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At Central High, lessons for posterity

Site of a desegregation showdown in Little Rock, Ark., becomes the

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When nine African-American students walked up the steep steps of all-white Central High here in 1957, they forever transformed it into a symbol of the fight for racial equality in America.

Some 40 years later, the school remains a monument to the changes that began to unfold on that September day. The palette of student faces has broadened to include almost every skin color, and the building - with its ruddy brick and Gothic revival archways - has become one of the newest members of America's National Park System.

At the close of the 20th century, the Park Service is incorporating more and more pieces of contemporary history - from jazz hot spots to airfields - into its portfolio of soaring peaks and sandstone canyons. But that has increasingly meant setting up shop in places that are still operating, and the process of making a bustling school double as a museum is presenting unique challenges.

"It's a working high school - a first for the parks system," says Sandra Washington, the National Park Service project director for Central High School. "We will have to balance the students still attending school here and the people visiting the school to see where history occurred."

The desire among government officials to protect 20th-century landmarks has been building for much of the past decade. Five years ago, Congress created the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park, "to ensure that jazz continues as a vital element of the culture of New Orleans and the nation."

Earlier this year, the Park Service took steps to turn a historic airfield in southeastern Alabama into a park site commemorating the Tuskegee airmen of World War II. "With parks like these, we get multiple layers of history told by people who remember the era," says Ms. Washington. "It may not always be the best history of America, but it shows the diversity of our country."

With some of these new parks, however, have come new logistical problems, with the Park Service having to accommodate still-active tenants. The Missions National Historic Park in San Antonio, for instance, conducts tours of its Spanish frontier missions only when services aren't scheduled at the Roman Catholic churches there.

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