The woman slips into the back of the auditorium at Little Rock Central High School. She’s just there for a quick visit, but it turns out a National Park Service ranger is giving a tour to a group of kids from East St. Louis, Illinois. The park ranger, Toni Webber, nods as the woman takes her seat.
“We have a very special guest in the auditorium today,” Webber says.
The woman listens as Webber outlines the story the woman knows as well as anyone alive. How nine black students—now known as the Little Rock Nine—integrated this high school in 1957. How President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne to protect the nine children from angry segregationists. How TV broadcasts and newspapers sent the story around the world. How the Arkansas governor, Orval Faubus, closed every high school in Little Rock the next year rather than let black and white students learn together. How the federal government forced the schools to reopen in 1959. How five black students enrolled at Little Rock Central that year, including a single 10th-grader: a 15-year-old girl named Sybil Jordan.
Sybil Jordan. Now, Sybil Jordan Hampton. The woman in the back of the room.
Sybil became the first black student to attend Central for all three years and graduate. That was 55 years ago. She left town thinking she would never look back. But as the years went by, it turned out she was not quite done with Little Rock. And Little Rock was not quite done with her.
Webber finishes her talk and asks if anyone has questions. One young man raises his hand and turns toward Sybil.
“Could you tell us how it was, your experience?” he asks.
Sybil takes a breath and stands. She walks to the front of the room. She tells her story.
The moments are so clear in her mind because there were so few of them.
In three years at Little Rock Central, one white student talked to her—an exchange student from France who could not understand why no one else was speaking to Sybil.
Two other students interacted with her. One day, a football player kicked her in the bandaged knee she had hurt in gym class. Another day, a different boy saved up his saliva and spat in her face at the top of the stairs.
Beyond that, nothing.
At the beginning, the halls parted when she walked through. Oftentimes, she would hear the N-word as she went from class to class. But otherwise the 2,000 white students at Central acted as if she did not exist. Cameras had followed the Little Rock Nine everywhere, but Sybil spent her days alone in the crowd. She called herself Casper because she felt like a ghost. It never made her angry. Every day it made her sad.
She and the same group of two dozen students had homeroom together for all three years. None of them ever said a word to her. The only time she spoke was once a month or so, when it was her time to choose a Bible passage and read it to the class. Every time it was her turn, she chose the 121st Psalm.
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help…
Over and over, she sent her classmates a message: You can ignore me every day if you want. I’m playing a longer game.
Her parents, Leslie and Lorraine Jordan, had raised her and her brother, Les, to be independent. By the time she was 6, she had a paper route for the Arkansas State Press, the black newspaper whose co-publisher, Daisy Bates, later mentored the Little Rock Nine. Sybil helped out at Kid’s Grocery, the store her family ran at Seventh and Park, climbing a stool to work the cash register. She rode the city bus downtown alone to pay the family’s bills. She learned not to drink much before she went somewhere because she didn’t know if there would be a colored restroom. She remembered what her mother and father told her: When you walk outside this house, you may not encounter anyone who loves you. Yet, you carry the love we have for you in your heart always.
Her neighborhood was as close to mixed as Little Rock got back then. There was a white grocery store on the adjacent corner, families of both races in between, and the kids played together before they were old enough to head off to school. Sybil saw the white wholesalers who treated her family with respect when they came to sell goods to the store. She watched her parents help a white family who struggled when the husband went into the military. But when it came time for school, the black kids went one way and the white kids another. The white kids eventually ended up at Little Rock Central. It was built in 1927, an art deco/Gothic colossus that stretched two city blocks. A national architects’ group named it the most beautiful high school in America. It was also one of the best academically. Black families wanted in.
Sybil knew most of the Little Rock Nine and their families. Some of them went to Bethel AME Church, where the Jordans attended. It sounds strange now, but there wasn’t a whole lot of talk about the Little Rock Nine at church or at the Jordan home. People had decided to give the families some space and try to make their lives as normal as they could. But there was no doubt that, when the time came, Sybil would try to enroll at Central. When she was at Dunbar Junior High, the school system ran a group of black children through psychological tests, looking for the smartest and the strongest to be admitted to Central. (White kids attending Central didn’t have to go through any psychological tests.) Either way, Sybil passed. She heard later that some kids, when they saw a particular inkblot on a Rorschach test, said it looked like a lynching. She doesn’t remember what she saw. But she didn’t see that.
The state of Arkansas fought to the end. Two of the original Little Rock Nine returned to school when it reopened in August 1959—the other seven had either graduated or moved. But the school system refused to admit any new black students. Only after the NAACP appealed did the school board allow in three more students, including Sybil. They started three weeks after everyone else.
She was nervous the night before her first day; she was placed in the 10th grade, with no other black classmates. She was also 15, and no one feels normal at 15. But on top of that, no one knew how white Little Rock would react. Someone had bombed two public buildings and the fire chief’s car just the week before. People knew where Sybil and her family lived. She couldn’t just get up and go to school. She had to stand for her race and walk into history.
Her parents came into her room and prayed with her that night. They told her they didn’t believe any harm would come to her. They told her to trust God. They told her they loved her. She went to sleep and woke up ready.
“Things make me nervous,” she says. “But I’ve been taught to forge ahead, gently but firmly.”
The next morning, it was quiet in front of Little Rock Central. No protesters, just a few reporters. Sybil walked up the concrete steps, past the National Guard troops stationed there to protect her.
She opened the door and stepped into three years of silence.
The smallest kindnesses mattered. When that football player kicked her, and that other boy spit in her face, a vice principal comforted her. A French teacher and a social studies teacher spoke with her the way they might with any other student. At lunch every day, the black cafeteria workers gave her a wink or a few kind words.
Away from school, she lived a normal life. She was a Girl Scout. She took piano lessons. She hung out with kids from Horace Mann, the black high school. She thinks of her life as a quilt, and she remembers those days as a series of leaps from square to square. It shocked her that the white students at Central would treat her as if she were “something that was not desirable, something that was not human.” But they didn’t change how she saw herself.
Her mother always reminded her that the way they acted was not about her. She told Sybil: Don’t say they don’t like you. They don’t know you. If they really had an opportunity to know you, they would love you. That carried her through.
On May 20, 1962, Sybil got her diploma. Graduation was held at Quigley Stadium, where the school’s football team played. She had never been in the stadium before. She couldn’t go to football games, the same way she wasn’t allowed to play on any of Central’s teams or join any clubs. But they had to let her go to class, and she graduated with honors—one of 52 in her class of more than 500. She remembers a wolf whistle as she crossed the stage, and somebody hollering, “There goes Black Beauty.”
For most, graduation is a celebration. For Sybil, it was a relief.
She attended Earlham College, a small school in Indiana. When she and her parents got there, a group of students met them at the car and said, “Welcome to Earlham, Sybil Jordan!” Sybil was thrilled. She found out later they did this for every freshman, but: They knew her name, and they were glad to see her.
She got a bachelor’s degree in English literature. Then a master’s in elementary education from the University of Chicago. Then a second master’s and a doctorate from Columbia University. Along the way, she spent a summer program in Japan, got an externship working with migrant workers in New Jersey, taught elementary school in Chicago. She went on to work in academic administration at Iona College in New York, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Southwestern University in Texas. So many white people had questioned whether Sybil and other black students would bring down the quality of Little Rock Central. Her résumé is her answer.
In 1982, she got an invitation to her class’ 20th reunion. A white student named Ron Hughes had spent years thinking about her, ever since he read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in college. He asked her to come, and told her that if nobody else would sit with her, he would.
She brought her parents. Hughes sat with them. And one by one, other classmates came to Sybil and apologized. Some told her they had no idea what she had gone through.
Does she believe that they didn’t know?
“This is what I’m going to say to you,” she says. “I believe that it is very difficult for people to take ownership of choices. When people say that to me, I accept that. I don’t box with it. I know that they are saying the best thing they feel they can say.”
That night, the reunion ended with a sock hop. The music started and Hughes asked her to dance. Out on the floor, somebody else cut in. Then another and another. Sybil danced with her classmates until it was time to go home.
She and Hughes have been friends ever since. “When I see her these days, she comes up and gives me a big smack on the lips,” Hughes says. “It makes me feel so happy. And undeserving.”
Sybil kept coming back to Little Rock to see her parents. She saw the city changing for the better, but she thought there were still more chances for black men than black women. Then, in 1996, she was invited to apply for the job as president of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. The foundation—which grew from a charitable trust created by Rockefeller, a former Arkansas governor—spends millions every year awarding grants and developing projects to improve Arkansas education, economic development, and social justice. Leading the foundation was, in Sybil’s mind, the best job in the state. When she got the offer, she couldn’t turn it down. She left her job at Southwestern, and her husband, Alfred, soon followed. Sybil came home.
She led the foundation for 10 years, leading projects on entrepreneurship and funding for public education. The foundation put together a study of immigrant families, and helped build an exhibit of Japanese internment camps in Arkansas during World War II. She retired in 2006 to take care of her mother, who had Alzheimer’s. (Lorraine Jordan died in 2015.)
When she was a girl, she always wanted to live downtown because she thought that would be proof that she had arrived in the world—as a child, only whites owned those old homes. So she and Alfred live in a house downtown. She had always admired the grand old Mount Holly Cemetery, and now she serves as the president of the cemetery’s board of directors. Three years ago, the attorney general appointed her to the state Ethics Commission. Recently, the commission took up the case of whether Jerry Jones, who grew up in Arkansas and now owns the Dallas Cowboys, unintentionally violated a state ethics law by giving free tickets and trips to North Little Rock police officers. She ruled with the majority that he had. This did not make her especially popular with Cowboys fans.
Now, when she walks into the historic Capital Hotel—a place where she never felt she belonged as a child—the white doorman knows her by name. She has dined at the governor’s mansion, taken membership at the exclusive Little Rock Club, been given access to the city’s sources of power. When she took the job at the foundation, Tom McRae, the foundation’s first president, told her she would get the ultimate sign of respect from Little Rock insiders: They would treat her like a white man. Although startled, she understood. Before her, in the boardrooms and country clubs, they had mostly done all their business with other white men. But now they had to deal with her.
In turn, she has shown them—and all of Little Rock—what one black woman can offer.
She wonders sometimes how her life would have been different if she hadn’t gone to Central. “I think that it’s fair to say that I would’ve had a good life and would have gone on to excel, because I was already on a good track,” she says. “But I would say that I have been in places that were incredible places that I probably would not have been because of the experiences I had at Central that made me not be afraid to quest for excellence, and not be afraid to go to places that were intimidating to me.”
This year is the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine, and the city is holding commemorative events all year. The big one is in late September. Former President Bill Clinton, whose presidential library is in Little Rock, will be among the guests. The ceremony will be held at Quigley Stadium—the place where, back in 1962, Sybil grabbed her diploma and got out as quickly as she could. This time, they are talking about having her serve as emcee.
She has won the long game.
One of the hardest things for a child to accept is the idea of delayed gratification. But for Sybil, the short term was devastating. The only hope was down the road. I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help…
How did she, as a teenager, master the kind of emotional control that most grown people struggle with? She answers with a story.
When she was small, her family used margarine instead of butter. The margarine came in a white slab with a capsule of yellow food coloring; you mixed the two together to get something that looked like butter. Sybil hated margarine. But instead of pouting, she played the long game. When I grow up, she thought, I’m going to have butter whenever I want.
She is fully grown now, a 73-year-old woman. And when she goes to the grocery store for butter, she buys six pounds at a time.
Sybil does not tell that whole story to the tour group from East St. Louis. She gives them the highlights, gently but firmly. When she was a student at Central, she didn’t like being in this auditorium—how big and crowded it could be, full of so many people who could hurt her. But now she’s comfortable here.
Her life has brought her back around to the place she couldn’t wait to leave. Her story has started to emerge from the shadow of the Little Rock Nine. She isn’t the focus of the visitors center down the street. But on one of the panels, between the TV broadcasts on a loop and the speeches from President Eisenhower, there’s her senior class picture: a beautiful teenager, looking away from the camera with an even stare, already stronger than most anyone knew.
“You rarely hear anything about the foot soldiers, and that’s OK,” she says to the group in the auditorium. “Some of you will do wonderful things in your lives that nobody will know anything about, and that’s OK. Because the important thing is that we all do our part in order to make the world a kinder, gentler, fairer place.”
For three years, behind the doors of this high school, they pretended Sybil Jordan didn’t exist.
Now, the group from East St. Louis gives her a standing ovation.