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 piqué 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.
A few miles away, in a house much like Elizabeth’s but in a neighborhood that was all white, Hazel Bryan selected something very different. It was a sleek dress of cool mint-green, with a triangular white sash at the top pointing suggestively to her bosom, and a ribbon tied provocatively around her midriff. She’d bought it a few months earlier at one of the “classy” department stores downtown, maybe Blass or Pfeiffer’s, with around ten of the scarce dollars her mother earned making lightbulbs at Westinghouse. Hazel wasn’t signaling the start of an earnest new undertaking so much as making a fashion statement: taking her cues from Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Elizabeth Taylor, and the other movie stars she followed, Hazel hoped to show off her petite figure, to look older and more sophisticated and maybe more promiscuous than she really was. She wanted to impress her girlfriends, but with any luck the boys forever hovering around her would notice, too. (That the dress was a mite too tight would help.) She’d worn the dress before, probably earlier in the summer. Then again, for Hazel this day wasn’t quite as special as it was for Elizabeth. Like all of the white kids, she’d begun school the day before, unperturbed by the soldiers who encircled it, and she had been at this particular school for a year already.
Two girls, one black, one white, born less than four months apart, each about to begin eleventh grade. Within a few minutes of each other, they set out for the same destination: Little Rock Central High School. They did not know, nor—in the world of the South in the 1950s—would they have ever encountered, each other before, except perhaps when they rode the same buses or passed on a downtown street or sat—on different levels—in a local movie theater. But within an hour or so they would, and from that moment on, their lives would be inextricably intertwined. For long after that—as long, in fact, as the tortured saga of relations between the races, in the United States and everywhere else, still mattered, or as long, when it came right down to it, as people can see—they would be linked.
When Hazel got home that afternoon, she took off the dress and changed into something more comfortable—boy’s jeans, perhaps; they didn’t yet make them for girls—and hung it up for the next time. Doubtless, there would be many next times—dances, dates, more school days—to put it on. But when Elizabeth removed her skirt that night, then folded it up and handed it to her mother, she already knew she would never wear it, or even want to see it, again. As everyone else was coming to recognize it—for a time, that simple cotton skirt was just about the most famous piece of clothing in the world—Elizabeth set out to forget about it. It promptly went into the attic, and no one—Elizabeth included—ever laid eyes on it again.
From Elizabeth and Hazel by David Margolick. Published by Yale University Press in 2012. Reproduced with permission.
David Margolick is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.