Prologue: Two Dresses
Early in the morning of September 4, 1957, two girls in Little Rock, Arkansas, each fifteen years old, dressed for school.
On a block of black families nestled in the west side of town, in the small brick house she shared with her parents and five brothers and sisters, Elizabeth Eckford put on a skirt that her older sister, Anna, and she had made just for this day. The immaculate white cotton pique felt cool and soft to the touch; when Elizabeth and Anna, who had labored over it for several weeks, had run out of fabric, they’d trimmed the deep hem with navy blue and white gingham. The new skirt’s double rows of gathers made it seem to have tiny pleats, and it appeared especially crisp because Elizabeth had ironed it one last time the night before. Buoyed by the petticoat she wore underneath, it encircled her tiny waist like a bell—one that rang out the tidings of new beginnings. Fashionable and yet modest, descending well below her knees, the pretty skirt was complemented by the rest of what she had chosen to wear that morning: the plain white blouse (which she’d also made), the loafers, the bobby sox. She could just as easily have been going to church, and in a way she was, because for Elizabeth, learning was much more meaningful, and useful, than prayer.