Recently I had the opportunity to assist playwright, Mark Saltzman in researching African-American life in 1904 Little Rock. Fine tuning a play he had written I was to focus on social life, funeral traditions, foods, natural aesthetics like trees and vegetables that would be planted in a garden, and fun facts.
1904 was a very special time in the United States of America. Although the 13th amendment was enacted in 1865, purportedly ending slavery, in Little Rock and many other communities throughout the country laws were being created to segregate blacks from whites. Lynchings were rampant and widespread and sundown towns, places where blacks were not welcome after dark, were on the rise.
Nevertheless, the rhythmic quake of ragtime ushered in by Scott Joplin was being felt throughout the south. In Little Rock, there were three black colleges, Shorter, Arkansas Baptist and Philander Smith. West Ninth Street in downtown Little Rock had African American businesses like The Children’s Drug Store, a pharmacy owned by African American Frank Barbour Coffin, who was also a poet and The Mosaic Templars of America which provided financial, medical and social aid to African Americans in Arkansas and throughout the nation. In addition to its mutual aid, insurance and self help programs the Mosaic Templars also established a nursing school. Like Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue and Harlem’s 125th Street, African American beauty salons, pool halls, butchers, and restaurants were all found on Little Rock’s West Ninth Street.
Working on this project, the greatest boon for me was discovering the very special places and people who both documented and shared this information, this history with me. Here are some of them: Arkansas History Commission, Griff Stockley’s book: Ruled by Race: Black/White Relations in Arkansas from Slavery to the Present, Arkansas Studies Institute, Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, Philander Smith College – Gracie Carter, Librarian-Archives Department,The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.
“Be a history detective: it matters to me,” published in the Sync Weekly (April 1, 2009) highlighted this fun research opportunity and I hope inspired others to be history detectives…to ask questions and find answers.