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The nine men and women who passed through the doors of Central High School 50 years ago will celebrate the eve of that anniversary by helping nine students make their entry into college.
The Little Rock Nine Foundation will award nine scholarships, each worth $10,000, at a gala dinner Monday, Sept. 24. The $200-a-ticket black-tie event at the Statehouse Convention Center sold out to more than 1,300 people by July. (An added room will have a large-screen television.) President Bill Clinton, honorary chair for the fund-raiser, will speak; PBS NewsHour anchor Gwen Ifill will emcee, and musician Henry Shed will perform. The Coca-Cola Foundation is lending corporate support for the banquet (and a commemorative Coke bottle).
The Nine have contributed portions of their speaking fees over the past few years to help the foundation achieve its goal, which is to help promising high school students in struggling school districts attend college. The foundation was approved for non-profit status in 2000.
Carlotta Walls LaNier, the foundation president, said the Nine discussed its creation before their 40th anniversary in 1997. Eight of the Nine met (Thelma Mothershed Wair was at a family reunion) and “they pretty much said to me ... you go right ahead.” The foundation was incorporated in Colorado, but LaNier hopes it will have an office in Little Rock someday.
The inaugural recipients of the annual awards, chosen by a committee of educators and two of the Nine, are Curtis Flournoy, Wilbur D. Mills University Studies High School; Jose Holloway, Little Rock Central High School; Ruanda McFerren, Northside High School, Fort Smith; Eivi Colmenero, North High School, Denver; Tiffany Romero, North High School, Denver; Lindsey Brown, Craigmont High School, Memphis; Veronica Billingsley, Booker T. Washington High School, Memphis; John Williams, Moises E. Molina High School, Dallas; and Daisha Henry, Franklin D. Roosevelt High School, Dallas. They earned their scholarships with essays on the importance of the Little Rock Nine in civil rights history and what the Nine meant to them personally.
LaNier said invitations to apply for the scholarships went to Central High School and to 13 school districts across the country whose students were identified by USA Today as underserved. “We found the gemstone in each one of these schools through their essays, those nine who demonstrated that they knew who we were and what we were about.”
Applicants were not asked to submit a photograph; the scholarships are open to students of all races. “I made the comment to the Nine that it sure would be lovely to see a rainbow of kids being presented” the awards, LaNier said.
She also noted a weird coincidence in the number of students who applied for the scholarship: 57.
Ernest Green, the first black graduate of Central High, said the scholarships were “our way of giving back” and that he hoped the foundation would have “an impact beyond our individual efforts.”
The nine recipients will receive their scholarships over two years. They'll get more than money, too: Each will be assigned one of the Nine as a mentor. “I'm going to roll up my sleeves and be available and have face to face meetings” with the student assigned him, Green said.
The three of the Nine who live in Little Rock — Minnijean Brown Trickey, Elizabeth Eckford and Thelma Mothershed Wair — will mentor the three scholarship winners from Arkansas. (Central High will always be part of the program, LaNier said.)
Next summer, the nine and the Nine will attend a leadership seminar at the Clinton Center. The students will then become mentors for the scholarship winners named in 2008.
Supplementing its corporate support and contributions from the Nine, the foundation also raises money through sales of T-shirts, hats and other accessories. Coca-Cola is issuing a commemorative bottle for the anniversary. The soft-drink company's foundation is headed by Ingrid Saunders Jones, a classmate of Green's at the University of Michigan, and has given continued support. LaNier said the Little Rock Nine Foundation will continue to seek corporate support to help “plant a deeper seed” and guarantee the future of the scholarship program.
She hopes the foundation's work will keep the lessons of Central High in 1957 before students today and tomorrow. “When you talk to kids and they don't know the history, it's very frustrating,” LaNier said. They need to know “why they are sitting in a classroom of diverse people.”