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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.”

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