The two people who may best symbolize this country’s historic racial divide are inching back toward one another. It’s hardly a rapprochement, and please don’t call it a “reconciliation.” But for the first time in a decade, Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan Massery are communicating. Their long and painful saga is taking a new turn. It is still tentative and begrudging, and who knows where it will end? But it is a start.
Hazel is the white girl in what is probably the most famous, and notorious, photograph from the civil rights era. Only fifteen when it was taken in September 1957 but looking older, her face twisted in hate, she is screaming “Nigger, go home!” and “Go back to Africa!” at the black girl, also fifteen, walking stoically in front of her. That black girl, dressed in white, clutching her books to her chest, her pained eyes hidden behind her sunglasses, is Elizabeth. Seconds earlier, she’d been turned away from Little Rock Central High, where she’d have been the first black girl to be admitted.
Late last month, Hazel found two surprises in her mailbox outside Little Rock. The first was an envelope bearing Elizabeth’s return address — the same address, only a few miles away, from which she had departed for her fateful day at the school fifty-four years earlier. Hazel was taken aback, and thrilled: more than ten years had passed since she had last heard from Elizabeth. The second surprise was what the envelope contained: an apology.
So why is it now that Elizabeth, as innocent a victim of cruelty as one can imagine, is apologizing to her former tormentor? Why would Hazel feel that, as startling and welcome as Elizabeth’s apology was, it still wasn’t quite enough? Yet how could she be so sure that, whatever her reservations, no matter how unhealed her wounds, she would surely reply, and as generously as she felt she could?
Initially, of course, it had been Hazel’s place to apologize. That had happened in the early 1960s when, prompted by scenes on television of black protesters being fire-hosed and attacked by German shepherds, Hazel, by then the mother of two young children, had tracked down Elizabeth, and telephoned her. “I’m the girl in the picture,” she had said, “and I want you to know how sorry I am.” The two then resumed their very separate ways — until 1997, when Hazel had publicly apologized to Elizabeth during the 40th anniversary commemorations of Central’s desegregation.
After those observances, the two had improbably, even miraculously, became friends. As different as they were — Elizabeth a college graduate who’d never married and long battled poverty, depression and PTSD, Hazel an outgoing high-school dropout who lived in middle-class comfort surrounded by an ever-expanding family — they’d learned how much they shared: they were introspective, curious, different from most of those around them. They both loved thrift shops and second-hand bookstores and flowers and history.
They were also complementary: Elizabeth, an inveterate reader, was book smart, while Hazel was savvy. Elizabeth had never learned to drive (the sight of her standing, very much alone, at bus stops was well-known throughout black Little Rock); Hazel could drive her everywhere. Elizabeth was painfully withdrawn — at times, almost mute — while Hazel was a natural caregiver, which explained why for several years she’d counseled unwed black mothers and taken underprivileged black children on field trips. That, plus her ongoing atonement: for that awful picture, she still had a debt to pay.
Little Rock, maligned for decades as a racist redoubt, embraced their relationship. But inevitably, fissures between them soon appeared. Ever-wary, ever-meticulous, Elizabeth spotted what she considered discrepancies and holes in Hazel’s memories. She began treating her impatiently, then peremptorily. Hazel also took it from other blacks, including some in the Little Rock Nine, who viewed her — with little or no evidence — as an opportunist or publicity seeker. Even Oprah was mean to her when the two appeared on her program. (Then again, she’d been rude to Elizabeth as well.)
Hazel took it from whites, too, particularly the “good kids” at Central, the ones who’d never actually hurt any of the black kids or called them “niggers,” but merely looked the other way when the crackers among them did. To them, Hazel, and that picture, were continual embarrassments. She, and it, never seemed to go away.
Before long, Hazel concluded that apologizing had all been a mistake. So, sometime in 2000, she called it quits: no more joint appearances with Elizabeth at various schools, no more outings, no more conversations. Their break was not entirely clean — when, on New Year’s Day 2001, Elizabeth’s elder son was killed by the Little Rock police, Hazel had paid Elizabeth a condolence call, only to find she wasn’t home. (Elizabeth never received the note she’d left behind.) Then, on September 11, 2001, Hazel, alone and scared at a retreat in the Berkshires — she’d gone there in hopes of learning how she might salvage her ties to Elizabeth — had telephoned her for comfort. That remains the last time they talked.
After that, as the hurt and disappointment festered, their feelings toward one another only hardened. To Elizabeth, Hazel became a bigot. To Hazel, Elizabeth exaggerated her problems. They were trying too hard: whenever I would bring up the one, the other would choke up. But stubborn and proud, each stood her ground. Neither was about to make a move. Until mid-October, or about two weeks after my book, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, came out. Since then, what seems like a thaw has ensued.
Heisenberg notwithstanding, writers fancy that they don’t change what they observe. In my case, though, it happened, unavoidably, even before my reporting was complete. Like many journalists, I’d put off the hardest questions until last. Then I became a conduit, passing along to one another the comments of two people who officially remained incommunicado.
When I told Elizabeth of Hazel’s visit after her son’s death, she vowed to write her to express her thanks. But she’d always been a procrastinator, and hadn’t done it. It had, she felt, been cowardly of her. But after reading my book, she concluded that some carefully pinpointed apologies were in order. No, not for what she’d said about Hazel’s memory, but for smaller things: for mistaking Hazel’s ebullience — Hazel had once moonlighted by singing telegrams — for exhibitionism, for instance, or for being overly dependent on her husband.
As little money as she had, Elizabeth — who’d returned to work late in life as a probation officer — had always made token contributions to charities, and stockpiled the cards they give out: ones with dogs and cats from the Humane Society, American flags from veterans groups. She took out one, showing a polar bear tending to her cubs, sat down at her dining room table, and began to write Hazel. There was no rough draft, no crossings-out: she knew what she wanted to say. She then put the letter in the mailbox outside; after all, the post office was a cab ride away.
I owe you an apology. No, I have not changed my mind about insisting on an honest acknowledgment of the past.
When I introduced you to an audience and disclosed your costumes and four-inch heels, I was intending to show that you had chutzpah (boldness or fearlessness). Actually it was a demonstration of my poor judgment as I now see it. I embarrassed you thoughtlessly, I’m sorry.
I did not honor your decision to not earn money on your own. I guess marriage requires trust in pairing your future security with your husband.
You are great grandmother and grandmother. Your ‘grans’ are fortunate that you can devote yourself to them.
Hazel, you encouraged me to talk to the public and delve into painful memories. You are always going to be important in the rebirth of my life.
Hazel was excited when she opened the letter, and torn. Perhaps, she thought, Elizabeth had chosen the stationery deliberately: when Hazel had publicly apologized to her in 1997, Elizabeth thought her naïve — little did she appreciate the flak she’d collect from all corners — and had tried to protect her.
Hazel had her quarrels with much of what Elizabeth wrote. Elizabeth was still reproaching her for something she’d felt she’d done: confront her past. She’d been a partner in her husband’s business, legally and otherwise: he could never have run it without her. Elizabeth had apologized, she complained to her husband, but for all the wrong things. He urged her to give Elizabeth a break.
Three weeks have now passed. Elizabeth now figures Hazel’s not going to reply, but in fact she’s mistaken. On November 5, two weeks after hearing from Elizabeth, Hazel began drafting a response, only to put it aside. Since then, the serial crises that arise when you’re the matriarch of a large family have given her a stream of excuses not to resume.
But resume it she will, and it won’t be easy. Writing’s hard when there’s so much to say and you’re not sure how to say it, or what the proper mix of generosity, contriteness, candor, and diplomacy should be. Or if you still don’t know what, if anything, you still want from someone, or whether to reopen old wounds. But the book has softened Hazel’s attitudes, too. She’s still not sure what she will say. But she’ll say something, and soon. Though their faces are frozen in an old photograph, both Elizabeth and Hazel now hover around seventy. And their story continues.