FAYETTEVILLE–Betty Anderson views her life as orderly as that of the English alphabet: you must pass one letter before arriving at the next, and where you are now couldn’t have happened without what came before, good or bad.
“Alphabet soup. That’s what I like to call it,” she said.
Seventh grade was perhaps Anderson’s “A” in this chain of events, where she was among the first black students to be integrated into the formerly all-white West Side Junior High School in Little Rock.
Anderson, now 64, has spent the last 30 years revisiting people and places from her past, and sometimes that includes revisiting periods of racial oppression. When she isn’t volunteering at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville or spending time with her family, she’s likely on the University of Arkansas campus, where she is working on her master’s degree in theater and a three-part play called “Out of One Blood” that is based upon those experiences beginning in junior high.
“The scripture for Acts 17:26 had been with me and a part of my life since I was in seventh grade,” Anderson said of the Bible verse from which she drew the name for her trilogy.
The verse is a source of inspiration for her trilogy, along with notes gathered for another original piece that she developed in the 1980s called “Sitting on the Flat Side of a Dime–Learning Spiritual Principles From Life’s Experiences.”
In 1961, just four years after the racial integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957, Anderson and eight other black students stepped bravely into the halls of the junior high. At the time, Anderson didn’t feel like she was making any waves, but she did find importance in clearing a path upon which her younger sisters would one day walk.
“I still remember my daddy saying, ‘better books at West Side,’” Anderson said, “which is true, but I didn’t want to go.”
Anderson wanted to attend an all-black school with her childhood classmates and neighborhood friends. But, she passed the personality test administered to black student and teacher candidates for integration into white schools, and was pushed into a successful but difficult academic career.
The group of black students was split up among several classes at West Side. Though some of her teachers were encouraging, others did what they could to make sure she didn’t excel beyond the white students in her classes. In one instance, a math teacher curved test grades so that her 98 percent grade on a test fell to a B.
Another one of the nine integrated students who went on to high school with Anderson, Kenneth Jones, said he remembered one teacher consistently gave him bad grades, but gave Anderson good grades. One day, Anderson came up with the idea to switch their papers, and she was given a good grade for Jones’ paper, and he received a poor grade for Anderson’s paper.
“We supported each other emotionally, psychologically, and academically. We did everything we could to build each other up,” Jones said.
Anderson reminded him that he was not to blame for the problem, and that it was the teacher to blame because she could not overcome her personal prejudices against the boy.
After lunch one day, Anderson and a white boy got into a fight on the school’s tennis court. While standing in a long line of antsy seventh graders waiting to go back inside, she mumbled, “I just hope somebody kicks me.” As soon as she had, she felt a sharp pain in her back. Though both students were injured after the fight, and the boy initiated the violence, she was sent home and the boy was taken to the doctor.
“They set us up to fail,” Anderson said.
Nevertheless, Anderson graduated from Little Rock Central High School in the top 10 percent of her class.
In 1967, Walter Cronkite of CBS News interviewed her on national television for her achievements, which also included being the first black student to work in the school’s bookstore and being the first black student to direct the senior class play.
As a member of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Anderson competed in oratorical contests statewide and won awards for her speeches. Her love for the stage, she said, took root at this time.
Also while at LRCHS, Anderson and two of her close friends formed a musical group called “The Pearls,” for which they wrote musical numbers and sewed their own costumes. The girls were the first black students to perform in the school’s talent show.
After graduation, Anderson took her all-white cap and gown and drug the attire down and up the steep front steps of the school, then folded them neatly and put them back into the box for return.
“Choice Made, Price Paid” is what Anderson calls the third part of her trilogy, which alludes to her and her classmates’ experiences out of grade school. Though they’ve all become relatively successful, she said, it was not without a price.
“I had deep, conflicted feelings about my time at both West Side and LRCHS,” she said. “I harbored a lot of rage for a long time.”
She was drawn to Augsberg College in Minneapolis, Minn., because of the Guthrie Theater located just a little over a mile away. Anderson studied communication and speech, which reflected her favorite subjects throughout grade school and college: English and drama.
Just out of college, she worked for the Minneapolis Spokesman, a small black newspaper. From 1972 to 1981, she worked as the head librarian for the Arkansas Gazette, a job which she jokingly tells people was what caused her first marriage to break apart.
“I married the Gazette,” she said.
From then on, Anderson worked several odd jobs in communications, marketing and sales to support her daughter, Maliaka, whom she had in 1972 with her first husband.
In 2005, Anderson faced the challenge of helping Maliaka recover from a serious illness that left her unable to remember any events that had happened to her over the past three years, including the birth of her daughter.
“She is a spiritual-minded woman, but she’s also independent,” said long-time friend Magdalene Taylor. “She’s always thinking and planning and moving forward.”
Anderson finally caught a breath of fresh air during this tragic time when she met her second husband through an online dating site. Lawrence Anderson was a part of the family immediately upon moving to Fayetteville in 2006, as he took Maliaka to rehab every day after her recovery.
Betty and Lawrence married in 2007.
She officially enrolled in the graduate program at the UofA in 2013. Since being a part of the theater program, she has directed and acted in plays and musicals at the school. She plans to graduate in 2016 with two graduate degrees, in theater and in African-American studies.
“Black theater has a different message, or raison d’etre,” she said. “We have to shine a light on the things that the world would not necessarily think about in its normal, day-to-day goings-on.”
Anderson’s ultimate goal is for “Out of One Blood” to be taught to students. She continues to impart the knowledge she’s gained from her experiences to the people she meets.