Templars back in business 

After 16-year effort, black history museum opens.

No one who was at the dedication — or re-dedication — of the Mosaic Templars building on that Saturday morning last month will forget Ellen Turner Carpenter's remark at the ribbon cutting. “We made it,” she said. “We made it. We made it. We made it.”

The Mosaic Templars of America, a black fraternity turned insurance business, made history in Arkansas when it built the three-story Grand Temple in 1913 at Ninth and Broadway. Ninth Street was where the African-American community made it — where black-owned theaters, hotels, restaurants, barber shops, clubs, funeral homes set up shop with financial assistance from one another; where black doctors and dentists and preachers tended to the Little Rock's black population.

And finally, Carpenter, 92, a charter member of the small group of preservationists who fought to restore the Grand Temple, made it, living to see the Mosaic Templars rise, literally, from the ashes of a 2005 fire and become the state's first museum to focus on the African-American experience in Arkansas.

Some 3,000 folks turned out at the 1913 dedication of the original building to hear Booker T. Washington speak, and the same number showed up Sept. 18 to tour the new Templars Cultural Center. “The magic was back,” said John Cain, the man who spearheaded the movement to preserve the Templars' building back in 1992, an effort that started with private fund-raising, had city involvement for a period of time and was finally realized when the Department of Arkansas Heritage took over.

The jewel of the museum — both technologically and in content — is design firm Quatrefoil's exhibit on Ninth Street, itself once the beating heart of Little Rock's African-American community. Its rise and fall is told with photographs, oral histories and a large interactive screen that, with a touch, can display the history of addresses on Ninth over the 100-year period 1870-1970. For example: In 1893, one can learn, 712 W. 9th St. was the office of Dr. Warren J. Bruce, a graduate of Meharry Medical College in Tennessee. In later incarnations, it was Tucker's Restaurant and finally the Gem Theatre, which opened in 1944 to show such films as “Mr. Washington Goes to Town” with “an all-colored cast.” The building — like many of those on Ninth Street and the surrounding neighborhood — was demolished in 1975 to make way for Interstate 630.

In videos, Little Rock residents recall the lights and bustle of Ninth Street, the music of Art Porter Sr. at the Club Diplomatic, and the slightly dangerous reputation the street earned. They bitterly recall the decision of the city's white leadership to build the interstate through the district, which cost black residents their homes, businesses and social core.

Intriguing factoids, artifacts and photos sprinkled throughout the museum make visitors want to dig deeper, such as the blowup of an 1866 photograph from Harper's Weekly of the predecessor to the Ninth Street district, the “Negro refugee settlement” known as “Blissville”; the reference to D.B. Gaines' book “Racial Possibilities as Indicated by the Negroes of Arkansas”; a picture of a social club called the “21 Nighthawks” celebrating New Year's Eve on Ninth Street; the reproduction of Little Rock's “Redevelopment Plan” of 1952, the first stirring of the urban renewal movement that would clear neighborhoods and put up housing complexes.

On this reporter's tour of the museum, Templars building and grounds coordinator Kenneth Brown stood before three panels on the 1927 lynching of John Carter and noted that his uncle — Hollis Williams — was one of Little Rock's first black officers, hired after the lynching to patrol Ninth Street. Lynching, the first black police force ... there is much to learn about the state's black heritage. Templars has “started the conversation,” director Constance Sarto said.

Some who've visited the museum have complained about the barbershop exhibit and references to beauty parlors in the space on black entrepreneurs, calling them stereotypical occupations. But Cain, who regularly visited Ninth Street in his childhood — going to the Gem Theater with the Junior Deputy program to hear Jackie Robinson, getting his hair cut, buying his first pair of tailor-made trousers — said, “Fact is it was a major part of everyday life. There were more barber shops on that street … I could come up with a list of 10 or 12.” Curator and assistant director Heather Zbinden said the first exhibits of the museum should be seen as “broad brush strokes” to sketch the picture of black history.

While there are few overt references to racism's ugliest moments — with the significant exception of the reference to the 1927 lynching, which took place on the corner just outside the building — racism is the frame through which black history is understood. “It is not a civil rights museum,” Cain said. “It's more about accomplishment.”

It is startling to realize that at the same time the vile Little Rock mob was hanging and shooting Carter at Ninth and Broadway, the Mosaic Templars' insurance business was at its height. “The overriding message,” said Sarto (whose husband, John Bush, is the great-grandson of the Templars' founder), “is that all of [the successes] happened in spite of segregation.”

The Templars Cultural Center also features a spacious and surely popular exhibit on Dunbar High School, complete with old photographs of sports teams.

An auditorium, with a horseshoe-shaped balcony in gleaming wood and a pressed tin ceiling, is a smaller replica of the original in which Washington spoke, on the third floor. It is available to the public as rental space. Outside it is an exhibit, designed by noted artist Henri Linton, about the members of Arkansas's Black Hall of Fame.

On the first floor are classrooms — the organization has been going to schools with programs on the Templars; now they can come to the museum. There is also the Bush-Remmel Genealogical Research Room (available by appointment), and a gift shop selling art, books and jewelry by Arkansas artists and Afro-centric gifts.

Sarto wants the public to know the Templars museum is Arkansas history, not just black history. “It is everyone's cultural center.”



Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Leslie Newell Peacock

  • Coming to McLeod: Hursley and Simmons, land and dreamscapes

    Heads up for Thursday, Oct. 27: Matt McLeod Fine Art Gallery opens "Landscapes/Dreamscapes: At the Crossroads of Observation and Memory," an exhibition of drawings and paintings by Little Rock artists Jeanie Lockeby Hursley and  Dominique Simmons. 
    • Oct 21, 2016
  • Good Weather, outdoors and in (Elliott Earls)

    If you read this week's Arts and Entertainment feature on Good Weather Gallery, you are probably wanting to know a little bit more about the show opening tomorrow, Oct. 22: Elliott Earls' "Death of a Salesman."
    • Oct 21, 2016
  • White Water gets Southern Salted

    Lauren McCants, the Southern Salt Co. food truck founder and chef, is now serving food at the White Water Tavern Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday. On the menu: hamburgers and cheeseburgers (of course) as well as deep fried pork tenderloin sandwiches, deep fried chicken sandwiches, a smoked bologna and over-easy egg sandwich (real good, she says), chicken nachos and a special, like coconut curried chicken. There are vegetarian options, as well: Deep-fried tofu sandwiches, prepared with avocado and like a fish taco; and sweet potato and avocado tacos.
    • Oct 21, 2016
  • More »

Most Shared

Latest in Top Stories

  • Good for the soul

    The return of Say McIntosh, restaurateur
    • Jun 1, 2010
  • Robocalls are illegal

    Robocalls -- recorded messages sent to thousands of phone numbers -- are a fact of life in political campaigns. The public doesn't like them much, judging by the gripes about them, but campaign managers and politicians still believe in their utility.
    • May 31, 2010
  • Riverfest winds down

    With Cedric Burnside and Lightnin' Malcolm, Steve Miller Band, Robert Cray, Ludacris and more performing.
    • May 30, 2010
  • More »

Visit Arkansas

Five Fun Fall Activities

Five Fun Fall Activities

Autumn temps are perfect for outdoor activities

Event Calendar

« »


2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30 31  

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: Faith of our felons

    • He's a monster with monsters who aid his unholy lust

    • on October 22, 2016

© 2016 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation