Walking through Little Rock is like strolling through history. From the grounds of the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, where you can follow the footsteps of the bravest Arkansans, to the Historic Arkansas Museum where the traditions of the Quapaw, Osage and Caddo peoples are celebrated, we strive to keep our history in the forefront and let it guide us in the present. Sites like the William J. Clinton Presidential Library chronicle the spread of social justice around the globe, while, just a few blocks away, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center keeps alive the memory of the Black men and women who helped build Little Rock from the ground up.
One of the best ways to experience Little Rock’s history is by taking the Little Rock Civil Rights Tour. This self-guided journey through Little Rock’s past guides you through the halls of history and in the shadow of heroes.
The Presidential library of Bill Clinton resides within the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park. The 30-acre campus includes the Clinton Presidential Library, the offices of the Clinton Foundation, the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, and the full-service restaurant 42 bar and table. The library features exhibits that chronicle Bill Clinton’s presidency, focusing on expanding civil rights to peoples around the world. Exhibits also include exact replicas of the Oval Office and Cabinet Room.
The Historic Arkansas Museum interoperates early Arkansas history through preserving Little Rock’s oldest buildings, a medicinal herb garden, and modern exhibits. “Giving Voice” is a permanent memorial to the 138 enslaved men, women, and children who lived where the museum now stands. Changing exhibits in the museum’s seven galleries often include ones related to African American history and local Black artists.
The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center collects, preserves, interprets, and celebrates Arkansas’s unique African American political, economic, and social achievements from 1865 to 1950. The Center resides in the footprint of the original Mosaic Templars of America National Headquarters and Annex buildings, founded by a Black fraternal order that provided illness, death, and burial insurance during an era when few basic services were available to Black people. The permanent museum exhibits depict Little Rock’s historic West Ninth Street as a thriving commercial and social hub, focusing on Black entrepreneurship, the Templars organization, and the legacy of Black legislators. In addition to community educational programs, the Center offers a genealogy research room, a stunning art collection, and a well-stocked store. The Center’s third floor features a replica of the original Headquarters building auditorium and the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame galleries.
Established in 1845, First Missionary Baptist Church is one of the oldest Black congregations in Arkansas. The first church building was completed by 1847, with the current Gothic Revival building constructed in 1882. In 1891, more than 600 people gathered here to protest the state’s laws that required racial separation in passenger cars and separate waiting rooms in train stations. They marched from the church to the then state capitol building, now the Old State House Museum. In 1963, four months before his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Little Rock to give the church’s 118th-anniversary sermon.
Completed in 1918, Taborian Hall (originally Taborian Temple) stands as one of the last reminders of the once-prosperous, Black business and cultural district on West Ninth Street. West Ninth Street buildings included offices for Black professionals, businesses, hotels, and entertainment venues. In 1916, the Arkansas chapter of the Knights and Daughters of Tabor hired local Black contractor Simeon Johnson to enlarge an existing building to accommodate their activities, offices, and a ballroom. During World War I, Black soldiers from Camp Pike came to the Negro Soldiers Service Center at the hall, and in World War II, the hall was home to the Ninth Street USO, catering to Black soldiers from Camp Robinson. By 1936, the Dreamland Ballroom was a regular host to basketball games, boxing matches, concerts, and dances. As a regular stop for popular Black entertainers on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” Dreamland hosted greats like Cab Callaway, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Ray Charles, and Arkansas’s own Louis Jordan. Between the 1960s and 1980s, West Ninth Street declined, and many buildings were demolished. In 1991, Taborian Hall was renovated to house Arkansas Flag and Banner. Today, efforts are being made to restore Dreamland Ballroom to its original glory.
The Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail is an ever-growing collection of sites in Little Rock that were significant to the Civil Rights Movement. Created by the Anderson Institute of Race and Ethnicity at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the trail starts with sidewalk markers just outside the Old State House Museum and will eventually stretch all the way to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. Honorees have included sit-in participants and freedom riders, the Little Rock Nine — the first students to desegregate Little Rock Central High School, those responsible for desegregating downtown Little Rock, and professionals in the areas of healthcare, politics, law, and economic advancement.
Philander Smith College is Little Rock’s oldest historically Black educational institution. It was established in 1877 as Walden Seminary by the African Methodist Episcopal Church to educate ministers. Its name changed after an endowment was made in 1882 by the widow of Illinois philanthropist Philander Smith. In the 1960s, Philander Smith students participated in “sit-ins” at downtown lunch counters. Noted alumni include Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former U.S. surgeon general; professional athletes Elijah Pitts of the Green Bay Packers; Hubert “Geese” Ausbie of the Harlem Globetrotters; Milton Pitts Crenchaw, a Tuskegee Airman; James Hal Cone, a pioneer of Black liberation theology; Lottie Shackelford, former mayor of Little Rock; Al Bell, founder of Stax Records and former president of Motown Records; and Stephanie Flowers, Arkansas State Senator. The nearby Wesley Chapel has always been associated with the college’s activities. It was founded by the enslaved William Wallace Andrews in 1854 on land donated by his owner, U.S. Senator Chester Ashley. In 1864, parishioners celebrated their freedom with a “Parade of Emancipation.”
The construction of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School was completed in 1929, two years after Little Rock High School (now Little Rock Central High School). The building, modeled after the white high school, housed grades seven through twelve plus a junior college. Black students came from all over Arkansas to take advantage of its educational opportunities. When Horace Mann High School opened as a segregated school in 1956, Dunbar became a junior high school. In the 1930s, Charlotte Andrews Stephens, the first Black public school teacher in Little Rock, was on the faculty at Dunbar, completing seventy years of teaching with the district. In the 1940s, Sue Cowan Williams, English Department chair, lost her job when she sued the Little Rock School District for equal pay for black and white teachers.
In September 1957, Little Rock Central High School was at the center of international attention when Governor Orval E. Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine Black students from attending. President Dwight D. Eisenhower later federalized the National Guard and sent in federal troops to escort the students to class. The school became a crucial battleground in the struggle for civil rights. Dramatic media images of the conflict seared themselves into public memory. The Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site and Visitor Center opened in September 2007 to mark the 50th anniversary of the school’s desegregation. The interactive displays include interviews with the Little Rock Nine and historic video clips. The Center presents a broad view of civil and human rights struggles in the United States and around the world. Little Rock Central High School is the only functioning high school in the United States to be located within the boundary of a National Historic Site.
This was the home of L.C. and Daisy Bates, civil rights activists and co-owners and publishers of the Arkansas State Press newspaper. During the 1957 school desegregation crisis of Little Rock Central High School, the home functioned as headquarters for the Little Rock Nine, the first black students to attend the school. It was a refuge, a place to study and receive counseling to contend with the frequent harassment by white students and other staunch segregationists who demonstrated outside the school. Bates was also president of the Arkansas State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The Nine also used the home to meet with the NAACP legal team that included eventual Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. For taking a stand against segregated schools, L.C. and Daisy Bates had numerous objects hurled at their home during the school crisis and had several fiery crosses—an emblem of the white supremacist terror organization the Ku Klux Klan—burned on their lawn.
This monument honors the courage of the nine Black students enrolled at Little Rock Central High School who began the process of desegregating the city’s public schools in 1957. Located on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol, the memorial features bronze sculptures of the nine, along with plaques bearing quotations from each of them. Purposefully, they face the governor’s office window to serve as a constant reminder for whomever holds that office to always do what is morally just rather than what is politically expedient.
The Little Rock Nine are Ernest Green, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls.