Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


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Little Rock Look Back: Opening of the Arkansas Arts Center!

On Saturday, May 18, 1963, amidst fanfare and fans of the arts, the Arkansas Arts Center officially opened its doors.  (This was thirty-five years and three days after the Fine Arts Club had opened the first permanent art gallery in Arkansas in the Pulaski County Courthouse).

The dedication ceremonies on May 18 featured U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright (who was in the midst of championing what would soon be known as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts), Congressman Wilbur Mills, Governor Orval Faubus, Little Rock Mayor Byron Morse, Winthrop Rockefeller and Jeanette Rockefeller.

On Friday, May 17, 1963, film star Gordon MacRae performed two separate concerts in the theatre space.  There were other assorted small events and tours on May 16 and 17.

The culmination of the weekend was the Beaux Arts Bal.  This black tie event, featured Oscar winner Joan Fontaine, cartoonist Charles Addams (creator of The Addams Family), James Rorimer of the Metropolitan Museum, and Dave Brubeck.  Chaired by Jeane Hamilton, the event set a new standard for events in Little Rock.

Among the exhibits at the Arkansas Arts Center for the grand opening was a special exhibit from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York entitled Five Centuries of European Painting.  In Little Rock for six months, this exhibit featured works by El Greco, Titian, Claude Monet, Odilon Redon, Pierre Renoir, Paul Signac, Edgar Degas, and Paul Gauguin among many others and spanned from the fifteenth century Early Renaissance era to the nineteenth century.

Prior to the opening, a profile on the Arts Center in The Christian Science Monitor touted the building as one of the first regional arts centers in the country to be completed. Benefiting from national ties of the Rockefeller family, the events in May 1963, set a high standard for the institution, and for other regional art museums.


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Little Rock Look Back: Brown v. Board of Education

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.  

This landmark United States Supreme Court case declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. The decision overturned 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which allowed state-sponsored segregation in public education. In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the Warren Court stated “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”  The results of this decision would be tested on the streets of Little Rock in 1957.Th

The Court’s fourteen page decision did not spell out any sort of method for ending racial segregation in schools, and the Court’s second decision in Brown II, muddied the waters even further by only ordering states to desegregate with the oxymoronic “all deliberate speed.”

Brown v. Board grew out of a class action suit filed in Topeka, Kansas, by thirteen African American parents on behalf of their children.  Mr. Oliver Brown was the only male. He was chosen to be the lead plaintiff, because it was felt that the court would look more favorably on a male plaintiff.  The District Court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing Plessy v. Ferguson.  The court did note that segregation had a detrimental effect on African American students, but that since the Topeka schools were substantially equal, there was no relief to be granted.

When it was appealed to the Supreme Court, Brown v. Board was combined with four other cases from other jurisdictions.  All were NAACP sponsored cases.  Thurgood Marshall was the lead attorney for the plaintiffs.  In December 1952, the Justice Department filed a “friend of the court” brief and argued, in part, that racial segregation had a detrimental effect on US foreign policy. Communist countries were using racial separation in anti-US propaganda.

In the spring of 1953, the Supreme Court held the case.  Unable to decide the issue, they reheard it in the fall of 1953.  They then put special emphasis on the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

During deliberations, Chief Justice Earl Warren insisted on a unanimous ruling to avoid massive Southern resistance.

Since the Topeka schools were found to be substantially equal, the Court’s ruling was important in noting that the harm came from the separation.  While there was no doubt that many (if not most) African American public schools were inferior in infrastructure and supplies to white schools – that in and of itself was not the issue.

School leaders in Little Rock started perusing the Brown decision and considering how the Little Rock School District would comply.

 


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Little Rock Look Back: Elvis headlines Robinson

Photo by Wayne Cranford

After two visits in 1955 where he was down on the bill, Elvis Presley made his third and final appearance at Robinson Auditorium on May 16, 1956.  This time he was the star and Robinson was packed. The tickets were $1.50 in advance at Walgreens and $2.00 at the box office.

The ads featured 8 great acts in “his” variety show which consisted of the Jordonaires; Rick and Emil Flaim and their orchestra; vocalists Frankie Conners and Jackie Little and comedian-magician Phil Maraquin. A second show was added at 9:30 p.m. to accommodate the ticket demand.

About 30 minutes late, due to a missed flight, Elvis appeared on stage in a purple blazer and started singing “Heartbreak Hotel.”  The crowd rushed the stage. Little Rock police officers were able to control them eventually and get the teenagers back to their seats.  While the crowd was impressed, the police officers were less so.  One of the patrolmen told the Arkansas Gazettereporter: “I wouldn’t know him if I saw him. And I wouldn’t be here unless I was being paid.”

Disc jockey Ray Green recorded the concert that night.  Copies of the concert on CD (which also includes an interview with Presley) are prized possessions of Presley collectors.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has a special section on its website containing quotes from some of the concert attendees.


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Little Rock Look Back: J. V. Satterfield Jr.

SatterfieldOn May 14, 1902, future Little Rock Mayor John Vines Satterfield, Jr. was born in Marion.   He grew up in Little Rock and Earle. J.V. was a star quarterback for the Earle football team and is featured in a painting of that team by respected painter Carroll Cloar.

Following high school, J.V. taught (including, much to his family’s amusement, a course in penmanship) and coached and sold Fords.  He then moved to Little Rock and sold insurance and later securities.  In 1931 he opened his own business; that same year he built a house at 40 Beverly Place in Little Rock, which would serve as his home until his death.

J. V. Satterfield was elected to serve as Mayor of Little Rock in 1939 and served one term, until 1941.  He was credited with saving the City from bankruptcy because of his fiscal policies. Among his efficiencies were the creation of a central purchasing office and using grass moved from the airport to feed the Zoo animals.  Though as a private citizen he had voted against the creation of a municipal auditorium in 1937, Mayor Satterfield fought valiantly to ensure that Robinson Auditorium opened to the public once he took office.  Shortly after he became Mayor, it was discovered that there were not sufficient funds to finish the construction. After the federal government refused to put in more money, he was able to negotiate with some of the contractors to arrange for the building to be completed. He also oversaw a successful special election to raise the money to finish the project.

Satterfield was a staunch supporter of the airport and worked to expand it.  He would serve as the chair of the first Municipal Airport Commission.  He also established the Little Rock Housing Authority (on which he would later serve on the board).  Mayor Satterfield also served as President of the Arkansas Municipal League in 1941.

Following the outbreak of World War II, Satterfield enlisted in the Army and was given the rank of a Major. He later was promoted to a Colonel and worked in the Pentagon during its early days.

In the late 1940s Satterfield became president of a small Little Rock bank called People’s Bank.  The bank changed its named to First National Bank when it moved into new offices at 3rd and Louisiana in 1953.  By focusing on smaller customers and courting corporate customers, Satterfield grew the bank into one of the state’s largest banks.  He maintained his desk in the lobby of the bank so he could interact with the customers and ensure they were having a positive experience.

Due to chronic health issues, Satterfield retired from the bank in 1964. He died in March 1966.


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Mother’s Day Look Back: Little Rock’s first mother – Eliza Cunningham

Eliza CunninghamEliza Wilson Bertrand Cunningham was the First Lady of Little Rock.  She literally was the first lady and the founding mother.

She became the first permanent female resident when she joined her husband Matthew Cunningham in Little Rock.  She gave birth to Chester Ashley Cunningham, the first baby born in Little Rock, as well as several other children with Cunningham.  When he became the first Mayor of Little Rock, she was the first First Lady of Little Rock. They hosted the first Little Rock Council meeting at their house on what is now the block downtown bounded by Third, Main, Fourth and Louisiana Streets.  Her son Charles P. Bertrand, from her first husband, later served as Mayor of Little Rock, making her the only woman to be married to a Mayor and be mother of a Mayor.

Born in Scotland in December 1788, she emigrated with her parents to the United States as a young girl.  In 1804 or 1805, she married a French businessman, Pierre Bertrand in New York City.  She lived in New York City, while he traveled to his various business ventures.  He never returned from a trip to his coffee plantation in Santo Domingo and was presumed to have died in 1808 or 1809.  She and Bertrand had three children, Charles Pierre, Arabella and Jane. (Jane may have died in childhood, because records and lore only indicated Charles and Arabella coming to Little Rock with their mother.)

Eliza married Dr. Matthew Cunningham in New York City.  He later moved to Saint Louis and settled in Little Rock in early 1820.  Eliza and her two children came to Little Rock in September 1820.  In 1822, she gave birth to Chester Ashley Cunningham, the first documented baby born in Little Rock.  (There are unsubstantiated reports that at least one slave child may have been born prior to Chester.)  She and Matthew also had Robert, Henrietta, Sarah and Matilda.  The latter married Peter Hanger, after whom the Hanger Hill neighborhood is named.

Dr. Cunningham died in June 1851.  Eliza died in September 1856. They and Chester (who died in December 1856) are buried in the Hanger family plot at Mount Holly Cemetery.


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Little Rock Look Back: Dr. William Grant Still

Long known as the Dean of African American composers, Dr. William Grant Still was a legend in his own lifetime.

Dr. Still, who wrote more than 150 compositions ranging from operas to arrangements of folk themes, is best known as a pioneer. He was the first African-American in the United States to have a symphonic composition performed by a major orchestra. He was the first to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the US; the first to conduct a major symphony in the south; first to conduct a white radio orchestra in New York City; first to have an opera produced by a major company. Dr. Still was also the first African-American to have an opera televised over a national network

Dr. Still was born May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi to parents who were teachers and musicians. When Dr. Still was only a few months old, his father died and his mother took him to Little Rock. Inspired by RCA Red Seal operatic recordings, his musical education began with violin lessons.  He graduated from Gibbs High School in Little Rock.

After his studies at Wilberforce University and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, he played in orchestras and orchestrated for various employers including the great W. C. Handy. For several years he arranged and conducted the “Deep River Hour” over CBS and WOR.  He also played in the orchestra for the 1921 musical Shuffle Along, which was the first Broadway musical to feature an all African-American cast and writing team.

In the 1920’s, Still made his first appearances as a serious composer in New York. Several fellowships and commissions followed. In 1994, his “Festive Overture” captured the Jubilee prize of the Cincinnati Symphony orchestra. In 1953, he won a Freedoms Foundation Award for “To You, America!” which honored West Point’s Sesquicentennial Celebration. In 1961, he received honors for this orchestral work, “The Peaceful Land”. Dr. Still also received numerous honorary degrees from various colleges and universities, as well as various awards and a citation from Arkansas Governor Dale Bumpers in 1972.

In 1939, Dr. Still married journalist and concert pianist Verna Avery, who became his principal collaborator. They remained together until Dr. Still’s death in 1978.  In a proclamation marking the centennial of Dr. Still’s birth, President Bill Clinton praised the composer for creating “works of such beauty and passion that they pierced the artificial barriers of race, nationality and time.”

In 1995, Dr. Still was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.  In 2016, the ballroom at Robinson Center was named in his honor.


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Little Rock Look Back: President Harry S. Truman

On May 8, 1884, future US President Harry S. Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri.

Truman spent most of his youth on the family farm.  Serving in World War I, he saw combat in France and rose to the rank of Captain.  After the war, he returned to Missouri and became involved in Democratic Party politics.  After serving as a county official, he was elected US Senator in 1935 backed by the powerful Kansas City Pendergast machine.

In 1941, he headed a Senate Committee which exposed corruption and fraud in wartime contracts.  He also worked to show he was not just a puppet of the Pendergast machine (which was crucial once Pendergast went to prison).  In 1944, Democratic leaders were trying to knock the incumbent Vice President, Henry Wallace, off the ticket as FDR’s running mate.  Wallace was viewed as too far to the left.  Truman was a compromise candidate and was chosen to serve as FDR’s running mate.

He took office as Vice President in March 1945.  When President Roosevelt died in April 1945, they had spent little time together.  He oversaw the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan in his hopes of ending World War II with fewer soldier casualties.

Following the war, he supported the creation of the United Nations, sought to contain communism through the Truman Doctrine, and worked to rebuild Europe.  In his quest to stem the spread of communism, he involved the US in the Korean War.

Domestically, he struggled with civil rights issues (including integrating the military) and labor issues (including the threat to draft striking railway workers into the military). His election in 1948 for a full four-year term is often seen as the biggest upset in US Presidential political history.

At the time he became President, Truman was still living in a small apartment with his wife and daughter.  Though they lived in the White House for a bit, they later vacated it for the Blair House so that the structure could be completely renovated.

By the approach of the 1952 presidential election, Truman’s popularity had waned again.  He half-heartedly ran in the New Hampshire primary because he did not like any of the candidates currently in the field.  After finishing second to Sen. Estes Keafauver, he announced he would not be a candidate.  He left office in 1953 and returned to Missouri.

From 1953 onward, he served as the senior statesman and father confessor of the Democratic Party.  Many political leaders made pilgrimages to visit him.  In 1965, President Johnson signed the bill establishing Medicare at the Truman Library with President and Mrs. Truman in attendance.

He died on December 26, 1972, after having been admitted to the hospital earlier in the month for pneumonia.

Truman made two visits to Little Rock while President.  In June 1949, he attended an Army division reunion and spoke at the dedication of War Memorial Park.  (He also spoke twice at Robinson Auditorium during this visit.) In 1952, he visited Little Rock while in the state to speak at the dedication of Bull Shoals Dam and Norfork Dam.