In early 1957, Little Rock, Arkansas native Melba Pattillo transferred from Horace Mann High School to Little Rock Central High School for her junior year. This seemingly commonplace occurrence was anything but: Melba was one of nine African American volunteers to transfer from an all-black school to a previously all-white school during Little Rock’s plan for gradual desegregation and integration.

A young Melba Beals, two years before she transferred to Central High. MC 1795, box 1, folder 11

Melba and her fellow students, known collectively as the Little Rock Nine, were met at Central High School on September 4, 1957 by Arkansas National Guard troops at the order of Governor Faubus. It would be over two weeks later before a federal court order resulted in the Little Rock Nine’s ability to join their classmates. Even then, the Little Rock Nine were subjected to a constant barrage of verbal and physical abuse, necessitating assigned military guards to escort them to class. Despite the daily harassment, Melba, along with seven others from the Little Rock Nine, persisted and completed the year at Central High only to be confronted with the voter-led shutdown of Little Rock schools the following year in an effort to prevent integration. Instead, Melba finished her high school education in Santa Rosa, California.

The University of Arkansas Special Collections department has recently completed processing the Melba Pattillo Beals Papers, which is now available for all researchers to consult.

The papers tell the extraordinary first-hand story of one of the Little Rock Nine. The papers include family documents, such as photographs and documents created by Melba’s mother, as well as early manuscript fragments that Melba wrote reflecting on her experiences at Central High. The collection includes fascinating correspondence, written to Melba by hundreds of supporters. Some wrote to her in 1957 and 1958 as the national and international media covered the crisis at Central High, encouraging her to continue her struggle to gain an equal education or reflecting on the inspiration that Melba and her classmates had provided. Many others wrote to Melba in the early 1990s, after she published her first book, Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Desegregate Little Rock’s Central High School (1994).

First a journalist and later a memoirist, the Beals papers also document Beals’ journey as an author. They also include a large selection of coverage of the Little Rock Nine in Arkansas and national newspapers.

Two of the letters that Melba received during her year at Central High. MC 1795, box 1, folder 21.

Two of the letters that Melba received during her year at Central High. MC 1795, box 1, folder 21.