BY DARCEL ROCKETT
Gloria Ray Karlmark walked into the history books when she, along with eight other African American students, walked into Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in September 1957.
Since then, Karlmark has been a member of the Little Rock Nine — nine youths who made federally ordered racial desegregation a reality with their presence at the all-White high school.
Karlmark’s educational path eventually led her to Illinois Institute of Technology, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and mathematics in 1965.
Her eight-year stint in Chicago during what she calls her “formative years” had her working two part-time jobs — sometimes to pay for transportation as she looked for a job as a chemist or mathematician.
She was a waitress at The Medici in Hyde Park in the ’60s, briefly served as a temporary physics and geometry teacher, and held other jobs like laboratory assistant, programmer, mathematician for Sears, Roebuck and Co., and researcher on early robotics projects through Illinois Tech’s Research Institute.
And after she followed her husband to his native Sweden at age 27, she learned Swedish, completed another degree in patent law, and used her skills at IBM and the electronics company Philips International.
Karlmark also co-founded and served as editor-in-chief of Computers in Industry, an international journal before retiring.
We talked to the Stockholm resident — about her historic path, her responsibility to the civil rights cause and female representation in the STEM field — before she was to receive an honorary doctor of science degree, for outstanding contributions to the development of a more inclusive society, from Illinois Tech at the university’s 150th commencement exercises last weekend.
The 76-year-old’s place in history has yielded a number of honors, including the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999 and the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP in 1958. This latest honor left her “very, very excited,” she said.
“The remaining (eight) are happy for me,” Karlmark said. “We share each other’s happiness, that’s what we do. I thought it was a very nice recognition because it was a personal recognition.”
The interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: The Little Rock Nine have received so many awards throughout the years. Are there any that stick out?
A: 2015 was the last time I was in Chicago, and that was to receive the Abraham Lincoln Leadership Prize from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation. That was a real honor with my particular past with my grandfather — who was born a slave and fought in Lincoln’s army. To have Lincoln’s Presidential Library issue a prize to his grandchild?
I felt a special connection — a sort of red thread through history. So I felt really proud to go there and connect to that bit of heritage. It was really very moving. It just felt good and right.
Q: That “Lost Year,” when Gov. Orval Faubus closed Little Rock high schools for the 1958-59 school year, you went to Kansas City, Mo.’s Central High School to finish your secondary education. How was that after Arkansas?
A: Coming from Little Rock Central High School, I wasn’t allowed to go to the Black high school, I had to drive across town to the Kansas City Central High School, which was predominantly White. And only for the reason that it would be written in the newspapers that she left Little Rock Central to go to an all-Black high school.
Back then, it was considered very big. So it was in everybody’s interest for me to avoid going to an all-Black school. You could really call it Black pressure. It amounted to a certain responsibility to move forward in terms of race relations, so I certainly didn’t want to do anything that would hamper that.
Q: How heavy was the responsibility as a member of the Nine? Be better, do better?
A: My responsibility was to use my abilities to the best of my abilities, and if it were possible, go that extra mile, do that extra thing. My parents instilled that in me.
In a way, that’s what I’m doing in Sweden now. I go around to schools and tell my story. I was leaving one school, and a concentration camp survivor — she’s 92 or something — was going around and telling her story, and I thought, “My goodness, if she’s still doing her best, doing the extra for her story to be known, then who am I to slow down?”
I talked with her and she said, “If you don’t tell it the way it was, they will rewrite the history for you.” She said, “That’s why I do it, because they have to know the way it was.” I feel that’s my mission for the rest of my life — as long as I can. I’m looking forward to the day when it will no longer be necessary.
But I have to say, at the age of 76, I’m less hopeful than I was 10 years ago — even in Europe. There is not more openness to learn; gathering knowledge about what’s different in others is less. It’s like the world isn’t advancing or progressing — it’s in some sort of a warped spiral.
We have to look for every opportunity in which we can make a difference. There’s a plaque down in Little Rock with a (quote) from me: “Dare to object to prejudice and injustice,” and we have to do that whenever and wherever we see it — in education and in everything. And it’s not just an African American thing; We as human beings must stand up for each other.
Q: When you made the decision to go to the predominantly White school in Arkansas, was that something you and your family discussed beforehand?
A: The spring of 1957, the teacher passed out a paper that said in September, Central is going to be integrated. If you want to go there, put your name on the list. I signed the paper. No discussion with parents or anything.
Q: What happened when your parents found out you had signed up?
A: They said if you want to go there, we will support you. If you don’t want to go there, we’ll support you. They came to me and told me to make up my mind and stick to it. There was no maybe for a few days and then I’d quit. They wanted me to realize the seriousness of it.
In the beginning, it was no big deal. But after the first day, it became clear that you have to decide. No matter what you chose, you would be subject to criticism by somebody, but it was my choice. I was the one who wanted the education. I could see no reason why I shouldn’t get that education. It was the only logical thing to do.
Q: Women need more representation and inclusion in the STEM fields. How can we make that happen?
A: The solution to the problem isn’t with the ones who are subjected to it; it’s with the others. We need to improve and enhance and expand our knowledge to get more education. More people need to be concerned about inclusiveness and understanding the advantages of it.
When I went to school, there were many students who really resented having to take a literature course. I heard students say, “I want to be an engineer. I’m not going to write novels.” But that’s a narrow-mindedness that you really don’t want to have when you’re developing the tools, equipment and conditions for the future. There’s too little curiosity about what you don’t already know.
Q: As a civil rights icon, do you think there are moments for history-making these days?
A: All the time. I like to refer to Raoul Wallenberg — he saved tens of thousands of Jewish people by simply giving them a Swedish passport because he sat in a position where he could sign off on a Swedish passport during the Holocaust. He gave them a Swedish passport, and they were transported to safety. He did it, and they survived.
He was one person who dared to make a difference, and I think today, what we see going on now, where people are not having tolerance for each other and our differences, (you can) take every opportunity to encourage others to get to know you and what you can do.