For all of the investment and new development that has come to Little Rock’s downtown district, most of west Ninth Street still doesn’t look like much. Tool along this stretch and you'll find a collection of grim, nondescript businesses – a body shop, parking lots, a clutch of fast-food drive-thru windows – perched on the banks of the yawning concrete chasm of I-630. It’s not derelict, exactly, it’s just there, one of those corridors that exists not as a destination but as a means to get to someplace that is.
But it wasn’t always this way.
During its heyday, west Ninth Street was a neighborhood unlike any other in the city, past or present. The center of African-American culture and commerce at the turn of the 20th century, the street throbbed with life at any time of the day. African-American-owned grocery stores, barber and beauty shops and music halls drew fellow blacks from across the city to shop, socialize and revel in their community. Ella Fitzgerald performed here, as did B.B. King and other musical luminaries, each followed the next Sunday morning by the soaring sounds of worship from the district’s churches.
It’s a fact about Little Rock history that is unknown to many today and nearly impossible to imagine given what’s left. Except, that is, within the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center (MTCC) which now, as then, rises tall and stately at the corner of Ninth and Broadway. Within this citadel of history, culture and thought, the echoes of the African-American experience in Arkansas – the tragic and the triumphant – still linger.
“Truthfully, my favorite part is the auditorium,” says Martie North Hamilton, senior vice president and director of community development/CRA at Simmons Bank and chairperson of the Friends of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, which helps address funding gaps at the MTCC. “They did a really, really good job of replicating it as close as possible to the original. Every time I walk through the entrance, I can just imagine Booker T. Washington and others on this stage and the people out in the audience. I can see people sitting up in the balcony and listening to all types of wonderful speakers.
“I imagine what that must have been like for all kinds of wonderful lectures and teaching events that happened in that ballroom. It just really makes me take on the magnitude of how wonderful that place is.”
History Has Its Eyes on You
Hamilton is the exact prototype of what the founders of what became the MTCC must have had in mind when they dreamed of the future, because as history shows, they had the propensity to dream big. Just as the idea of a college-educated woman of color in senior leadership at one of the state’s largest bank companies was unimaginable at the time of John Edward Bush and Chester W. Keatts, so too was the notion that two former slaves could found an international African-American fraternal organization. But that’s just that they did.
Launching the Mosaic Templars of America (MTA) in 1882 and incorporating in 1883, the MTA offered illness, death and burial insurance to African-Americans whom white-owned insurers refused to service equally. In time, the MTA would include more than 100,000 members in chapters across 26 states, the Caribbean and South and Central America.
In 1911, the organization began construction of its imposing four-story headquarters, the National Grand Temple, at Ninth and Broadway, a project that was completed two years later. Booker T. Washington spoke at the grand opening before a multiracial crowd of 2,100 on Oct. 13, 1915. Two other buildings quickly followed, and the complex became the nerve center of a remarkable neighborhood.
“I look at that property as very special and sacred ground,” Hamilton says. “We have so many people with Arkansas roots who have done amazing things and continue to do amazing things. There have been all types of inventions and contributions and all kind of things that people generally don't know.
“I see it as a great representation of determination overcoming the odds, of excellence, a very special and important place.”
But few institutions can withstand the storms of time, and although the MTA reached international proportions, the Great Depression gradually cut out its heart. By the close of the 1930s, the MTA was gone. Over the decades, the grand building was used for a number of commercial purposes or just sat empty. In 1992, it was poised to face the ultimate indignity of being razed altogether to make way for a fast-food franchise.
Enter the grassroots advocacy group Society for the Preservation of the Mosaic Templars of America Building. The group’s tireless campaigning soldiered the cause all the way to the state legislature where, co-championed by the Legislative Black Caucus, it ultimately saved the building in 1996. The city of Little Rock purchased the building to preserve it and in 2003 turned it over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, which promptly committed nearly $9 million to renew the structure as a museum and cultural center.
Sadly, the original Grand Temple would not survive to host its reawakening, but was destroyed by an early morning fire during the renovation in 2005. The Department of Arkansas Heritage vowed to rebuild, and what stands today is a $7 million faithful recreation, right down to the horseshoe balcony ringing the third-floor auditorium. One other departure is the replacement of the original first-floor retail space by a free-admission museum tracking the African-American experience in Arkansas and providing gallery space for a full slate of temporary exhibits.
“Personally, I think the fire, though it seemed like such a tragedy initially, ended up being the phoenix moment, resulting in everything that we see today,” Hamilton says.
What Comes Next
A decade later, the MTCC is still finding ways to tell the story of the African-American experience as the apex of Little Rock’s golden triangle of black art, education, history and social consciousness – the other two points being Central High School and Philander Smith College. The MTCC hosts more than 30,000 guests a year to the museum and special events and seeks to illuminate unity and equality in an era where common ground often feels swampy underfoot.
Christina Shutt, executive director and Kansas City transplant, says a concise definition of the role and function of the MTCC is as tricky to craft as one for the multifaceted history and culture it enshrines.
“We’re a museum, so we tell the story of African-Americans here in Arkansas and we’re unique in that way because there aren’t many state museums that are dedicated to doing that in the country, maybe four or five,” she says. “But because our name encompasses the term ‘cultural center,’ we’re also this community gathering place for people.”
More than mere artifacts, the MTCC displays the breadth of culture, something more challenging to digest than that which matters only to the ages. Culture endures the past while occupying the present and looking – sometimes clear-eyed, sometimes furtively – to the future. It simultaneously defines one group while beckoning to others, constantly evolving unto and outside of itself. It’s the most complex element of the MTCC’s role in the community, and the most important, Shutt says.
“‘Cultural’ is a meaty word; it means more than just ‘museum’ on some level,” she says. “For this museum to be here and exist in this space, is claiming that. It is claiming that this art and history matter, that it’s worth not being relegated to the basements of museums, which is where it has been. It’s worth being on the wall and it’s a story that’s worth being told.
“So much of what we do is really validating people’s experience. We get people coming in here all the time who see their relatives’ picture on the wall. That’s the most surreal thing about working here; they’ll be like, ‘Oh that’s my grandmother on the wall, that’s my cousin on the wall.’ It’s still one of those things that blows my mind.”
As grand as the four-story structure is today, it only represents one-third of the MTCC complex and arguably the least historically significant. That honor would have to go to the State Templar Building just two doors south of the museum. Approaching its 100th birthday, the former hospital and nurses' school is among the last, if not the last segregated hospital building standing in the state. Other remnants, such as marble headstones bearing the MTA crest, a death benefit of MTA members, can be found here and again in Arkansas cemeteries.
And then there are darker images, namely the horrific 1927 lynching and mutilation of John Carter, a black man accused of assaulting a white woman and her daughter. The atrocity happened on the very corner where the MTCC now stands, Shutt points out, and is a vivid example of why accurate African-American history isn’t taught in most classrooms.
“I definitely think teachers need to be better equipped for doing that, for talking about a culture that is not of their own experience,” she says. “Some of the hurdles teachers experience, especially our non-black teachers, comes from, ‘I don’t know how to talk about it. I don’t know how to talk about segregation, I don’t know how to talk about racism.’ Because racism isn't just a historical word, it’s a current word.”
To help in this continuing educational process, the MTCC reaches out to teachers and hosts countless school groups every year. And it's about to undergo a major overhaul to its museum space with, in all, $3 million worth of improvements. Among these are planned upgrades to technology and exhibits including a greater emphasis on the contributions of African-American women.
For as exciting as all of that is, the MTCC’s true charge runs far deeper than acquiring a new coat of paint. As Hamilton points out, the organization’s resolve to broker unflinching dialogue is its true accountability and is paramount to helping seal the fractures, past and present, within the wider community.
“I think one of Little Rock’s fundamental problems is people just don't know each other,” Hamilton says. “To this day, there are some really deep wounds that still exist around a lot of the decisions that were made by city forefathers. I think the only way we can really start to bridge that and get into healing is to learn more about each other. Once you have that information, you can engage in conversations and hopefully work together to come up with collective solutions.
“If the broader community were aware of even a fraction of the history demonstrated through the MTCC, I think it would change some of the conversations, maybe raise more questions as to the ‘why’ of things. And I think the why matters.”