On May 20, 1962, Sybil got her diploma. Graduation was held at Quigley Stadium, where the school’s football team played. She had never been in the stadium before. She couldn’t go to football games, the same way she wasn’t allowed to play on any of Central’s teams or join any clubs. But they had to let her go to class, and she graduated with honors—one of 52 in her class of more than 500. She remembers a wolf whistle as she crossed the stage, and somebody hollering, “There goes Black Beauty.”
For most, graduation is a celebration. For Sybil, it was a relief.
She attended Earlham College, a small school in Indiana. When she and her parents got there, a group of students met them at the car and said, “Welcome to Earlham, Sybil Jordan!” Sybil was thrilled. She found out later they did this for every freshman, but: They knew her name, and they were glad to see her.
She got a bachelor’s degree in English literature. Then a master’s in elementary education from the University of Chicago. Then a second master’s and a doctorate from Columbia University. Along the way, she spent a summer program in Japan, got an externship working with migrant workers in New Jersey, taught elementary school in Chicago. She went on to work in academic administration at Iona College in New York, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Southwestern University in Texas. So many white people had questioned whether Sybil and other black students would bring down the quality of Little Rock Central. Her résumé is her answer.
In 1982, she got an invitation to her class’ 20th reunion. A white student named Ron Hughes had spent years thinking about her, ever since he read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in college. He asked her to come, and told her that if nobody else would sit with her, he would.
She brought her parents. Hughes sat with them. And one by one, other classmates came to Sybil and apologized. Some told her they had no idea what she had gone through.
Does she believe that they didn’t know?
“This is what I’m going to say to you,” she says. “I believe that it is very difficult for people to take ownership of choices. When people say that to me, I accept that. I don’t box with it. I know that they are saying the best thing they feel they can say.”
That night, the reunion ended with a sock hop. The music started and Hughes asked her to dance. Out on the floor, somebody else cut in. Then another and another. Sybil danced with her classmates until it was time to go home.
She and Hughes have been friends ever since. “When I see her these days, she comes up and gives me a big smack on the lips,” Hughes says. “It makes me feel so happy. And undeserving.”
Sybil kept coming back to Little Rock to see her parents. She saw the city changing for the better, but she thought there were still more chances for black men than black women. Then, in 1996, she was invited to apply for the job as president of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. The foundation—which grew from a charitable trust created by Rockefeller, a former Arkansas governor—spends millions every year awarding grants and developing projects to improve Arkansas education, economic development, and social justice. Leading the foundation was, in Sybil’s mind, the best job in the state. When she got the offer, she couldn’t turn it down. She left her job at Southwestern, and her husband, Alfred, soon followed. Sybil came home.
She led the foundation for 10 years, leading projects on entrepreneurship and funding for public education. The foundation put together a study of immigrant families, and helped build an exhibit of Japanese internment camps in Arkansas during World War II. She retired in 2006 to take care of her mother, who had Alzheimer’s. (Lorraine Jordan died in 2015.)
When she was a girl, she always wanted to live downtown because she thought that would be proof that she had arrived in the world—as a child, only whites owned those old homes. So she and Alfred live in a house downtown. She had always admired the grand old Mount Holly Cemetery, and now she serves as the president of the cemetery’s board of directors. Three years ago, the attorney general appointed her to the state Ethics Commission. Recently, the commission took up the case of whether Jerry Jones, who grew up in Arkansas and now owns the Dallas Cowboys, unintentionally violated a state ethics law by giving free tickets and trips to North Little Rock police officers. She ruled with the majority that he had. This did not make her especially popular with Cowboys fans.
Now, when she walks into the historic Capital Hotel—a place where she never felt she belonged as a child—the white doorman knows her by name. She has dined at the governor’s mansion, taken membership at the exclusive Little Rock Club, been given access to the city’s sources of power. When she took the job at the foundation, Tom McRae, the foundation’s first president, told her she would get the ultimate sign of respect from Little Rock insiders: They would treat her like a white man. Although startled, she understood. Before her, in the boardrooms and country clubs, they had mostly done all their business with other white men. But now they had to deal with her.
In turn, she has shown them—and all of Little Rock—what one black woman can offer.
She wonders sometimes how her life would have been different if she hadn’t gone to Central. “I think that it’s fair to say that I would’ve had a good life and would have gone on to excel, because I was already on a good track,” she says. “But I would say that I have been in places that were incredible places that I probably would not have been because of the experiences I had at Central that made me not be afraid to quest for excellence, and not be afraid to go to places that were intimidating to me.”
This year is the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine, and the city is holding commemorative events all year. The big one is in late September. Former President Bill Clinton, whose presidential library is in Little Rock, will be among the guests. The ceremony will be held at Quigley Stadium—the place where, back in 1962, Sybil grabbed her diploma and got out as quickly as she could. This time, they are talking about having her serve as emcee.
She has won the long game.
One of the hardest things for a child to accept is the idea of delayed gratification. But for Sybil, the short term was devastating. The only hope was down the road. I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help…
How did she, as a teenager, master the kind of emotional control that most grown people struggle with? She answers with a story.
When she was small, her family used margarine instead of butter. The margarine came in a white slab with a capsule of yellow food coloring; you mixed the two together to get something that looked like butter. Sybil hated margarine. But instead of pouting, she played the long game. When I grow up, she thought, I’m going to have butter whenever I want.
She is fully grown now, a 73-year-old woman. And when she goes to the grocery store for butter, she buys six pounds at a time.