Saturday, October 27, 2018

North Little Rock, AR

Note: for a more in depth look at the historical impact of the Little Rock public schools, see my other blog:

I am in Bentonville, AR, home of the original Walmart store and still home to the families of the founders and the world wide headquarters of the giant retailer. The next three days the local high school will host the Class 6A state girls’ volleyball tournament.

 Pre-Game Introductions
Leslie Joshua-Johnson is the coach of North Little Rock’s volleyball team. She has become a reluctant pied piper for volleyball in a school and an area that has shown little past interest in the sport. Fayetteville, AR High School Coach Jesica  Phelan has led her team to the last three large school state titles. She is well aware of the program being built in the state’s capital. Phelan sees Joshua-Jones as a tireless worker and spokesman for her program. “She is everywhere,” says Phelan. “Any tournament I go to, school or club, she is there with her girls. That is why they have gotten to the level they have. She works really hard.”

Joshua-Johnson is a coach who leaves no doubt where she stands on any issue. What you see is what you get.

A 1992 grad of North Little Rock High School, Joshua-Johnson has lived almost her entire life in the community and doesn't ever see leaving. “To me, it has always been home,” she states at the completion of a short practice in preparation for her team’s quarterfinal matchup. After a light lunch at a nearby Chick-fil-A, her team will in a few hours face the state’s top ranked team, the Bentonville Tigers.

 Coach Joshua-Johnson
“After I graduated from North Little Rock,” the 45 year old tells me, “I went straight to the University of Arkansas-Little Rock to get my degree in Elementary Education. I also joined the Arkansas State National Guard.  I finished up college and in 1998 I was hired to teach first grade in North Little Rock." She held that position for 8 years.

In 2003, Joshua-Johnson National Guard unit was called up to active duty and sent to Iraq. "It was a surprise," the coach remembers. "They tell you to go, you go. I spent a year over there as a combat medic. When I came back, I went back to my first grade classroom."

In 2004, Joshua-Johnson was asked by her former high school volleyball coach to take over the program at Ridgeroad  Middle School. "I became a career orientation teacher there for the 8th graders and I also started coaching volleyball, basketball and track. We had some very successful volleyball teams."

In 2014, the volleyball job at NLR high school opened. Joshua-Johnson applied and was hired "I took over the volleyball program here at the High School" she states. "I now teach two classes as an English as a Second Language teacher.” 

Now, with 20 years of teaching experience, Joshua-Johnson has along the way picked up a Masters Degree in Middle School Education and an endorsement certification for bi-lingual education.

 Setting up the kill
Joshua-Johnson starts training volleyball players in the 5th grade.  When she moved to the high school, she became the beneficiary of her own labors. “When I came up here five years ago, I had a lot of the kids I had started with as 5th graders and that helped,” the coach says. “The last of them have now gone through the program here at NLR, so that has hurt some, be we are building some interest. We have nine elementary schools in the district and we just finished our second year on a league made up of just those nine. We had parents as volunteer coaches and it was very successful, I was very pleased."

Little Rock, AR is a treasure trove for the historical study of the convergence of public education in America and the civil rights movement. In the fight for educational equality, the name Little Rock will forever resonate through American history.

In 1957, after three years of foot dragging resistance by Southern states to implementing the federal edict set forth by the landmark 1954 Brown v Topeka Board of Education decision to fully integrate America’s public schools, President Dwight Eisenhower took decisive action. Little Rock became ground zero in the nation’s fight over school segregation. The country held its collective breath as a colossal constitutional crisis of wills unfolded.

The lines were clearly drawn: Federal army vs. State police, Federal law vs. State law, Federal supremacy vs. State sovereignty, Jim Crow separate but equal vs. the Constitutional guarantee that all men are created equal.

 The Little Rock 9
On September 4, 1957, the first day of classes for the fall term, a white mob formed a human wall to block the front entrance of Central High School and deny entry to the black teenagers destined to be named by history as the Little Rock Nine. The Arkansas National Guard, following orders of the Governor, stood back-up to the increasingly violent mob. For their own safety, the nine black students were hastily by their sponsors driven away from the school.

Future Supreme Court Judge Thurgood Marshall, on behalf of the students and the NAACP, appealed to the federal district court to secure an injunction to stop the governor’s denial of the students’ entry. Dr. Martin Luther King personally appealed to President Eisenhower to intervene on behalf of the students. King warned the President that if the state of Arkansas was allowed to defy federal law, the cause of integration would be set back 50 years. Reluctantly, Eisenhower took the politically unpopular step of agreeing with King and sent in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division to protect the students.

On September 23, 1957, the black students finally successfully entered the school. In June, 1958, Ernest Green became the first African American to graduate from Central High School.

In the end, the progressives won. The Governor temporarily backed down and Little Rock Central High School was racially integrated. Under the heavy shadow of Army bayonets, federal law held supreme; but the price was steep and the fight was far from over.

In August of the same year, only weeks before the start of the new school year, Governor Faubus closed all four of Little Rock’s public high schools in an attempt to derail segregation. The standoff did not last for long. In December 1959, the US Supreme Court ruled the state’s action unlawful and the now desegregated Little Rock Central High School was reopened.

 1957 LRC National Champions
Lost in history is the performance of the 1957 Little Rock Central football team. The all white squad was the pride of the segregated community. In the throes of a 35 game winning streak that spanned parts of four seasons, the Tigers finished the 1957 season with a 12-0 record. After the season, Little Rock Central was named by the Sporting News as the best high school football team in the nation.  The high school national website,, recently named the 1957 Tigers as one of the top 25 teams in the history of high school football. They outscored their opponents by a whopping 444-64 margin. The Tigers were never challenged on the field. 

The Tigers were so good their second string was recognized by many coaches in the state as the second best team in Arkansas. They took on all (white) comers. When the other high schools in the state couldn’t mount a challenge to Central, the Tigers of 1957 took to the road and beat the best teams from Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana and Kentucky. They often played to crowds larger than even the University of Arkansas Razorbacks of the day could muster.  The No. 1 team in Kentucky, Tilghman High of Paducah, was steamrolled by the Little Rock Central juggernaut, 46-13. "The greatest high school football team I've ever seen," was the assessment of a stunned Tilghman coach Ralph McRight. So dominant were the Tigers that they punted only once during the 12 game season.

Ralph Brodie was a star on the '57 team, He was a state track and field champion in the high hurdles and president of Central's student body. In the fall of 1957, he was interviewed by Mike Wallace on the CBS Evening News.

Wallace: Would you say the sentiment [among students] is mostly toward integration or segregation?

Brodie: We are going to have to have integration sometime, so we might as well have it now.

Wallace: Would it make a big difference to you if you saw a white girl dating a Negro boy?

Brodie: I believe it would.

Wallace: Why?

 AR Gov. Faubus
Brodie: I don't know. I just was brought up that way.

Wallace: Do you think Negroes are equal in intelligence, and physically, to white people?

Brodie: If they have had the same benefits and advantages, I think they're equally as smart.

When the interview was aired, the organized segregationists of Little Rock were furious with the sellout by one of their own. Brodie received death threats.

.But the winds of change were now blowing - destined to soon reach gale force levels. Legendary Tiger's coach Wilson Matthews was gruff and crude, but also perceptive and pragmatic; he had glimpsed the future. Soon, he'd told his team, "there'll be black boys here so tall they can stand flat-footed and piss in a wagon bed, and you white boys won't even be team managers."

Under the oversight of army helicopters and howitzer cannons, the 1957 Little Rock Central Tigers turned in what many experts to this day claim to be the most dominant season in state high school football history. However, even in a southern state crazy for high school football, they are today a mere historical footnote, mostly forgotten and overshadowed by nine lonely and scared teenagers seeking an education beyond the stranglehold of Jim Crow.

 Little Rock Central High School
Despite Governor Faubus decision to close all of the public high schools in Little Rock, at the time politically and morally just in the mind of the majority of white voters as preferable to allowing black and white children to sit together in the same classroom, he had no problem with Little Rock Central fielding a football team for the 1958 season. The bizarre setting of a high school with no students during the school day rolling out a nationally ranked football team every Friday night, left the rest of the state shaking its head and further weakening  the governor's eroding public support . Faubus decreed not having a football team, would be "a cruel and unnecessary blow to the children." Evidently, the Governor did not view over 4,000 students in Little Rock, white and black, with no school to attend was not, "cruel and unnecessary."  Game on!

After winning the first two games of 1958, stretching the winning streak to 35, the inevitable day arrived. New Orleans’ Istrouma High School stunned Central 42–0.

As the 1958 season progressed, many of Coach Mathews’ stalwarts began to jump a sinking ship, enrolling in area high schools where they could both play football and earn a high school diploma. The winning streak and the days of an all-white Little Rock Central football team had both been laid to a permanent rest.

Scipio Jones High School, an all-black school serving the needs of black students in North Little Rock remained open and segregated. Finally, in 1970, 16 years after Brown v Board, the schools’ were fully desegregated. The former all black high school was renamed Ole Main High School, their mascot became the Wildcats. The former white high school was renamed Northeast High School, housing the Chargers. 

For the next 20 years the two schools were bitter rivals. In 1990, due to lowered enrollment and financial difficulties, the School Board voted to consolidate the two high schools into one. The former Northeast Chargers and the Ole Main Wildcats became the hybrid North Little Rock Charging Wildcats.

Volleyball coaches normally display a calmer sideline demeanor as opposed to their basketball counterparts. NLR Coach Leslie Joshua-Johnson is an exception. A whirlwind in a perpetual state of demonstrative movement, her chair during a match always remains empty while she stalks the sidelines. 

State action
The Charging Wildcats break from the gate in their opening set of the Class 6A state tournament with the same fire and vigor as their coach, scoring the first ten points before the Rogers Mounties finally tally a point to their side of the scoreboard.

The match is held at Bentonville High School’s modern and spacey new gymnasium. Rogers is located just a strip mall or two up the road from the game site. The match begins at 3 pm on a Tuesday afternoon and the Mounties have a whole section of the south bleachers packed with 500 standing enthusiastic students. By my count, North Little Rock has 9 parents, a bus driver, an administrator and his wife to cheer them on.

Rogers settles down after an early time out and slowly begins to chip away the deficit but it is too little too late; NLR rolls to a 25-18 first set win. The Charging Wildcats are not very big, only one player in their rotation of nine stands over 5”10, but they make-up for their diminutive size with a constant attack mode attitude. 5’6” sophomore Jada Lawson is all over the court on both offense and defense. She never leaves the floor. Coach Joshua-Johnson sings the praises of her as an up and coming star. “She can do it all. She is a ferocious hitter from both the back and the front row. She is, for her size, outstanding at the net.  She can play setter for us. She covers the floor very well on defense and her best is yet to come. She is still raw, just needs more court time.”

Set two will prove to be Rogers’ most competitive of the evening. After taking a 6-1 lead, NLR’s attention span seems to fade. Rogers pulls within three, 17-14, but two subsequent service errors are very costly. With overtime just one point away and holding serve, the Mounties commit an unforced error and fall in game two, 25-23.

 vs. Rogers
Arkansas is one of a handful of states who have gone to a best of 5 set format for girls’ volleyball. In the third set, Rogers takes its first lead of the match, 3-2. NLR remains calm and disciplined and Coach Joshua-Johnson’s crew responds with an 8 point run behind the serving of senior Erin Butler and the strong net play of Sophomore Aleya Kennedy. A last unforced miscue by Rogers ends the game and match in the favor of NLR, 25-21.

Senior Imani Jackson had a match-high 15 kills, while Jada Lawson added 9 and Erin Butler 8. Libero Kaylan Armstrong contributed a match-high 22 digs, while Butler and Lawson added 14 each. The team shows its collective intelligence with a heady floor game throughout the match. North Little Rock improves its record to 21-8.

After the match, Joshua-Johnson says she is glad to have a state tournament game, and all of the distractions that accompanies the experience, behind her young team. “We were very up and down today. I think nerves were part of it, but at times we looked good. Tomorrow, we had better be a notch higher.”

The Charging Wildcats win in the round of 16 earns them the right to face off at 3 pm tomorrow with the one of the stronger programs in the state, Bentonville. The Tigers will be playing on their own home court and with the match being held at the tail end of the school day, a large contingent of Bentonville students are expected to be in supportive attendance. Coach Joshua-Johnson says no problem. “We are used to being the underdog,” she says, with a slight hint of slyness in her voice

Senior Imani Jackson’s family moved her from Little Rock Central High School to begin her freshman year at NLR.  She points to the better reputation North has. “There was not the pride there (Central) that you find here. Also, more drama at Central, more students wanting to be criminals, just around to cause trouble, and the volleyball was not good. Nobody cared like they do here.” Jackson is the only one of the four I speak with who has not lived her entire life in North Little Rock. Three of the four have parents who graduated from NLRHS. Their talk of legacy rings sincere.

 Double Block
Sophomore Jada Lawson relates to the school’s developing volleyball program. “It is a privilege to be on this team and with Coach it don’t take much to get kicked off,” she says. 

Senior Kaylan Armstrong quickly agrees. “Not much at all, for sure. But I need that, in Junior High I was the bad kid. When Coach got a hold of me, she gave me a reason to straighten up, volleyball and (membership) to this team. In junior high, to fit in with my group, I had to be a bad student, always in trouble. Now, I do what is right. I want to be a dentist and to play volleyball I can’t be in trouble and have to keep my grades up.”

Lawson, only a sophomore with a very bright volleyball future ahead of her, appreciates the opportunities and accepts responsibility for her own current and future actions. “I can do it. I just have to stay focused and keep working, make good decisions.  Nothing is easy for us and that is okay.  “It just makes us work harder.”

Senior Taylor Folsom started playing on Joshua –Johnson’s club team, Rock City, in the 5th grade. “Everything I know about volleyball, Coach has taught me,” she states. Folsom  aspires to be a Pediatric Physician.

All four stress the pride athletics brings to the student body and community support it cements. Last school year, the Charging Wildcats pulled off a trifecta that had never happened in the state of Arkansas before; winning the boys basketball, the girls’ basketball and the football state championships all in the same school year.

The effort was present and at times it looked possible for the upset to happen, but in the end the Bentonville Tigers were just too good on this day for the upstarts from North Little Rock, falling to the state’s top ranked team in three straight sets,

Battle at the net
Game one proved to be NLR’s best effort on the day, leading throughout the first half of the set. After a 16-16 deadlock, Bentonville’s size took over and they edged ahead to win 25-22.

Set number two had a more one sided feel to it. After scratching to a 7-5 lead, the Charging Wildcats found themselves on the short end of a seven point Tiger run propelling the home team to a 25-18, 2-0 set lead.

For their season to continue past this day, NLR would now need to win three consecutive sets against the state’s top ranked team playing on their home floor. Was not going to happen, but as could have been expected, no Joshua –Johnson coached team was going to go down without taking a few good swings. Still up and down the sideline encouraging her team, with a periodic disapproving glance to an official, the coach drove her team hard. A 20-18 NLR lead forced a Bentonville time out. It would prove to be the last positive shift in momentum for this 2018 season.  Bentonville used two unforced NLR errors to cruise home, 25-22.

Freshman Trinity Hamilton had 15 digs and 6 kills for Bentonville. Only standing a slight 5’6”, she will be a talent to watch over the next three years.

 In game instruction
After meeting with her team one last time, Coach Joshua-Johnson summed up the season. “Not happy right now, at all,” she said. “I thought we could have done better. Next year is going to be a rebuilding year, for sure. But we are used to that. We just have to keep working.”

Joshua-Johnson says she wants her kids to know up front that the bar is always going to be set high and players should not shy from a challenge, but instead, embrace it. “I don’t even bother to think about what can go wrong,” she says, “and I want our players to feel the same way.  If you think too hard you worry and become afraid of the challenge you should be looking forward to.”

Kaylan Armstrong loves the can-do attitude of her teammates. “We are ready and send it. We get that from coach. You got to learn how to take her because she is not going to change, so you got to. But she thinks we should win every game and will not make excuses when we do not. We are held accountable by her, for sure.”

Jada Lawson speaks of the long time relationships she has had with her teammates. “We know each other well. We spend a lot of time together.” The sophomore says her teammates are her social circle of friends. She also speaks of the accountability she is held to, no excuses if she does not reach self-set goals. “At our school, if you want help, if you want to do well, it is there but you have to go get it. Teachers will help, but you have to be (self) motivated. And coach is good at keeping us all motivated,” she says to the laughter of her teammates.

Taylor Folsom also speaks of the legacy at NLR. “My parents went to school here. We don’t have that many new students moving in or students moving out. “   She feels the diversity of NLR gives her a leg up in the real world. “We have a lot of people here from different (backgrounds). The problem I see is with people who never have experiences with people from different backgrounds. You don’t know them and they don’t know you. Once you get to know people who are different than you, you find out you are okay and they are okay. We are all different, unique, but we are also all the same in so many ways,” she says of the melting pot experience North Little Rock High School has provided.

The dynamic of social change is not a long marathon; it is many short sprints, one after another.

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