GCHS juniors meet one of the Little Rock Nine

5/2/2013

By RACHAEL GRAY

By RACHAEL GRAY

rgray@gctelegram.com

When Terrence Roberts first volunteered to be one of the first black students at Little Rock Central High School in 1957, he was in the company of about 150 other volunteers.

But the next day, after students talked to their parents, that number dwindled to nine.

Roberts told Garden City High School history students Wednesday that he was lucky his parents supported him in his decision.

Roberts' talk was part of the U.S. history class' field trip to downtown Garden City Wednesday.

The students learned about lunch counter sit-ins at Traditions Soda Shoppe and segregation at the State Theater and Big Pool. The Garden City Police Department K9 unit and Garden City Fire Department demonstrated how crowds were broken up with fire hoses during the civil rights movement.

Adam Cassellius, history teacher, introduced Roberts Wednesday.

"What a day, what a year. This is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation," he said.

It's also the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

"You've seen the power of the police dogs and felt the force of the fire hose," he said.

Cassellius said the struggle during the civil rights movement was all about perseverance and courage.

Roberts is an example of that, he said.

The member of the Little Rock Nine began his speech by explaining the history of racism and why it was such a hard pattern to break, even after desegregation laws were passed.

As a young boy, Roberts started asking questions about segregation and why things were the way they were.

"My questions caused discomfort," he said.

He began to learn about the history of racism, beginning with the first Africans being sold into slavery in 1619, up until 1954 when Brown v. Board of Education ruled segregation in schools was unconstitutional. But even after that, people's attitudes didn't change, Roberts said.

"If you do anything for 335 years, you get good at it," he said.

"The law changed in 1954, but nothing else changed with it," he said.

Roberts remembers being fingerprinted before entering the Little Rock Central High School.

"It was so it would be easier to identify our bodies. By all rights, we should have died," he said.

Roberts told students about the death threats from students and the public. Many students and members of the public had plots to kill him and the other eight students. They were escorted by members of the military through the halls of the school. The military escort didn't stop efforts to hurt, offend or terrorize the students, he said.

Roberts said he learned to rate the creativity of insults, as a way to deflect them.

"I would give a '1' for the insults that lacked creativity, and a '10' for the ones that were really good. I never got above a '2' the whole year," he said.

Through his experience Roberts learned to channel his anger and frustrations, although he did retaliate with physical force a few times.

"What other people think about you is none of our business. Once you take charge and understand that, life is a lot smoother," he said.

Roberts allowed students to ask questions at the end of his speech.

Several asked about how teachers and students treated him.

"Some were nice. There were smiles and words of encouragement. But then they were informed if they kept up with that behavior, that they'd be put on a hit list. Some defied that risk and continued to offer encouragement," he said.

Roberts said he was not allowed to participate in extracurricular activities. The students had to sign a waiver that they wouldn't participate.

He said he would have loved to join school activities. But he and the other students realized the safety risks and ramifications.

Each day they faced violence, death threats, disrespect and challenges unique to their situation. But they kept on going.

"We have scars — they are physical and psychological," he said.

"We realized we represented something much bigger than ourselves, much bigger than nine kids," he said.

Roberts said some students who tormented him at Little Rock Central High School have apologized. Some were sincere, and some did it to alleviate their personal guilt. Others have truly been sorry.

Roberts told GCHS students that it's important to know the history of their country so they can continue into the future.

Paloma Roman, 17, a GCHS junior, sat in the front row and asked Roberts questions during his speech.

"I thought he really did a good job sharing his experience. We go to school now and we don't even think about that — people aren't like that anymore. It would have been really hard. If we have a bad day, we stress. I can only imagine not just not being able to give up and pushing yourself through it," she said.

Roman said she learned a lot from the speech.

"Just to keep going. You can make a difference," she said.

Neysa Harman, 17, junior, asked Roberts how the teachers had treated him. She said she and her group of friends came up with questions to ask Roberts.

"We all kind of put our heads together and wanted to know all of these things," she said.

Harman said she learned about perseverance Wednesday.

"You have to keep going no matter what you're going through. Never give up," she said.

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