Black History Month dates to the early 1970s, but the contributions of African Americans to the history and culture of Little Rock date far beyond that. There are lots of different ways to explore African American history in Little Rock. The most notable is by tracing the route of the United States Civil Rights Trail, a multi-state trail of significant sights to the civil rights struggle. Little Rock is home to all six of the tour’s Arkansas destinations and they’re each worth a visit. 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 destinations, this high school was made famous in 1957 when nine African American students, later dubbed the “Little Rock Nine,” tried 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 systems of education for blacks and whites.
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 on the event through interactive exhibits commemorating the events and telling the personal stories of the Little Rock Nine. The high school is still operating today and is the only functioning high school located within the boundary of 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 that took place in 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 into 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 integration.
The Bates house and property were vandalized in several acts of anti-integration violence. Shots were fired through the home’s windows, and crosses were burned in the yard on two occasions. After the school board closed its high schools in 1958-59 to avoid integration, the Bates 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 premiere 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 constantly 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 issues of race, class and social justice.
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 story of the Mosaic Templars of America 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 African American culture from around the state through exhibits highlighting social organizations, African American entrepreneurs as well as integration.
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 that by visiting some of Little Rock’s black owned restaurants. Sim’s Bar-B-Que is the city’s oldest continually operating restaurant, having opened in 1937 when 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 special blend of herbs, spices and a few other secret ingredients.
If fish is more your thing, head to Lassis Inn. Lassis served their first meal around 1905 and have 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 looking for something sweet, Cocoa Belle Chocolates is the place for you. Chef Carmen Portillo studied chocolate making in Europe and came back to Little Rock to start her very own gourmet chocolate brand. You can get a taste for her treats by visiting Bella Vita Jewelry in the heart of downtown Little Rock.
Visit the Clinton Presidential Center
Explore the ways the Civil Rights movement impacted our 42nd President at the William J. Clinton Presidential Center. Exhibits chronicle the ways in which President Bill Clinton fought to increase civil rights both at home and around the world. Other museum highlights include a replica Oval Office and an exhibit chronicling pop culture of the 1990s.
While you’re there, visit 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 West Markham Street. New markers are added in a public ceremony each year. Eventually, the Trail will extend down West Markham Street and President Clinton Boulevard 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.