltreatment from white people that they then turned into weapons to use against black people.

Greg Kaster:
I think there are all kinds of lessons there for our present moment, which we can get to shortly. I’m just curious, were you able to speak with either Mrs. Bryan or Mrs. Eckford for your research?

Misti Harper:
I was able to speak with Elizabeth Eckford some years ago. She pretty famously doesn’t do interviews anymore. Essentially, she really doesn’t trust most people. And whenever you do a little bit of research on her and the way she’s been sought out over the decades and how she thinks she’s often been used, it’s quite understandable. She really only speaks to a couple of people in Little Rock in the journalist community. Then you have to belong to her circle. But I did have the good fortune to speak with her in 2012. She spoke with me briefly about what it was like to live with the ongoing trauma of Little Rock. That was not initially the question that I had asked her, but I have grown to appreciate that she ignored my question and talked about that tremendously, because I had never thought about that before. I had never considered how she carried that with her. She’s literally a living symbol of this particular moment and how that continues to effect and often harm her.

Hazel Bryan will not take calls to my knowledge from anyone since David Margolick’s book, Elizabeth and Hazel. She has basically disappeared from public life. I was able to get interviews with some white students from Central High School. People who had been students then. Those were very interesting. They ran the gamut from apathetic students who just wanted to go to school, and enjoy football games and prom and all of the things that they in fact did not necessarily get to do in 1957 and 1958, to very tragic, very sympathetic, very sorrowful interviews of white adults who had grown to realize exactly how difficult things must have been for their black classmates in that year, to outright segregationists. Very angry people who our interviews did not begin angry, but the longer that we talked, the more they revealed themselves. Some of which even told me at the end of our interviews that they considered themselves segregationists in the 21st Century. So they were a wild set of interviews that I got. And nobody wanted to give me their names. Everybody who I spoke with who was white from that era, spoke with me on conditions of anonymity.

Greg Kaster:
That is so interesting. What about, did Hazel and Elizabeth have some sort of reconciliation or is that not really the case?

Misti Harper:
They did actually. And it’s really interesting. David Margolick did an incredible project that was produced, I think it was published in 2007. I think I’m remembering that correctly. He is a journalist for Vanity Fair magazine, and it was on the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock that this was to be released. He had been working on this project for several years beforehand. Hazel Bryan apparently did not realize that she had become an international symbol for regression and white supremacy. She actually left Little Rock just a few weeks after the infamous Will Counts’ photo was taken. Her family intentionally took her out of Central High School because it was desegregating and they took her to a high school in Saline County which is just south of Pulaski County where Little Rock is the county seat.

So that was where she spent the remainder of her high school years and she argues that she really had no idea until about 1962 when the national civil rights movement was really gaining steam, when the Freedom Riders had already gone through Alabama, and she began to see that picture in circulation. It was then that she reached out to Elizabeth Eckford, so this is the early 1960s, to talk to her, to apologize to her and from there, there were kind of piece meal efforts up until the 1990s of the two of them to reconnect to get together in person to talk about what had happened.

Elizabeth Eckford continued to live in Little Rock after she left college. Hazel always lived in the area, and so they did actually wind up forging a pretty interesting friendship by the 90s. They were featured on an episode of Oprah in I think it was 1997, so that would have been the 40th anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock. They talked very candidly about why they had essentially become friends. That friendship fell apart according to Margolick. Elizabeth Eckford does suffer from PTSD. She’s always been according to everyone who knows her very well, kind of a difficult person. I mean that in a positive way. She’s naturally reserved. She’s not necessarily exuberant. She’s suspicious of new comers and other people, and she can be kind of difficult to get to know and there are lots of folks like that. But whenever you combine that with all of the emotional labor that she has to exist with, and whenever you combine that with Hazel’s apparent need to constantly atone for Little Rock. And then not necessarily understand some of the damage that Elizabeth lived with, eventually that friendship that they’d made as middle aged women did fall apart.

Greg Kaster:
That’s both interesting and sad in a way. We should stipulate before we switch gears her a little bit, we should stipulate that integration at Central High really came only when President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican ordered, I think it was maybe 1,000 army tro0ps to Little Rock to basically ensure that it happens. Let’s switch gears a little bit. I’d like you to reflect if you would through the prism of your research and your historian’s eyes and knowledge and also your own personal experiences if you like growing up in Arkansas, on the present events, Mr. George Floyd’s murder by police here in Minneapolis and the protests that have ensued. Not only in Minneapolis and this country, but really around the world. What are your reflections? I know that’s a huge question. But your thinking again with your historian’s cap on, but also given your own personal experiences?

Misti Harper:
I think I’m like everybody else. I have so many thoughts on what has happened. To address George Floyd’s murder first and foremost, it’s sickening, but not surprising. Of course by this point, I would imagine that practically anybody who was 15 or older in 2013, is very aware of what Black Lives Matter is and represents and was specifically founded to make aware and the combat police brutality. So I feel like Mr. Floyd’s murder isn’t shocking based on what all of us know about how police forces too often function in the United States historically. It’s not surprising at all. This country’s history of policing it exists specifically on white supremacy and Eurocentrism, particularly northern Eurocentrism, so that is to say that the way that American policing functions, functions on racism and ethnic targeting.

I think the reason that this movement has galvanized and gotten a much needed shot in the arm in terms of urgency and of awakening people who may have otherwise been moved by other murders, is first of all the horror of it. That most of us have seen the video and what it looked like and exactly how brutal and how cruel it was. But I think also it matters to that this happened in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Greg Kaster:
Right, I agree.

Misti Harper:
I had a student who, this was after graduation, she reached out and she live in Saint Paul. She wanted to talk about this and I was happy to do it. I mean in the age of coronavirus, we’ve all got time to sit around and talk, right?

Greg Kaster:
You’re right there.

Misti Harper:
So I was happy to meet with her after graduation and talk about this. That was something that she had mentioned to me. She was like, “I’ve lived here all of my life and I just couldn’t believe something like that happened here.” I reminded her of what we had studied this year in Minnesota with the Duluth lynchings of 1920 and how there are very infamous cases of racial violence in this part of the country, in this state. But, that generally speaking, at least for white people, that’s not supposed to be something that happens here. This would not have been as shocking if it had come from Texas or Mississippi or Arkansas or Louisiana. A place where you expect that kind of brutality and that kind of oppression, because it’s so ingrained in the history of those regions.

Minnesota has skated by for a long time in the minds of white people as an incredibly progressive place, as a safe place, as a wealthy place, and if you are white in this state, I think those things are quite true. But if you look at the experiences of black and brown people in this state, it’s a very different Minnesota and it always has been. I think that if there’s anything positive that we can take away from this, it’s that Minnesota has had to wake up to the fact that there are multiple Minnesotas, and that the white experience here it’s hardly the only experience that happens for this states citizens. Minneapolis is one of the most segregated cities in the country. The most segregated city in the country is Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I think that that’s important to point out that the upper Midwest is not a bastion of liberalism or progressivism at all for it’s black and brown citizens and it never has been.

The history of police brutality with the MPD is extensive and decades long. Prince Rogers Nelson said in the 90s that the reason that he stayed in Minneapolis, the reason that he didn’t move to Los Angeles or the reason he didn’t go to New York, was because the cold keeps the bad people out. I can’t help but wonder if by that point, he said that because he was already Prince. He was already an international star. Because he grew up in the north side and he knew, he had talked about as a young man, what it was like to encounter lots of white people for the first time. He hadn’t had to do that until he was in junior high school. He had grown up in a black bubble where blackness was the norm. Certainly where he didn’t experience any kind of targeting at all until he was a young teenager. I just wonder if maybe his fame hadn’t insulated him to a point that he could make that statement when he did in the 90s because there’s always been bad in Minnesota.

That’s actually the focus of my second book project, as soon as I get this first one published, is looking at how black women really spearheaded and helped lead Minnesota’s women to get the right to vote in 1920 and the intersectional problems that they had to overcome, one of which was egregious racism. So whenever I think about Mr. Floyd and I think about police brutality, as a historian, particularly as somebody who continues to dive into Minnesota’s history, I’m not at all surprised by this. I am very hopeful because I’m 38 years old, I was a kid during the Rodney King trials. I was a kid during the OJ Simpson trials, but I remember those really vividly. And of course I was a graduate student when Trayvon Marin was murdered and when the Black Lives Matter movement started. I don’t recall the kind of urgency attached to any of those events the way that I’m seeing it and feeling it now. I’m not sure that it–

Greg Kaster:
Completely–

Misti Harper:
Oh, I’m sorry.

Greg Kaster:
No, go ahead. Go ahead. Go ahead. No, go ahead.

Misti Harper:
I was just going to say, I’m not sure if I totally answered all of your questions, that felt a lot like rambling and searching for a way to make all of that coherent.

Greg Kaster:
No, far from it. Far from it. I was going to say, I could not agree more with you. I’m speaking here as you are, we’re not native Minnesotans. But I could not agree more with you about the importance of paying attention to the fact that Mr. Floyd’s murder took place in Minnesota and Minneapolis. I really wonder had it been not only in the southern states you mentioned, let’s say it occurred even in New York or Chicago, would there have been the same sort of response. I think we have to understand what you put your finger on, this idea that at least many white Minnesotans have, native Minnesotans, and not just white Minnesotan, who have this idea that Minnesota is an exceptional place and it is in many ways. But it’s not so exceptional that it stands outside of history.

As you point out and others have written about, we don’t have time to get into it here, but there is a long standing history of racism in the Minneapolis police department. And also anti-Semitism by the way. Minneapolis in the 1940s was well known, called Carey McWillams, the editor of The Nation, famously the anti-Semitic capital of the United States. So without understanding that history, I don’t think we can come to grips, we collectively as Minnesotans, people living in Minnesota, as a country, with what brought about the horrific event at 38th and Chicago here in Minneapolis. And I don’t think we’re going to understand that history until people are willing to confront it. You mentioned the student who classic example, I’ve had so many comments like that from Minnesotans I know. People born here who are just expressing shock, “How could it have happened here? This isn’t who we are.” But it is who we are and the history shows that. It’s not just who we are, but it is a part of who we are. So I think your answer is quite important.

You mentioned Prince and I actually wanted to end on that note. It’s a happier note in many ways. At Gustavus, we have a January term as you well know and listeners familiar with the college know, and you created and taught just a terrific course on Prince. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Misti Harper:
Aw, thank you so much. This was the theater coming out in me, I called Prince and the sexual revolution. That was a delight of a course. I’ve been a Prince fan for a long time. Prince for a kid who always thought a little bit different in southern Arkansas, was a conduit to the rest of the groovy purple freaky world. So in a lot of ways his music was kind of salvation for people who certainly found themselves on the margins of wherever they happened to be. I had the good fortune to have married Doc Harper, who was a massive Prince fan also. So I already had a deep wellspring of knowledge about who he was as a person as well as an artist. That was something I was really excited to be able to do as a visiting professor at Gustavus was bring him in and use him to show not just a fun interesting kind of offbeat history course, but use who he was to talk about issues of race and sexuality. Intersecting issues about gender and authenticity. Then to use that against the backdrop of Minnesota and Minnesota history.

So being able to teach that course was really fantastic, especially because he certainly tied everything about his identity back to the fact that he was raised in the north side in the 1970s. He was raised in one of the last legs of great migration communities. His parents came up to this part of the country in the late 1940s. They were jazz singers. Both of them were from Louisiana. So he had that culture behind him also, which of course speaks to a whole lot of the issues that are present whenever we tie it back to what’s going on in Minneapolis right now.

That course, I felt like its success lay in the fact that it was really pulling back the cover, not just on race and gender issues, and certainly not just of musical or pop cultural history, but it showed that there’s this other layer to this state that I think sometimes gets hidden in plain site. And certainly whenever we looked at how Minnesota shaped Prince’s music, my students were just agog. Practically everybody in that class I think was native born Minnesotan and presenting them with something that was not centered in Scandinavian history or in whiteness in general or in Lutheranism, I think really just kind of blew their minds. It was a lot of fun to teach that class and to show kind of the purple underbelly of what’s going on in this place also.

Greg Kaster:
I love that phrase the purple underbelly. Everything I heard about the class, both from you and from students who took it, just sounded like a great, great experience. Fun and also full of learning at the same time. Thank you so much. This has been quite interesting. We look forward to your book. I know it will be terrific. Excuse me. I’ll see you back on campus once we can. Take good care.

Misti Harper:
Thank you so much Greg. I so look forward to that. You take care.

Greg Kaster:
Same here Misti. Take care. Bye bye.

Misti Harper:
Bye bye.

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jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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