Little Rock Created Big Waves in American History

Little Rock Created Big Waves in American History

The Little Rock Nine

Posted May 24, 2024

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Little Rock began making history dating back to August 24, 1818, when the Quapaw Line was drawn, creating the boundary between the Quapaw tribal lands and lands available for settlement by westward-moving Americans. The treaty referred to La Petite Roche, an outcropping of rock on the Arkansas River, by its American name, “Little Rock,” believed to be the first official use in a government document of the name. It continued to rock history into the future.

Discover Little Rock History at the Historic Arkansas Museum

A good place to get an overview of Little Rock’s and all of Arkansas’ history is the Historic Arkansas Museum. Much more than a museum, a collection of Little Rock’s oldest homes and living history demonstrations take you back in time. The museum covers over a square block and a half and offers much to see. 

When you first enter, a carriage house and a recreated stable serve as reminders of life in the early days when residents depended on their horses and carriages. Little Rock’s oldest standing building, Hinderliter Grogshop, was built around 1827. Over the years, it served as a restaurant, hotel, and private residence, as well as a tavern. Oral history claims this to be the last meeting place of the Arkansas Territorial Legislature.

The museum galleries are filled with paintings, furniture, jewelry, and other memorabilia that tell of life in Arkansas from the past to the present. In the Native American Gallery, the exhibit We Walk in Two Worlds tells the story of the Caddo, Osage and Quapaw, Arkansas’s first people. Displaying 50 historic blades, the Knife Gallery is another fascinating exhibit. It tells the history of the bowie knife and includes the famous Bowie No. 1 made around 1830 by James Black.

Little Rock, Arkansas History

Lawyer Reenactors at McVicker House Photo by Kathleen Walls

More Stories Through Historic Structures

Built in 1847 by Scotsman Robert Brownlee for his brother, James and his wife, Isabelle, the Brownlee House is a one-story Georgian vernacular brick cottage. Interestingly, Robert referred to his brother James, a blacksmith, as a “nere-do-well.” Robert Brownlee got gold fever and migrated to California during the gold rush.

McVicar House, built around 1848, was the home of James McVicar, another Scotsman. He was director of the state penitentiary, fought in the Mexican-American War, and another Arkansas resident who caught gold fever and headed for California during the 1849 Gold Rush.  Living history re-enactors portrayed lawyers hired to entice people to go to California and try their luck.

The Woodruff Print Shop is a reconstruction of the Arkansas Gazette newspaper building that housed the state’s first lending library. Here a re-enactor printed sheets from an antique offset press. He  taught us a song about heading to the Gold Rush adapted from “Oh Susanna.”

The farmstead across the street tells the story of Arkansas’s rural lifestyle. The main building is a double dogtrot log house belonging to the Pemberton family, relocated from Scott, Arkansas.  Other structures include a blacksmith shop, privy, smokehouse, barn, and a cabin the enslaved people would have lived in. One of the enslaved families, John Perry, his wife, and two children’s story is told in the cabin. Perry remained here after emancipation and became a successful farmer.

Mosaic Templars Cultural Center

The Mosaic Templers Cultural Center tells the story of the African American experience in Arkansas. The Templars began as an African American fraternal organization founded in Little Rock in 1882 by two former slaves, John E. Bush and Chester W. Keatts. At that time, statistics showed Black Americans had a younger death rate than whites. Many insurance companies raised their rates or refused them altogether. The Templers were a fraternal organization that provided burial insurance and life insurance to the African American members. During the Great Depression, it went bankrupt.

The building houses exhibits that showcase Black achievement. One of my favorites shows the evolution of cotton farming from slavery days to sharecropping, tenant farming, and modern farming. Other exhibits show Black achievement in scholastic endeavors, military, and everyday life.

Little Rock, Arkansas History

Central High School Photo by Kathleen Walls

Central High School’s Role in Little Rock, Arkansas History

In 1957, nine African American students made history at Central High School in the first integration of public schools.  Ranger Randy shared their story with authentic slides showing of the events at Central High School Museum. He explained how “Separate but Equal” was a farce. Central High was the largest public high school in the country. The Black high school was a much smaller model of it.

When the Supreme Court granted Black children the right to attend white schools, the local rules put in place were so stringent few could qualify. One rule required that a Black child could not retaliate against an aggressor no matter when they said or did to the child. Ten children qualified. One finally backed out when the child’s father was threatened with the loss of his job.

The most moving slides showed one 15-year-old, Elizabeth Eckford, who had not gotten the message to meet at an adult’s house and enter the school as a group with adult protection. Elizabeth tried to enter the school but was turned away by national guard soldiers Governor Faubus had sent to the school to stop the integration. The mob was spitting on her and calling her vile names. She became so frightened she sat on a bench and cried.

We walked across from the visitors’ center to view the school. Since it is an active high school, we could not enter. Directly across the street is a gas station that was the base for journalists covering the event.

Little Rock, Arkansas History

The Clinton’s Custom China on Display at the Clinton Center Photo by Kathleen Walls

Clinton Center’s Place in Little Rock, Arkansas History 

Another event that put Arkansas in the forefront of history occurred when former Arkansas governor, William Jefferson Clinton, defeated incumbent George H. W. Bush to become the first and, to date, only president from Arkansas.

The Clinton Presidential Center displays one of the largest archival collections in American presidential history. The center contains 76.8 million pages of paper documents, almost 2 million photographs, over 84,600 artifacts and 21 million e-mail messages from the Clinton presidency.

Driving up to it, the Clinton Library and Museum seems an odd style. It has been said to resemble a trailer on stilts. Clinton chose the unconventional style because of his 1996 reelection campaign slogan emphasizing the importance of  “building a bridge to the 21st century.” He continued the bridge theme in the design with a five-story steel truss glass building on the Arkansas River that reaches almost to an old railroad bridge.

Highlights include a full-scale model of the Oval Office, a table set with the Clinton china, and Clinton’s saxophones. Family portraits add to the personal touches. And, as a cat person, I loved the portrait of Socks, the First Cat.

For more information visit Historic Arkansas Museum.

 

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  • Kathleen Walls, former reporter for Union Sentinel in Blairsville, GA, is publisher/writer for American Roads and Global Highways. She is the author of several travel books including Georgia’s Ghostly Getaways, Finding Florida’s Phantoms, Hosts With Ghosts, and Wild About Florida series.  Kathleen's articles have appeared in Family Motor Coaching Association Magazine, Food Wine Travel Magazine, Weekender Extended, Travel World International,  Tours4Mobile and others. She is a photographer with many of her original photographs appearing in her travel ezine, American Roads, as well as other publications. Her fiction includes Last Step, which was made into a feature movie of the same name by Forbes Productions, Kudzu, Under A Bloody Flag and Under A Black Flag. PODCAST FEATURE Listen to Kathleen's interview talking about the American south.