African-American History

Heritage and Civil Rights Pathways in ArkansasAcrobat PDF
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The bridges that brought us over...

The first clear record of African-Americans in Arkansas is from 1721, more than a hundred years before statehood. In the decades that followed, black men and women established an important presence in the state.

During the time of slavery in Arkansas that lasted through the early 1800s, black Arkansans helped shape the pioneer culture. Although they were slaves during this time, many escaped the hard labor of the fields and through their talents and skills became craftsmen, creating frontier furniture, cast iron skillets, plows and locks. Strong group ties, extended families and religion were extremely important. This created unity and was the basis of the cultural enrichment that African-Americans still treasure today.

Photo FactsOne of two buildings that comprise the Delta Cultural Center, Helena

One of two buildings that comprise the Delta Cultural Center, Helena

Experiencing the freedom brought in part by their efforts during the Civil War in Arkansas, African-Americans in Arkansas discovered a new spirit and the first opportunity to build a black community. Education and participation in politics became the hope for the future. From 1869 to 1893, more than 45 black men won seats in the state legislature.

In 1902, John E. Bush organized the Colored Men's Business League. The following year, black-owned banks were opened in Pine Bluff and Little Rock. Black communities across Arkansas began to grow and flourish with newspapers, beauty shops, jewelry stores, hotels and restaurants.

The same era represented an important time for African American education in Arkansas. Floyd Brown founded the Fargo Agricultural School. John Brown Watson and Dr. Lawrence Davis, Sr., presidents at Arkansas Agricultural Mechanical and Normal College in Pine Bluff (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff), devoted themselves to black students in rural communities.

Cultural life flourished in many Arkansas towns. The blues thrived in the Delta as Helena and West Memphis nightclubs featured Willie "Sonny Boy" Williamson, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and B.B. King.

The integration struggles at Little Rock Central High School were a turning point for the nation's racial situation during the 1950s.

The places listed in this section represent important sites to African-Americans in Arkansas. What you'll discover is a history that has helped to shape the world as we know it today.

Explore Historic Sites. The imprints we've left behind...

Alfonzo Trent House, Fort Smith
This is the childhood home of the famed black jazz musician in the 1920s and '30s. His band was among the first permitted to use front entrances to clubs and restaurants instead of the customary service entrance. Private site -- exterior viewing only. 1301 N. 9th St., 800-637-1477.
Masonic Temple, Pine Bluff
Built by and for African-Americans, the Masonic Lodge was the tallest building in Pine Bluff when completed in 1904. The building was completely paid for exactly 14 years after the cornerstone of the building was laid. Fourth and State Sts.
Philander Smith College, Little Rock
Founded in 1877, this college was established to educate former slaves. The college is still in existence today and has produced prominent local and national leaders. 812 W. 13th, 501-375-9845.
Centennial Baptist Church, Helena
This church is the only known Arkansas example of a Black church designed by a black architect. York and Columbia Sts., 870-338-7550.
Historic Arkansas Museum, Little Rock
Four restored 19th-century houses exist on their original downtown site, each built partially with slave labor. Guided tours on the hour (except noon) feature living history performances with African-American actors portraying characters based on historical research. Small admission fee. 200 East Third St., 501-324-9351.
Arkansas Baptist College, Little Rock
Arkansas Baptist College is one of Arkansas's oldest black educational institutions and was among the first Baptist colleges founded in America for African-Americans. 1600 Bishop St., 501-374-7856.
St. Mark Baptist Church, Little Rock
This sanctuary houses one of the largest active black congregations in Arkansas. 5722 West 12th St., 501-663-3955.
Taborian Hall, Little Rock
This building was constructed in 1916 and was considered the hub of the African-American business community. The hall was constructed by an African-American contractor and served as headquarters for the Arkansas Chapter of the Knights and Daughters of Tabor, a national fraternity. Ninth and State Sts.
Dunbar Junior/Senior High & Memorabilia Room, Little Rock
From 1929-1955, Dunbar was a segregated high school and was considered the premier school for blacks in Arkansas. Its liberal arts curriculum, combined with a vocational education track, made it the only black secondary school in the state accredited by the North Central Association for Secondary Schools and Colleges. The memorabilia room contains items and artifacts from alumni during these years. 1100 Wright Ave., 501-922-4841.
First Missionary Baptist Church, Little Rock
Organized in 1845, the First Missionary Baptist Church at 7th and Gaines Streets in Little Rock is reported to be the oldest black church in Arkansas. 501-372-2705.
Ish House (private residence), Little Rock
The original owner of the Ish house, Dr. G.W. Ish, made many contributions to society, the State of Arkansas and the African-American community. One of Dr. Ish's greatest accomplishments was his role in the introduction of the drugs isoniazid and streptomycin for treatment of tuberculosis. Private residence -- exterior viewing only. 16th and Scott Sts.
McRae Tuberculosis Sanitarium for Negroes, Alexander
Named in honor of the former Arkansas Governor, Thomas C. McRae, who signed a 1923 law authorizing the hospital during a time when the tuberculosis survival rate was 25% for blacks. In 1930, Dr. G.W. Ish, a prominent physician in Little Rock, offered Hugh A. Browne, a TB specialist and survivor, the position of administrator and director of medical services at McRae Tuberculosis Sanitarium. McRae was the first institution of its type in the country staffed entirely by blacks. During Browne's 31 years at McRae, he treated more than 7,000 patients and trained 15 young Black doctors. The facility closed in 1968 and now houses the Alexander Human Development Center. Tours available by appointment. Contact Ralph Nelson at 501-847-3506. 14701 Hwy. 111 South, Saline County.
Little Rock Central High School, Little Rock
Central High School is noted as Arkansas's most important historic landmark associated with the Civil Rights movement. The integration of the school in 1957 by nine blacks is said to symbolize the end of racially segregated public schools in America. Visit the new Central High Museum and Visitor Center to see this history come alive. 2125 W. 14th St., 501-374-1957.
Mosaic Templars of America Headquarters, Little Rock
Located in the hub of the black business district, the Mosaic Templar building, constructed in 1911, was headquarters to one of the most powerful fraternal organizations in America. Frank W. Blaisdell, the architect responsible for designing the building, also contributed to the landscape plan of Arkansas's State Capitol grounds. 900 Broadway.
Old State House, Little Rock
The first Arkansas state capitol was constructed in 1836, partly with slave labor. After the Civil War and during the Reconstruction period, over 40 black legislators served in the Old State House. It is believed that Mifflin Gibbs, the first black elected municipal judge in the United States, had his office in the Old State House. Today the Old State House is an accredited museum of Arkansas history. 501-324-9685.
Orr School, Texarkana
Scott Joplin, an African-American composer, is known as the "Father of Ragtime Music." He attended the Orr School -- where he formulated many of his ideas. This building represents one of the few standing symbols associated with Joplin in his hometown of Texarkana. 831 Laurel. Also visit the Scott Joplin Mural at 3rd and Main Sts.

Experience Museums and Cultural Centers. History and culture that you can see, feel and experience...

African-American Cultural Center, Jonesboro
This center emphasizes the history of African-Americans who lived and worked in Craighead County and covers from the arrival of the first slave in 1860 to the present day. It also includes contemporary history of African-Americans in other parts of the country.
Floyd Brown-Fargo Agricultural School Museum, Fargo
Floyd Brown started the Fargo Agricultural School in 1919. It is said that Brown built the school with $2.85. The school provided a quality high school education to thousands of black students for 30 years. The property was later sold to the State of Arkansas and now serves as a museum of the legacy Brown left behind. Two miles north of Brinkley, on Hwy. 49, then Floyd Brown Dr., 870-734-1140.
Delta Cultural Center, Helena
The Delta Cultural Center tells the story of efforts to settle and cultivate the fertile Mississippi River Valley. It also features the great African-American heritage of gospel and blues music. Missouri and Natchez Sts., 870-338-4350.
EMOBA (Ernie's Museum of Black Arkansans), Little Rock
Changing exhibits explore the Black experience in the African-American History Museum of Black Arkansans and Performing Arts Center. Preserve your family name and become a part of the museum on engraved bricks. Small admission fee. Call for exhibit schedule. 1208 Louisiana St., 501-372-0018.
Central High Museum and Visitor Center, Little Rock
Located in a restored Mobil gas station across the street from the school, this center contains photographs, text and audio-visual presentations focusing on the Little Rock Nine and the desegregation crisis of 1957. 2125 West 14th St., 501-374-1957.
University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff
The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff houses the permanent exhibit "Keepers of the Spirit," a tribute to the legacy of Dr. L.A. Davis, Sr., and AM&N College, highlighting the tenure of the former president and chancellor. UAPB also houses the "Persistence of the Spirit" exhibit, which displays the history and contributions of African-Americans in Arkansas. Call for exhibit schedule. 1200 N. University, 870-543-8236.

* NOTE: This brief list contains some of the museums in Arkansas that are uniquely African-American oriented. Many other museums in the state offer seasonal exhibits on African-American contributions.

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Experience Arkansas People. They blazed a trail for us to travel...

Arkansas has produced some noteworthy personalities - both past and present. Many are instantly recognized, from the poet laureate Maya Angelou, who spent some of her formative years in Stamps, to Forrest City's legendary singer Al Green.

Arkansas's people have had a great influence over music. William Grant Still, known as the "Dean of Black Composers," composed several hundred musical arrangements and was the first African-American in the United States to have a symphonic composition performed by a major orchestra. Florence Price was the first black woman in the United States to win recognition as a composer, and Willie "Sonny Boy" Williamson was one of the famous Arkansas Delta blues performers who inspired the fall tradition that has become Helena's King Biscuit Blues Festival.

Many African-American Arkansans have risen to national prominence, including Dr. Jocelyn Elders. She became the first black female to head the Arkansas Department of Health and later the first black to be named U.S. Surgeon General. Another political first from Arkansas was Rodney Slater, who was the first black named to the Arkansas State Highway Commission and the first black Secretary of Transportation for the United States Department of Transportation. Debbye Turner, a Jonesboro native, is a former Miss America and only the third black to ever hold the title.

But there's a deeper African-American history in Arkansas. While you may not know the name John Johnson, you know his work. This Arkansas native is the publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, two of the most influential and widely circulated African-American publications in the United States. If you've used Isoplus or any other hair-styling formulas from JM Products, then you appreciate the work of Ernest Joshua, who founded this international company in central Arkansas.

Some Arkansans have a way of making people feel good, like our two Harlem Globetrotters - Arkansas native Reece "Goose" Tatum and Arkansan-by-choice Hubert "Geese" Ausbie. Other Arkansas sports greats are NBA All-Stars Sidney Moncrief and Scottie Pippen and the NFL's Keith Jackson, just to name a few.

Check out the Famous Arkansans list under "Historical Arkansas" for information on other important Arkansans.

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Did you know?

MonticelloMonticello, AR: The Drew County Historical Museum is a 100 year old home with antiques from all periods. We are developing a country store, have cabins from the early 1800s, a pole barn with farm implements. Learn More ...