Northwoods Middle School

Where: North Charleston

Enrollment: 852 students

Diversity: 70 percent of students are black, 16 percent are hispanic, 11 percent are white

Poverty: 91.7 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Before reading "Fire From the Rock," a fictionalized account of the Little Rock Nine, Danjai Smalls never gave school integration much thought.

The seventh-grader at Northwoods Middle School didn't know about the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., declaring "separate but equal" schools unconstitutional.

And she didn't know about the nine black Arkansas students who had to be escorted by soldiers past angry mobs when they desegregated Little Rock Central High School three years later.

"I was surprised they had to be protected by soldiers," Smalls said.

Smalls, who is black, lives with her grandmother, but had never discussed segregation with the older woman.

After reading about it, Smalls wrote to Carlotta Walls LaNier, one of the Little Rock Nine, as part of a class assignment.

In her letter to LaNier, Smalls asked how LaNier found the courage to go inside the school and if it had made her happy to do that.

"How were you brave enough to go inside there?" Smalls wrote, ending her letter with, "I wish I was brave like you for going to that school."

About a month after Smalls sent the letter in April, she got one back.

It was not easy, Walls, the youngest at 14 of the Little Rock Nine, wrote in her response.

"It was like a job everyday," Walls told Smalls. "Being 14 years of age, you don't really know the dangers that await you. It was not a welcoming environment, mainly due to a group of tormentors."

But it was worth it, Walls wrote.

"I am now happy that we were successful in integrating the school because you are in a classroom or school with kids who do not look like you," she said.

Smalls said her favorite part of LaNier's letter was the closing.

"You are a brave person," LaNier wrote. "Just get to know who you are and be proud of you and your families heritage, and act on your passions."

Smalls, who is bashful about LaNier's encouraging words, plans to display the letter, which is now in a frame, in her grandmother's living room.

"It's something valuable and part of this history now," she said.

Smalls' reading teacher, Laura Saunders, had each of her students at the North Charleston school write a letter to one of the Little Rock Nine as a way to connect them with that history, whether they got an answer or not.

Like Smalls, none of her classmates knew of the fight to end school segregation or the mistreatment of the Little Rock Nine.

"I kind of felt sad and angry at how they treated them," said Mikayla Nance.

LaNier, now 71, lives in Colorado where she works as a real estate broker. In 2009 Random House Publishing released LaNier's memoir, "A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School." LaNier tells her story at speaking engagements across the country.

"I try to encourage those that are learning about the civil rights," LaNier said last week in a telephone interview. She said she is inundated with letters and emails from students across the country learning about the Little Rock Nine.

Students not knowing about the history of desegregation and the civil rights movement is a problem nationally, LaNier said.

The issue is multifaceted. Teachers aren't teaching it, she said, and parents aren't discussing the history of civil rights with their children at home.

"Unfortunately the younger generations are not getting some of the things that were just a part of our lifestyle of hearing it at home, it being enforced in our schools, in the churches and in the community," she said.

"They need to know why they're sitting in a classroom with other children that don't look like them," LaNier said. "All kids black, white, yellow, green - whatever - need to understand more about the educational history of this country."

Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or Twitter.com/PCAmandaKerr.