There are many different ways to celebrate Black History Month in Little Rock. While the month itself may have originated in the early 1970s, Black people's contributions to the history and culture of Little Rock date far beyond that. The most notable is by tracing the United States Civil Rights Trail route, a multi-state trail of significant sights relevant to the civil rights struggle. Little Rock is a "Top 10" destination on the tour and is home to all six of the tour stops in Arkansas. Little Rock's Black heritage doesn't stop there, however. Here are some of our favorite places to commemorate Black History Month in Little Rock from both on and off the trail.
One of Little Rock's most iconic sites, this school was made famous in 1957 when nine Black students, later dubbed the Little Rock Nine, became the first to desegregate the school. With the help of televised news, the story of these nine students garnered national and international attention. Little Rock came to symbolize the federal government's commitment to eliminating separate education systems for Black and white children.
The National Historic Site Visitor Center opened across the street from the school in September 2007 to mark the 50th anniversary of the school's desegregation and is one of the most-visited Little Rock landmarks. It offers insight into the crisis through interactive exhibits commemorating the events and tells the personal stories of the Little Rock Nine. The high school is still operating today and is the only functioning high school located within a National Historic Site.
See “Testament” at the State Capitol
"Testament" stands as a lasting tribute to the Little Rock Nine for their strength and perseverance in the name of equality. In bronze relief, the students stand forever on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol, gazing up at the office of the governor — the very seat of power that fueled the conflict and forged their remarkable futures.
The sculpture was the vision of John Deering, the chief editorial cartoonist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He sculpted the statues along with his wife, Kathy Deering, and studio partner, Steve Scallion. The life-size figures themselves bear witness to the struggles of 1957 and serve as a statement of the students' perseverance. Deering intended for observers to become virtual witnesses, imagining themselves amid the blur of protestors, reporters, and troops who surrounded the Little Rock Nine. When the sculpture was unveiled in 2005, the U.S. Postal Service also unveiled a commemorative stamp depicting the Central High crisis in its series of landmark civil rights events.
Tour the Daisy Bates House
Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP, served as a liaison between the local school board and the Little Rock Nine, speaking on behalf of the students. She was also responsible for arranging a multiracial group of ministers to escort the nine students to school on the morning of September 4, 1957. After the clash that day, Bates's house functioned as a meeting place and organizational post for the students and their parents. They met here on the morning of September 23; the new date set for the school's desegregation.
The home was vandalized during several hate crimes. Shots were fired through the home's windows, and crosses were burned in the yard on two occasions. After the Little Rock School Board closed its high schools in 1958-59 to avoid desegregation, the Bateses' home was the target of an incendiary bomb.
Today, the home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Tours are available but must be scheduled in advance.
Visit Hearne Fine Art and Pryamid Art, Books & Custom Framing
In 1988, Archie and Garbo Hearne combined their passion for African American culture and history with their entrepreneurial spirit to open Pyramid Gallery. In January 1989, Pyramid Gallery relocated from a 600 square foot storefront to a much larger venue in the Madison Guaranty Bank Building on Little Rock's Main Street. Over the next eight years, Pyramid Gallery and Books served as a community space, hosting book signings, art exhibitions and demonstrations, and other cultural and community enrichment programs. In 1997, nine years after establishing Pyramid Gallery and Books as the premier place for art by Americans of African descent in Arkansas, Archie and Garbo had the unique opportunity to design a completely new space within the Museum Center in the River Market District. In 2010, Hearne Family Practice and Hearne Fine Art opened its doors at 1001 Wright Avenue in the historic Dunbar neighborhood.
The gallery has overcome market stagnation and numerous adversities to solidify itself as a pillar within its artistic community and the art world at large. Its continually changing exhibits showcase works of art by artists from across the nation and is a go-to destination for local art lovers. While you're there, explore the bookshelves for insightful titles that delve deep into race, class, and social justice issues.
The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center (MTCC) was founded as the Mosaic Templars of America Center for African American Culture and Business Enterprises in 2001. It was created as a museum to honor the Mosaic Templars of America's story and all of Arkansas's African American history.
The museum is dedicated to telling the story of the African American Experience in Arkansas. The Center's name is taken from the Mosaic Templars of America, a black fraternal organization founded in Little Rock in 1883 whose headquarters sat on the prominent West Ninth and Broadway location. Like many businesses throughout the United States, the Mosaic Templars of America organization was forced out of business during the Great Depression.
The MTCC now preserves, interprets and celebrates Black culture from around the state through exhibits highlighting social organizations, entrepreneurs, and integration activists.
Grab a Bite to Eat
Exploring Little Rock's cultural and historic sites can make a person hungry, and there's no better way to rest and refuel than by visiting some of Little Rock's blackowned restaurants. Sim's Bar-B-Que is the city's oldest continually operating black-owned restaurant. In 1937, Allen and Amelia Sims opened up a restaurant and served bar-b-que with what became known as the world-famous Sim's Bar-B-Que Sauce: a unique blend of herbs, spices, and a few other secret ingredients.
If fish is more your thing, head to Lassis Inn. Lassis served its first meal around 1905 and has been producing some of Little Rock's best fish ever since. Much of the restaurant's décor has been untouched since the early 1930s, and the catfish and buffalo fish "ribs" have been menu staples for generations. If you're a history buff, it should be noted that Lassis Inn was a regular meeting spot for Daisy Bates, the Little Rock Nine and other local civil rights leaders. If you’re a foodie, you’ll enjoy knowing Lassis is Little Rock’s only James Beard award-winning restaurant, and one of only two in Arkansas.
Visit the Clinton Presidential Center
Though the Center is closed due to the pandemic, you can still visit its adjoining park grounds. While you're there, see the Anne Frank tree planted on the Center's ground. The tree has grown from a seed taken from the exact chestnut tree that Anne Frank mentioned in her diary as growing outside her window. Little Rock holds the unique distinction of being the only city in the world to be gifted two such trees from the Anne Frank Foundation.
While you're in downtown Little Rock, check out the Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail. It was created to acknowledge the sacrifices and achievements made by those who fought for racial and ethnic justice in Arkansas. The trail begins on the sidewalk outside the Old State House Museum at 300 W. Markham St. Markers extend down West Markham Street and President Clinton Avenue and will eventually lead to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. In 2016, the Trail won a Diamond Award from the Arkansas Historical Association for “honoring and increasing public awareness of the freedom struggle in Arkansas."
No matter where your journey of discovering Little Rock's history takes you, be sure to follow your path with the Arkansas Civil Rights History Mobile Tour app for your phone. It's available for both Apple and Android and is the perfect guide for your journey across town and through the decades.