Little Rock, the Heart of Arkansas
ABOVE PHOTO: Statue of the Little Rock Nine students.
By Renée S. Gordon
“For us, the bottom line was every single morning of our lives, for nine months, we got up, we polished our saddle shoes, and we went to war.”
--Melba Pattillo Beals 1987
Situated in the center of the state, Little Rock, more than any other city in Arkansas, has been a barometer of the prevailing opinions and feelings of the times. It is both the capital and the state’s largest city and modern Little Rock is filled with trendy restaurants, museums and entertainment venues. It is also the best place to gain a sense of the history of Arkansas and how it evolved into the city it is today.
The first settlement in the Arkansas area was also the first European settlement in the lower Mississippi River valley. Initially a lone trading post on the Arkansas River built by French fur trader Henri de Tonti, Arkansas Post was established in 1686 on a trade route where a Quapaw Indian village already existed. The land became part of the U.S. with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and was named the Arkansas territorial capital. In 1821, the end came for the town when the capital was relocated to Little Rock in the center of the state. www.arkansasstateparks.com/arkansaspostmuseum
Jean Baptiste Bernard de la Harpe sighted “la petite roche,” the little rock in 1722 on the southern side of the Arkansas River. The explorer documented his find and it became as a landmark for travelers. William Lewis erected a small cabin in 1812 but seven years later William Russell, who in 1820 laid out a town site, purchased his land. Little Rock was incorporated in 1831 and Arkansas became a state in 1836. At La Petite Roche Plaza in the 11-block Riverfront Park visitors can view the famous rock formation and read interpretive panels to learn the history of the city’s founding. www.rivermarket.info
The Historic Arkansas Museum is a complex that includes a two-story indoor center with six galleries of art, artifacts and displays that interpret state history. The Knife Gallery is a favorite because here the story of the creation of the Bowie knife is related. The on-site gift shop is outstanding and is a great place to purchase authentic Arkansas crafts. The exterior portion consists of four original structures dating from 1820 to the 1840s located in the oldest neighborhood in the state.
Old Arkansas is accessed through the center and features the “Territorial Capitol,” the Hinderliter House, Brownlee and McVicar Homes and Woodruff Print Shop. The Hinderliters who migrated from Pennsylvania owned what is now the oldest extant home in the state. They operated a grog shop on the lower floor and rental rooms and their residence on the upper level. Slaves and freedmen lived and worked in the community and their lives are fully explored by authentically clad interpreters. The museum has been in operation since 1941. www.historicarkansas.org
Originally fronting the river, Arkansas’ first state capitol was established in 1836. It functioned until 1911 and remains the oldest state capital west of the Mississippi River. The Greek Revival building was designed by Gideon Shyrock with separate buildings on the north and south to house the executive and judicial branches. In 1885 it was remodeled with Victorian elements, the porch and columns facing the river were removed and curving staircases and a skylight were added. In 1947, it became the Old State House Museum and it continues to be topped by an iconic 65-ft. clocktower and is open daily. The Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail passes directly in front of the building. Bronze stars imbedded in the pavement honor individuals who made a significant contribution.
The building was the site of many momentous events including the secession vote and President Bill Clinton’s election night celebrations in 1992 and 1996. Your visit begins in the foyer with portraits of the past governors and continues through the permanent exhibit ”Pillars of Power.” The African-American presence in Arkansas is fully interpreted with an emphasis on the Reconstruction Era.
Twenty-seven of the First Ladie’s Inaugural Ball gowns are on display including Hilary Clinton’s gown, inspired by her wedding dress design, created by Martha Dixon, a daughter of sharecroppers. Dixon also designed the gown Ms. Clinton wore to the Presidential Gala in 1993. The most expensive gown in the collection was created by Coco Chanel and was worn by Arkansa First Lady Barbara Rockefeller.
The House of Representatives is on the tour and living history programs are scheduled there. One of the best tales told here is that of Representatives Wilson and Anthony who in 1837 actually engaged in a Bowie knife fight on the floor of the House and Rep. Anthony was killed. There is no admission fee. www.oldstatehouse.com
Arkansas’ Neoclassical State Capitol was constructed in 1899 using convict labor on the site of a former prison and is a smaller scale replica of the country’s capitol in Washington, DC. The 287,000-sq. ft. building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) and of particular note is the 24k cupola and the sculpture of the Little Rock Nine, the sole civil rights monument on the grounds of a southern state capitol. www.sos.arkansas.gov
Our 42nd president, William J. Clinton, selected Little Rock as the location of the 20,000-sq. ft., 17-acre, William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park. It is the largest presidential library in the U.S. The three-story center has two floors of exhibits and an orientation theater. Highlights of a tour include a replica of the Oval Office, a 120-ft. timeline of Clinton’s administration, a White House Cabinet Room, Head of State gifts and policy alcoves that relate information on foreign and domestic affairs. The museum’s exhibits are largely interactive and video monitors, photographs and dioramas enhance the experience. President Clinton narrates the audio tour. www.clintonpresidentialcenter.org
Heifer International & Heifer Village is located a short distance from the Clinton Center. The goal of this humanitarian organization is to provide assistance to families in crisis around the world. Their methods focus on training, and the provision of basic resources to facilitate self-sustainability. Admission is free and nearly 100 interactive exhibits teach visitors about the organizations mission. www.heifer.org
When Little Rock is mentioned in reference to the struggle for Civil Rights people immediately think of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School and the Little Rock Nine. The school was added to the NRHP in 1982, the only functioning school on the list, and a visit to this historic site adds substantially to your knowledge of American history. In the school’s exterior courtyard 10 benches are situated around a reflecting pool. Nine of the benches are to honor each of the Little Rock Nine and the 10th is for all students.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education to end segregation of public schools. In 1957 it was decided that Little Rock Central HS would admit black students in September. Initially it was believed that the process would go smoothly but at the urging of several civic organizations Gov. Orval Faubus intervened on September 2nd and used the National Guard to stop their entrance on the 4th. On the 14th Faubus met with President Dwight D. Eisenhower to resolve the problem and on the 20th a court ruling caused the withdrawl of Faubus troops and the students were allowed to enter. Reporters descended on the area and the world watched as the students were harassed and rioting broke out.
President Eisenhower called out the 101st Airborne Division, “the Screaming Eagles,” and federalized the Arkansas National Guard to escort the students into the school. It should be noted that serious verbal and physical harassment continued throughout the year. Each student was assigned a guard but they were not allowed in classrooms, bathrooms or locker rooms. At the end of the year the only senior among them, Ernest Green, graduated from the school. Rather than support integration Faubus closed the schools for the 1958-59 school year. As you travel to the Visitor Center you pass a 1950s Mobile Station that was media headquarters in September of 1957. It was chosen because it was the only place in the area with a public telephone.
The Visitor Center is located a block from the school. A state-of-the-art museum interprets the crisis at the school and the legal history of segregation. There are numerous listening stations and videos that bing the events to life. Tours to walk the path the Little Rock 9 took and to view the interior of Central HS can be reserved here. www.nps.gov/chsc
Two ex-slaves, John Bush and Chester Keats, formed the Mosaic Templars in 1883 as a fraternal organization. The current Mosaic Templars Cultural Center is on the site of a structure dating from 1913. The center is dedicated to the preservation and presentation of Arkansas’ African American history from 1870 to the present through modern technology, artifacts and displays. It houses the world’s largest collection of works by artist Isaac Scott Hathaway and the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame. A featured exhibition is a life-size bronze diorama of the swearing in of President Barack Obama. The shop on the premises is noted for its wide selection and its books for children. www.mosaictemplarscenter.com
Go straight to the heart of Arkansas. Visit Little Rock! www.littlerock.com
I wish you smooth travels!
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