Members of the Little Rock Nine were in Newport News, Va., on Saturday (Nov. 19) to participate in a keel authentication ceremony for the Virginia-class submarine USS Arkansas (SSN 800), the fifth U.S. Navy vessel to carry the Arkansas name.
According to Huntington Ingalls Industries, the ship’s sponsors are the six women of the historic group known as the Little Rock Nine, the first African American students to attend all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., during desegregation. The Little Rock Nine are Thelma Mothershed, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Gloria Ray, Jefferson Thomas, Melba Beals, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls, and Ernest Green.
The Little Rock Nine made history in 1957 with their response to the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Faced with shouting mobs, threats of violence and hostile state leaders who blocked their way, the teenagers were escorted into the school by federal troops at the direction of President Dwight Eisenhower.
“Their courageous spirit will forever inspire Arkansas and her crew. This group forever changed our nation’s history and their submarine will help ensure their legacy continues,” Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS) President Jennifer Boykin said in a statement. “The bravery and resilience of the Little Rock Nine sparked a fire of change and demonstrated the strength of blending different perspectives and backgrounds.”
During Saturday’s ceremony, NNS welders etched a historic six sets of initials of the Little Rock Nine onto metal plates, signifying the keel of SSN 800 as being “truly and fairly laid.” The metal plates will remain affixed to the submarine throughout its life.
“(Former Navy) Secretary Ray Mabus asked us to be supporters of the ship and its crew. I signed on to be a foster grandmother,” said Eckford, a member of the Little Rock Nine, who spoke on behalf of the group during the ceremony. “President Eisenhower sent 1,000 paratroopers to Little Rock to disperse a mob, bring order, and they made it possible for us to enter Central High School. From that point, I’ve had very high regard for specially trained forces.”
Arkansas is the 27th Virginia-class fast attack submarine being built under the teaming agreement with General Dynamics Electric Boat. The submarine is expected to be delivered to the U.S. Navy in 2025. The cost per submarine in the Virginia class ranges between $2.8 billion and $3.45 billion, according to U.S. Navy and Congressional Research Service estimates.
NNS is one of only two shipyards capable of designing and building nuclear-powered submarines. The advanced capabilities of Virginia-class submarines increase firepower, maneuverability and stealth.
“With advances in sound silencing, acoustic sensors, and weapons delivery systems, Arkansas will traverse the world’s oceans and seas as an apex predator. Representing our asymmetric advantage in the undersea domain, the Arkansas will have no equal,” said Vice Adm. William Houston, commander, Naval Submarine Forces.
According to the Navy, the first Arkansas ship was a steamer originally named the Tonawanda that was active during the U.S. Civil War. The second Arkansas vessel was commissioned in 1902, and was a monitor with a single gun turret. It was one of the last monitors of the Navy. The third was one of two Wyoming-class battleships commissioned in 1912. The last Arkansas was one of four Virginia-class nuclear-powered guided missile cruisers. It was commissioned in 1980 and decommissioned in 1998.