If kudzu could talk, a conversation with it would be something like asking Dr. Worthie Springer about his family history. Seventy-three years old, one of Little Rock’s leading black physicians — one who still works can to can’t most weekdays — Springer’s stories almost always lead to others, which lead to others, which can double back and fork and regroup a half-dozen times before he makes his point.
In between, you might get a history lesson on anything from the occupation of Little Rock during the Civil War, to why Orval Faubus wasn’t the racist history has painted him to be, to the mechanics of the 1931 Ford hotrod Springer used to race around the city as a teen-ager.
As important as his family is to the history of the Granite Mountain and Sweet Home areas southeast of the city, there’s a good chance you had never heard of the Springers until November, when the Clinton Presidential Center opened for business, and the normally low-key Springer name was at the center of a controversy that eventually — briefly — caught the national spotlight.
In the midst of the city-wide spiffying-up for company, the exit signs reading “Confederate Boulevard” on Interstate 440 near the airport came down, and others reading “Springer Boulevard” went up. City leaders said the name alteration had actually been on the books since the 1970s but that the timing of the sign change was something of a coincidence.
Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey eventually admitted that the alteration was made because officials realized the “Confederate Boulevard” sign was the city’s first impression on visitors headed in from Little Rock National Airport. The result was an almost immediate rolling of eyes, with many seeing the change as a rank whitewashing of Southern history and landmarks. With local Confederate-history buffs stirring the pot, the name change eventually made national news, including a scathing piece by Democrat-Gazette editorial page editor Paul Greenberg that was reprinted in papers across the country. As late as December, the Confederate-to-Springer change was referenced in an Associated Press story, this one discussing the effort to strike reminders of Confederate history from public places around the country.
(The AP article also was inaccurate, saying the street name had been changed for the library. Only the sign had been changed — and accurately at that. The freeway exits empty onto Springer Boulevard and have for 30 years. Confederate Boulevard begins a short distance to the north, as signs clearly indicate.)
For his part, Dr. Springer sees the name change and the resulting controversy pretty much the way he sees everything else — a part of the larger story that is the history of the name he bears. Instead of regarding it as a collision between black and white symbols, he falls somewhere in between. He had relatives — black, white and Cherokee — on both sides of the Civil War, and others who later worked at the Confederate Soldiers’ Home near Sweet Home — the structure, he said, which lent Confederate Boulevard its name.
He says that if anyone has reason to complain, it’s him. “I don’t care anything about Confederate Boulevard or whatever,” he said. “I have as much reason to care about it as anybody… but (the Confederate Soldiers’ Home is) no longer there, so what’s wrong with having it Springer Boulevard?”
The history of the Springer family in the Sweet Home/Granite Mountain area goes back as far as the Civil War itself. Dr. Springer traces his own roots back to Lydia Gilbert, his half-Irish, half-Cherokee great-grandmother, who came east from the Indian Territories to work as a domestic at the Old State House during the Civil War. Springer family lore says that Harris Flannigan, a Confederate officer who became the 10th governor of Arkansas, invoked a little executive privilege with Lydia during the dark days before the fall of Little Rock to Union forces, resulting in the birth of James Gilbert, Springer’s maternal grandfather. Settled in Sweet Home on land deeded her by Gov. Flannigan, Lydia eventually married a black man named Burton and had six more children. When the Confederate Soldiers’ Home was built outside Sweet Home in the years after the war, she worked there as a nurse. (Dr. Springer still owns a symbolic half-acre of the original Flannigan land in Sweet Home. Other parcels went to build the town’s fire station and community center.)
As for the other side of the family, it would be 40 more years before the Springers arrived in Central Arkansas. Originally from Alabama, the Springer family migrated to South Arkansas soon after the turn of the 20th century, settling near El Dorado. They’d probably still be there if not for the discovery of oil in the area, after which Dr. Springer said his grandfather, Horace Springer Sr., was driven off his property by land speculators.
“What they’d do to the blacks is, if you wouldn’t sell your land, they’d run you off,” Springer said. “If they couldn’t do that, they’d buy a piece of land next door to yours and drill tangentially and get your oil. They’ll get theirs. The Lord will take care of them, I’m sure.”
Horace Springer Sr. moved with his family to Little Rock, homesteading on a knoll near Granite Mountain. In 1923, Horace helped sell the first lots in the area to black families, with his son, Horace Springer Jr., eventually marrying into the Gilbert clan.
From there, the history of the Springers closely parallels the growth of the area. While much of the Springer family found work with the railroads, Dr. Springer said his father was something of an entrepreneur, always looking for another way to make a living.
With the help of his brothers, he eventually grew a bare lot on Confederate Boulevard into what Dr. Springer calls the city’s first “mini-mall,” with Little Rock’s largest black grocery store, a gas station, a shoe-shine parlor, ice house and the popular Springer Barbecue, which delivered as far away as downtown.
The popularity of the barbecue, Dr. Springer said, led to some early instances of integration. “We had as much white business as we did black in the diner,” he said. “People from Pine Bluff or wherever it was down the road, they’d come through there and they’d almost run into something looking to see the whites and blacks sitting in there together.”
The desire for more customers led the family to approach the city about extending the bus line up to the store. Before, Granite Mountain residents had to walk a mile or more from the Rock Island railroad tracks, where the bus stopped at the railroad’s Biddle Shops.
Since then, the Springer family has been instrumental in bringing services to the area, including getting city water for Granite Mountain. In the 1970s, Springer and his father successfully convinced the city to replace the rickety, 1918-era suspension bridge that led into the community. When the state Highway and Transportation Department planned to extend Interstate 630 through to the airport — cutting a swath through the black neighborhoods of Hanger Hill — Dr. Springer said it was he who first suggested the extension of I-30 instead, creating I-440 through mostly unpopulated areas near Fourche Creek — and leading, ironically, to the present-day furor over the sign change. (Dr. Springer had, he admits, an ulterior motive: His church had just been remodeled, and he didn’t want to see it razed for the construction.)
It was enough that in 1978, Little Rock City Director Lottie Shackelford suggested a name change for Confederate Boulevard.
“Lottie came to me and said, ‘How about naming Confederate Boulevard from the railroad tracks down to the city limits in your honor?’ ”
Always mindful of his family history, Springer suggested a change. “I said you can certainly name it after me, but let’s have it Springer Boulevard in honor of all the Springers, instead of my name like they [later] did with Daisy Gatson Bates.”
The name change was made, though Springer said confusion over where Springer Boulevard officially began and ended kept the signs on the freeway from being changed (he said he’d been thinking about going before the board to have the signs changed for some years now, but — working six and seven days a week up until recently — he hadn’t been able to find time).
As for the controversy over the sign change, Dr. Springer seems to think it’s a lot of fuss about a moot point. The Soldiers’ Home which gave Confederate Boulevard its name was razed in the 1940s, he said, and no matter which exit ramp you take coming off the freeway, a driver’s wheels will first touch pavement on legally designated Springer Boulevard (though traveling north will eventually lead you to Confederate Boulevard, and cemeteries with Confederate dead up the street). Citing his ancestor who fought for the South, he said he would concede to having Confederate Boulevard put back on the signs. As long as everybody knows who gets top billing.
“I have no qualms about it being Springer and Confederate if that will make folks happy,” he said. “But Springer needs to be larger up there, and Confederate down below.”