One was trying to go to school; the other didn’t want her there. Together, Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan starred in one of the most memorable photographs of the Civil Rights era. But their story had only just begun.
Via the Telegraph
By David Margolick
When it comes down to it, Counts’s famous photograph of Elizabeth Eckford is really more of Hazel Bryan: it is on Hazel that the eyes land, and linger.
Despite the tricky lighting, her face is perfectly exposed: the early morning September sun shines on her like a spotlight. It hits her from the side, painting her face in a stark chiaroscuro that makes it look more demonic still. She’s caught mid-vowel, with her mouth gapingly, ferociously open. At that instant, and in perpetuity, Hazel Bryan, always the performer, has the stage completely to herself.
Others played their own small parts in the picture, but “the mouth” she later said, “was mine”. And dressing that morning as she had, trying to look all grown up and sexed up, she had masked how young she really was. She was only 15, but she would always be seen, and judged, as an adult.
The next morning, Elizabeth and Hazel landed on millions of doorsteps.
Elizabeth became, as Ted Poston of the New York Post put it, “probably the most widely known high school student in the whole United States”, with the unidentified white girl to her running a close second.
Attention, and commentary, came from abroad as well. “One Girl Runs Gauntlet of Hate”, shouted a headline in the Daily Express in London.
The Arkansas Gazette marvelled at how the events had united in their outrage the newspapers of the Vatican, the Kremlin and a country whose leader had snubbed Jesse Owens only 20 years earlier. The story and picture led off the Little Rock coverage in Paris Match.
Long-distance telephone calls for Elizabeth came into her grandfather’s store from Chicago, Detroit, New York, even Oklahoma. Though all of The Nine got letters, Elizabeth got far and away the most, as many as 50 a day.
Because she’d rarely been identified by name, Hazel got little mail. A few letters, all from the North, all critical, were sent to her care of Central. Hazel read them, found their critical tone surprising, then gave them little mind.
Hazel’s parents, though, found her sudden notoriety sufficiently alarming to pull her out of Central. As linked as she became to the Little Rock Nine, then, Hazel did not in fact spend a single day inside Central with any of them.
The initial reports from inside were encouraging. “The teachers are very nice. Nothing went wrong, there were no catcalls. I especially enjoyed my history and English classes,” Elizabeth reported after that first day.
“Everything will be all right, for the majority of the white students themselves are all right.” Soon, though, there were disquieting signs. On October 1, while walking down the hall, Elizabeth was struck from behind with a pencil. In gym class the next day, someone threw a rock at her. When a soldier asked who, the white students just laughed.
Elizabeth suffered disproportionately. Apart from being the most vulnerable, she was also the most symbolically potent: if only they could drive out the girl who had come to epitomise the Nine, the segregationists may have hoped, the others would quickly follow, and the whole integrationist edifice would crumble.
Elizabeth had to be coaxed into participating in the 40th anniversary celebrations in 1997, even though they promised to be the most glorious yet: President Bill Clinton would preside. Elizabeth gradually became involved, meeting planners of the visitor centre the National Park Service planned to open in the old Mobil station near the school.
Also involved in the commemorations was Elizabeth Jacoway of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, who was writing a history of the schools crisis. Jacoway had interviewed dozens of participants, including Elizabeth (in 1994) and Hazel (in 1996). Having pondered Hazel’s face for decades, Jacoway had been expecting an uneducated hick and was surprised by how articulate and remorseful she was.
In the years after Little Rock, Hazel had become increasingly political, branching out into peace activism and social work. One programme focused on self-esteem for teenagers. She took black teenagers who rarely had left Little Rock on field trips, climbing Pinnacle Mountain and picking strawberries. And, putting her course work in child psychology to use, she counselled young unwed mothers, many of them black, on parenting skills.
All this do-gooding with blacks, her husband, Antoine, joked, was really her way of atoning for the picture. And maybe he was right. Her whole outlook towards black people had changed. At the Barnes & Noble in Little Rock, she perused the sections on black history. She read David Shipler’s study of black-white relations in America, A Country of Strangers, a book Elizabeth herself had helped inspire.
Someone had suggested that an entire wall of the new visitor centre be devoted to the photograph. But Jacoway had another idea: subordinating the original photograph to a contemporary picture of Elizabeth and Hazel together – one symbolising the racial progress Little Rock had made. Will Counts was thinking similar thoughts. Newly retired from a professorship at Indiana University, the photographer had returned to Arkansas to chronicle the changes at Central since 1957.
When Elizabeth cut the ribbon at the dedication of the new visitor centre on September 20, Counts looked on. Afterward, Jacoway gave him Hazel’s number. Later that day, he spoke to both women. They agreed to meet.
For a moment, the two women faced one another. Still imagining Hazel as a blonde, Elizabeth was taken a bit aback to behold a brunette. “Hi, I’ve always wanted to meet you,” Elizabeth told her. “You’re mighty brave to face the cameras again,” she told Hazel as the three visitors entered the house. Hazel found the remark puzzling: Elizabeth seemed to be warning her of risks she couldn’t foresee.
Counts had already scouted possible locations to shoot the pair. He was thinking not so much about making great art, but about making a point, about the power of human beings to grow, and to forgive. And these two women actually looked comfortable with each other; they weren’t just putting on a show. Watching it was, for him, a near-religious experience, one of the most thrilling moments in his life.
When the anniversary commemorations ended in late September of 1997, Elizabeth and Hazel prepared to go their very separate ways. But, as time passed, Hazel realised that she wasn’t quite ready to let go.
In mid-November, Hazel invited Elizabeth and two of her sister Anna’s grandchildren to her house. Then, later that month, came the poster signing.
A large crowd showed up. As for the poster itself, Hazel thought the original picture was too small: as much as she hated it, she believed it couldn’t and shouldn’t be hidden. Elizabeth had a different problem with it: she thought the title – “Reconciliation” — overstated; there was a big difference between that and forgiveness.
Their encounters gradually became more frequent, almost routine. Over the next several months, they went to a home and garden show, and bought daylilies and irises together. They shopped for fabrics together. They heard Maya Angelou read poetry together.
The two enrolled in a seminar on racial healing offered by Little Rock’s racial and cultural diversity commission. Discussing race relations in a group of 20 every Monday night for 12 weeks was a revelation to each: Elizabeth had never realised how paralysed by anger and hate she had been, and hoped to leech some of that rage. It seemed to work, and she came to look forward to each session.
As for Hazel, she was naive about how bitter some blacks were; here was a problem one couldn’t simply wish away, or eliminate with soothing words. She was also amazed by how little race history she knew: after one class, Elizabeth mentioned Strange Fruit, the anti-lynching song Billie Holiday had made famous, and, much to Elizabeth’s astonishment, Hazel knew nothing about either the song or the subject. The picture itself was never discussed. But their classmates were tickled to be sitting alongside two such famous antagonists and, week by week, watching them bond.
Quietly, though, some considered the rapprochement, however lovely in principle, a triumph of sentimentality, wishful thinking, and marketing over reality. They wondered how deep it went and how long it could last. In some segments of her own community, Elizabeth stood accused of whitewashing reality. “I have been surprised by the vitriol that some young blacks approach me with,” she told the BBC. “They feel like I’m saying that what happened, it’s all over with and there are no repercussions. They feel like I’m wiping away the past.”
Almost from the outset, Hazel encountered hostility from whites. Some doubted her sincerity; more resented it. Soon, and most seriously, tensions developed with Elizabeth. Novelty and companionability, excitement and relief had propelled them along for a time.
But strains soon surfaced. The source was Elizabeth, and it was predictable, for she had always been the harder sell. Her usual wariness, vigilance, and perfectionism could be kept at bay only so long. As the two shared more time and platforms, Elizabeth spotted what she perceived to be discrepancies, inconsistencies and evasions, in Hazel’s story.
The fissure was painfully apparent that March, 18 months into their relationship, when they met Linda Monk, a lawyer turned writer who hoped to write a book about the women. She recorded some of their sessions, and those taped conversations captured how Elizabeth’s mood had changed.
“After you saw [Counts’s] pictures in the paper, you don’t remember how you felt or what people close to you talked about?” she asked Hazel incredulously at one point. ‘‘There wasn’t much conversation about it, really,’’ replied Hazel. What she’d done that morning had been so banal — “just hamming up and being recognised – getting attention” – that it hadn’t been worth remembering, she insisted. Maybe she had a block. But Elizabeth wasn’t buying it.
Elizabeth had forgiven Hazel, but that forgiveness, she concluded, had been obtained under false pretences: Hazel hadn’t fully owned up to her past. For her part, Hazel felt under assault. “It’s very hard for me to sit there and listen to you, Elizabeth,” she said weakly. “It’s very hard for me… and if there’s anything I could give you… if I could take it back… if I could…” She began to sob.
In the spring of 1999 I travelled to Little Rock and arranged to meet Elizabeth and Hazel at a barbecue. Afterwards we went to Hazel’s house and talked some more. It was, I thought, a friendly chat. Elizabeth did not let on that she and Hazel were having problems; the two of them were “very close”, she said. They talked a lot, she went on, maybe once a week. Hazel was more forthright about where things stood between them, but still oblique. “I think she still… at times we have a little… well, the honeymoon is over and now we’re getting to take out the garbage,” she said.
Early in 2000 Cathy Collins, the sociologist who had conducted the racial healing seminar Elizabeth and Hazel had attended, invited them for catfish at a local restaurant. Collins planned to write her dissertation on the two of them, and wanted to discuss the project. She had picked up no bad vibes that evening, but Elizabeth had: Hazel seemed very much on edge. Her instincts were sound. Hazel had had enough. They would no longer see each other. Quietly, unceremoniously, their great experiment in racial rapprochement was over.
The “reconciliation” poster was popular enough to warrant another printing. Elizabeth let them go ahead; it was her way of supporting the place. Now, though, she insisted that it carry a caveat, one she devised herself. Soon, a small sticker, resembling the surgeon general’s warning on cigarette packs, appeared in the upper right hand corner. It was gold, and relatively inconspicuous, particularly against Central’s ochre bricks: “True reconciliation can occur only when we honestly acknowledge our painful, but shared, past.” – Elizabeth Eckford.
The message puzzled Hazel, who had not been consulted about either the reprinting or the disclaimer. As far as she was concerned, ‘‘acknowledging the painful but shared past’’ was just what she had been trying to do. She’d have liked to have had her own sticker, one that said, ‘‘True reconciliation can occur only when we honestly let go of resentment and hatred, and move forward.’’ The poster continued to hang in the office of Central’s principal, Nancy Rousseau, though more as an ideal than a reflection of reality.
“I just had hoped that I could show this picture and say, ‘This happened, and that happened, and now…’ and there is no ‘now’,” she said. “And that makes me sad. It makes me sad for them, it makes me sad for the future students at our school, and for the history books, because I’d like a happy ending. And we don’t have that.”
‘Elizabeth and Hazel’ by David Margolick (Yale University Press, £18.99) is available from Telegraph Books for £16.99 plus £1.25p p and p; 0844 871 1516; books.telegraph.co.uk
Continued: Related Article