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History of Ninth Street

Little Rock as the Nexus of Black Achievement in Arkansas

In Little Rock, it was a spirit or ‘consciousness’ within the black community and its leaders that signified an extraordinary success story; it was a ‘design for living and working’ that contributed to the success of the community; also the commitment of the leaders made the system work. This was visibly manifested through the Mosaic Templars and other groups.

As residents of downtown Little Rock and as employees working in businesses located in the 9th Street business district, black people had their first experiences as citizens participating in a new-age civic arena. It gave rise to a vigorous black social and economic district along 9th Street, and on all levels, even beyond Little Rock, it meant peerless achievement.

Knights of Tabor Structure
Group of black Little Rock fraternal leaders outside the original Knights of Tabor structure around 1905 before the organization expanded to the grand Taborian Hall at 9th and State. From the Blue Book, 1907.
Courtesy Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.

According to John William Graves, author of Town And Country: Race Relations In An Urban-Rural Context, Arkansas, 1865-1905, the total population of Little Rock was 12,380, with over 5,200 black people in 1870. Graves explains that this represents a 20% increase in black population from the 1860 census...Furthermore, he says that "while the percentage of black inhabitants varied somewhat after this time, blacks never constituted less than a third of the city’s population during the remainder of the nineteenth century."

In general, from the 1840s through the 1880s, the City Directory lists both black and white owned businesses in the center city area, though along 8th and 9th Streets in the center of the black community, residences were sprinkled throughout the emerging enterprise and social corridor. By the 1890’s, a residential neighborhood south of West 9th Street emerged, but the 9th Street corridor was still the epicenter of commercial, entertainment, religious, educational and social activity. The greatest period of growth for this area roughly spans the 1870s to the 1950s.

In the ‘Colored Business Directory’ of D.B. Gaines’ 1898 Racial Possibilities As Indicated By The Negroes Of Arkansas, the author documented that the number of black businesses located in Little Rock especially increased during the 1870s through the turn of the century. For example, among those ‘colored’ businesses and business people listed were sixty educators and teachers, six attorneys, five doctors, four newspapers, four schools, two colleges, one bank, many grocers and restaurants, and approximately forty churches of different denominations.

Many of these businesses and churches were based along the 9th Street corridor while many of the proprietors, other business people, church pastors, and parishioners made their homes in the immediate area.

Gaines’ 1898 directory, listed five churches with 9th Street addresses, including: Bethel A.M.E. at 9th and Broadway, Allison Presbyterian at 9th and Gaines, First Congregational at 9th and State, Mt. Zion Baptist at 9th and Cross, and St. Paul Baptist at 9th and Izard.

In the appendix section of E. M. Wood’s, The Blue Book of Little Rock and Argenta Arkansas, 1907, John E. Bush wrote a summary entitled ‘Relationship of the Two Races in Little Rock’. He noted that the City’s total population was approximately 60,000 - 70,000 people, and consists of approximately 15,000 Negroes. Bush emphasized that it is the prosperity consciousness and the relative success of the black community that encouraged larger support from the white community:

..."The white people, as a whole, take pride in encouraging and uplifting their brother in black, both by advice, their counsel, and money. The two races are living side by side, each striving as best it can to make the very best of citizens, and it is thus said of Little Rock, by those who are acquainted with the existing conditions, that it is one of the best cities in all of the country, and it is often denominated, "The garden spot of the world." Much of this kind feeling, Christian Spirit and brotherly love is brought about by the Negro attending strictly to his own business, his love of school and church, his industrious and sober habits. The Negroes in the State of Arkansas own $30,000,000.00 worth from real and personal property. For the year 1906 they paid into the State Treasury for taxes $312,000.00. In the city of Little Rock they own about $2,500,000.00 worth of property. It can thus be seen that they are a thrifty, prosperous people."
Ads from the 1928 'Arkansas Survey Newspaper' showcase the diversity of black businesses
Ads from the 1928 Arkansas Survey Newspaper showcase the diversity of black businesses along 9th St.
Courtesy Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.

Ninth Street was a city within a city. African Americans lived parallel to white society and didn’t need to frequent white businesses because they had everything they needed on 9th Street. The following graphic of a 1950 Sanborn Insurance map shows how 9th Street was intimately connected to other historic black organizations within the surrounding black business district. Philander Smith College, the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, and the United Friends Hospital were key institutions within that corridor. This separate "Negro World" illustrated the possibility of positive achievement in a racially divided state. This high level of self-sufficiency and community had not been achieved before or since the rise and fall of 9th Street.

Some of the businesses housed on this street included confectioners, delivery services, pharmacies/drug stores, grocery stores, jewelers, hotels, taxi companies, mortuaries, theaters, barber and beauty shops, newspaper publication offices, auto repair shops, tailoring-cleaning and pressing shops, service stations, restaurants, print shops, and athletic centers. There were jobs to be had and services to be rendered. Segregation resulted in racial solidarity and a separate black economy, which benefited Arkansas’s black population tremendously. This business center was vibrant, bustling, and complete; and it offered a sense of security to the black population. Though documented history is incomplete, tax records, Little Rock City Directories, Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, oral history, artifacts, documents, photographs, publications and other database information point to a need for this economic history to be collected and shared.

The Mosaic Templars’ economic self-help principles prompted the development of a black insurance company, health and medical facilities and training a number of black physicians, dentists, and lawyers. The emergence of black professionals in this self-contained community created opportunities and short-term gain for individuals in the black community. However, a closed market in which black business people did not have to fully compete with whites provided economic gain for many but lacked sustained growth. Segregation and racial prejudice caused limited capital and access to goods. It was often impossible to compete with larger white-owned stores and over-all economic growth was negatively affected.

Picture of the 1942 New Years party of the 21 Night Hawks, an African American Male Society Club. 923 West 9th Street. Courtesy of Archie Moore Private Collection; Little Rock, AR.
Picture of the 1942 New Years party of the 21 Night Hawks, an African American Male Society Club. 923 West 9th Street.
Courtesy of Archie Moore Private Collection; Little Rock, AR.

Fraternal organizations not only added to the economic health of the black community, but they also influenced the social life. These organizations, often called "secret societies", may be roughly divided into two classes: (1) the old line societies such as the Prince Hall Masons, Odd Fellows, and the Knights of Pythias and (2) the benevolent societies such as the Mosaic Templars, Royal Knights of King David, United Order of Good Shepherds, Independent Order of St. Luke, Royal Circle of Friends of the World, the Knights and Daughters of Tabor; and many more.

The Masonic lodges, including Mosaic Templars’ Building and Taborian Hall, provided settings for dances or balls, meetings, conventions, ball games, concerts, musical entertainment, school and other social activities.

Restaurants, social clubs, varied recreation centers, and hotels enriched the social lives of blacks. In fact, the relationships of people, organizations, and businesses created a web that merged the cultural components of black life. Life on 9th Street was very similar to life in a predominantly black society on islands southeast of our country and other majority black populated areas. The flavor was rich! The barber and beauty shop served as places to exchange information and pass on beauty and fashion ideas. The rich food smells and selections threaded their way into the souls of those who frequented the restaurants, thus making soul food a cultural phenomenon that continues. Racial pride, the freedom to be and live indeed reflected that on the 9th Street. corridor, "all were created equal and had the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Justice was a temporary reality.

The balls and dances were grand. The black servicemen danced and socialized during scheduled USO sponsored entertainment hours in the Taborian Temple. The adult clubs added to the flavor of nightlife on 9th Street. The Monarch, Waiters, Cavaliers, Flamingo, Diplomatic, and other clubs were places where people gathered to dance and enjoy cocktails, musical entertainment, and the company of friends and associates. When running errands, the black men and women of Little Rock would walk miles out of their way to see what was happening on 9th Street. They were immersed in a culture that provided comfort and a sense of belonging. "We had to see and be seen by walking through 9th Street - going and coming, Ellen Carpenter, who was born and spent her youth along the corridor, remembered.

In the 1940s and 1950s, many nationally renowned groups performed at the Taborian Temple’s Dreamland Ballroom. Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Al Hibbler, B. B. King, and local groups like the Lloyd Armon Band and Chester Lane and His Yellowjackets were huge drawing cards. Music and musicians figured majestically in the forefront of the 9th Street commercial center and in Little Rock. Local dance bands and national megastars rocked the Dreamland Ballroom, and later, the Robinson Auditorium, affirming the black experience and transcending racial divisions.

Red's Pool Hall and the Gem Theatre were popular destinations on 9th Street.  Courtesy of Tom Dillard Private Collection, Butler Center for Arkansas Studies
Red's Pool Hall and the Gem Theatre were popular destinations on 9th Street.
Courtesy of Tom Dillard Private Collection, Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.

The numerous churches located along this corridor not only took care of the spiritual welfare of blacks but also provided important services. Churches were key institutions in the black community. They did more to help maintain a sense of self-worth among its members than any single institution. Seeds of hope were planted and nourished by the worship experiences, the strong invisible support, the inspirational singing, the preaching, and the opportunities to serve as leaders. Religious activities were core to the existence and forward movement of blacks.

The Phyllis Wheatley YWCA emerged as a highly respected institution that shaped and influenced untold numbers of girls, women, and residents in the black community. Elizabeth Stephens-Thornton and Amelia Bradford Ives were among its early local organizers. The early years had a pattern of drawing leadership from the better-educated, better-off class of women and lighter skin blacks. This prejudicial barrier was broken as the years progressed.

The YWCA became the focal point of entertainment and activities for women of color. There were active Y-teen groups, parties, teas, banquets and other activities. Camping activities at Camp Clearfork, the only camp that would allow blacks to utilize facilities, took large numbers of YWCA teenaged girls until the facility was demolished for freeway construction. Unfortunately, all of its (Phyllis Wheatley’s) history, memorabilia, artifacts, and historical records were destroyed and discarded. However, the great impact and memories still live in the hearts and minds of many YWCA participants and their children who still live today.

Federated clubs of the National Association of Colored Women established a group of charity clubs that met in the YWCA. The Francis Harper Charity Club, The Sunshine Charity Club, and Provident Relief Charity Club were all established and held their meetings and activities in the YWCA. Those clubs still exist but are dying. There is even talk of merging since such few members are left in each.

Education links such as the Black Arkansas Teachers’ Association (ATA) held statewide meetings in the Mosaic Templars Building, Mt. Zion Church and other places on the 9th Street Corridor. Arkansas Teachers Association’s early president, Dr. T.W. Cogg, occupied office space in the building owned by Bishop Claiborne. The ATA later built offices in a professional building on Wright Avenue Street.

Numerous positive characteristics of African American culture that emerged and potential exhibition themes include business and economic development; artistic, literary, and musical traditions; ethnically distinct patterns of communication and expression; effective survival skills, including networks of mutual assistance; an ethic of generosity; alternate or parallel institutions, such as churches and clubs; adaptable household and kinship forms; and strong spiritual beliefs. Bringing these experiences to the visitors will leave no doubt in their minds of the existence of a vibrant culture.

The death of a way of life for black people in Little Rock and Central Arkansas occurred when 9th Street was cleared of its businesses and residents. It is critically important that this historical story be told completely and as humanely as possible for the enlightenment of those who are directly and indirectly affected by what many black residents feel was the calculated demise of this community. The far-reaching influence of this culture and its impact on past, present, and future generations presents an exciting challenge for those who would develop and implement these plans.
History of Ninth Street

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