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For Jodi Morris, a park ranger at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site and its acting chief of interpretation, the connection to the National Park Service stretches back to before she was even born. In this centennial year of the NPS, we visited with Jodi about her lifelong love for the park service and working at Central High. What follows is a condensed and edited version of our conversation. Watch the video below for the full story.
What does working at Little Rock Central High mean to you?
I grew up during school desegregation, I was in second grade when my hometown in Northeast Arkansas integrated, and so the desegregation story in Arkansas was a part of my life personally. One of the ways my father explained my hometown desegregating to me was telling me about being an Arkansas National Guardsman here in 1957. He was ordered here in September 1957 first by Governor [Orval] Faubus with orders to keep the Little Rock Nine out, and then three weeks later he’s ordered back by the President of the United States as part of the federalized Arkansas National Guard, now with orders to guard the school and protect it while the Little Rock Nine were escorted in.
What is your favorite thing about this site?
Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site is the only high school in the world, that I know of, that is the main feature of a national park. It is still a high school. There will be 2,500 students going to school here this year, 9th-12th grade. It’s still one of the largest high schools in Arkansas, and most people would still say it’s the most beautiful high school in America. It’s so unique to be at a school that’s still a school that made such history almost 60 years ago. It really shows history is always happening—it’s not past tense, it is ongoing, and the students going here today are still part of the integration story: How do we make sure every child in America has equal access to equal quality education?
What brings visitors to this NPS site?
We have visitors that come every year from all 50 states and from 30 to 40 foreign countries a year—about 150,000 visitors. Many of them come to get their national park stamp, they collect those in their national park passbook. Some come because they have had a parent, a grandparent or even a great grandparent who went to Central. Some, because this was in their history book and they’re passing though Little Rock, or maybe they came here just because they’re doing a Civil Rights road trip, and this is one of those landmark Civil Rights sites. And it’s one that people can relate to: Everybody goes to high school. And everybody usually faces a period in high school that’s probably not their favorite moment in their life. It may have been one of their most difficult times in their life. Often times visitors react to what the Little Rock Nine experienced and endured and triumphed over, from a very personal standpoint often unexpected to them....School is one of those things, those experiences. The struggles we go through with how to treat each other fairly, to respect each others' differences, those are things we can all relate to.
You're obviously very passionate about Central High. What are some of your other favorite NPS sites?
I’ve been to 109 national parks, and I’ve been to all the ones in Arkansas. My first canoe trip ever was on the Buffalo National River, and I still love to go and float that....The first national park I worked at has to still be one of my favorites: Arkansas Post National Memorial. All of Arkansas history starts there, and it’s an incredible story for national history too, but it’s also just a gorgeous place.
In some ways, I’m a national park baby. My parents honeymooned at Hot Springs National Park, and so have several other relatives. My honeymoon was actually at Padre Island National Seashore. One of the first family vacations I can remember my family taking was to Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee....I’m very fortunate to have had parents that loved visiting parks and museums and historic sites. They worked very hard, and we could never afford to take the grand vacation, the two- or three-week cross-country trip to the Grand Canyon. But they would take any days off they had, load us up in the station wagon, and take us to the closest state park or to a historic site or museum. We’d stop at every historical marker along the way to see what it said, we’d take a picnic basket with us. I still do that today, and it gives me great joy to do that with my nieces and nephews, and now my great nieces and nephews.