Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock

  • David Margolick
  • Yale University Press
  • 320 pp.

An exploration of the lives of two women, indelibly bound by an iconic photograph.

Reviewed by Amy Schapiro

They say a picture tells a thousand words, but in Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, it is the words that tell the painful half-century-old story of two girls captured on film at a moment in time. Neither Elizabeth Eckford nor Hazel Bryan could have foreseen the historic events that would unfold on September 4, 1957, and bind them together for a lifetime.

Elizabeth, a shy 15-year-old girl, had been among nine students selected to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. To prepare for her first day at her new school, she had made a new outfit by hand. She wanted to look good for the occasion. To get to the school, she rode the public bus. Little Rock had desegregated its buses in 1954, a year before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in Montgomery, Alabama.

What Elizabeth did not know as she sat on the bus was that there had been a plan for her and the other trailblazing students, later known as the “Little Rock Nine,” to meet at someone’s home and go to Central High School together. It was a last-minute arrangement, of which Elizabeth did not learn until after the fact because her family did not have a telephone. The organizer had meant to tell Elizabeth’s father in person, but never delivered the message. This unintended oversight resulted in Elizabeth unknowingly heading into a thicket of racism alone.

On the same morning, another 15-year-old girl, Hazel Bryan, also carefully picked out her outfit. Hers was a mint green department store dress with a tie in front. But, more than 50 years later, people do not remember her dress: they remember her face. For it was Hazel’s venomous expression that was captured on film, as Elizabeth, head down, books in hand, walked stoically towards Central High School amid chants of “Lynch her! Lynch her! Lynch her!”

That is the image the public remembers. That is the pain that Elizabeth endured, not only that day, but each and every day she attended Central High School. Hazel did not have to endure anything at Central as her parents pulled her out of the school citing safety concerns. Yet, if anyone needed to worry about safety, it was Elizabeth. To help protect herself from constant shoving and body slamming, she slipped pins into the edges of her books, pricking those who came near.

In his book, David Margolick chronicles the lives of Elizabeth and Hazel before, during and after the integration of Central High School. While the photograph taken by local reporter Will Counts resulted in Elizabeth becoming a public face of integration, bravery and stoicism, reality was quite different. Being a pioneer took an emotional toll.

The first half of Elizabeth and Hazel chronicles Elizabeth’s sheltered upbringing, harsh treatment at Central High School and downward spiral afterwards. It was only years later, with the help of anti-depressants and an unlikely friendship, that she was able to overcome her inner demons.

That unlikely friendship was with her most widely recognized tormenter: Hazel Bryan Massery. Forty years had passed between the day the infamous photo was snapped and the women’s second encounter, a meeting staged by Will Counts to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the integration of Central High School. The result was another memorable photograph and the birth of reconciliation between these two women.

In the second half of the book, Margolick recounts the journey of this new relationship and the bumps along the way. The reader knows that Hazel apologized to Elizabeth in 1963, but the public at the time did not. When the public did learn of the apology decades later from a Nightline interview, many believed Hazel was trying to capitalize on the publicity around the 40th anniversary. She was not; however, images, words and intentions often take on meanings of their own.

During the two years that their friendship blossomed, Elizabeth and Hazel traveled the speaking circuit together, sharing their experiences and lessons learned with others. Margolick weaves a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications that has the reader rooting for this unlikely pair to overcome their differences and mutual stubbornness. Their relationship gradually deteriorated and their communication all but ended. Nonetheless, Elizabeth still acknowledges the role Hazel had in lifting her from the shadows of despair and what eventually was diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Margolick brings the story of Elizabeth and Hazel to life by capturing the impact the photograph had locally, nationally and worldwide as well as on the women themselves, as they tried to understand each other and the racist overtones that tinged their lives. One element that gets scant attention in the book is the fact that Elizabeth formed a stronger bond with Hazel, her visual nemesis, than she did with the rest of the Little Rock Nine. But, ultimately, what Margolick does is paint a riveting portrait of the two women behind the faces of an iconic image and how that image indelibly affected their lives.

Elizabeth and Hazel represent both the tragedy of racial discrimination and the promise of reconciliation. Unlike many things in life, the latter was too short.

Amy Schapiro is the author of Millicent Fenwick: Her Way. Her next book is Leading Justice: The Life of Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach. You can follow her blog at www.sixdegreesofmillicent.com.

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