1945 Commissioning of USS Little Rock

Following the 1944 launch of the USS Little Rock, there were still several months before the ship was ready to officially join the US Navy fleet.

On June 17, 1945, the USS Little Rock was officially commissioned and joined the fleet.  While Europe had surrendered by this time, the war in the Pacific continued.

The commissioning took place at the US Naval Yard in Philadelphia.  At the start of the ceremony, an invocation was given by the Ship’s Chaplain, Lt. C. L. Dickey.  Then Rear Admiral Draemel, the Commandant of the Fourth Naval District gave an address.

The simultaneous raising  the ensign, jack and commissioning pennant were accompanied by the National Anthem.  This marked the actual moment the ship joined the fleet.  Captain W. E. Miller, then ceremonially reported to the Commandant that the ship had been placed into commission.  He was then formally placed in command of the USS Little Rock.

The First Watch was set, followed by an introduction of Little Rock Mayor Dan T. Sprick.  Captain Miller then made an address, and Chaplain Dickey provided a benediction. The crew of the USS Little Rock was dismissed, followed by “Retreat” on the bugle. The program ended with tea being served to the crew in the respect messes.

Any member of the original crew  during the ceremony was issued a card indicating he was a Plank owner.  This entitled him to ownership of one of the planks on the weather deck of the ship.

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Remembering LR Mayor John Widgery

On June 17, 1802, future Little Rock Mayor John Widgery was born in Portland ME to Mr. and Mrs. William Widgery.  His father died in 1804.  At the age of 11, John Widgery entered Bowdoin College.  He was the youngest student admitted to the college.

Widgery studied law with his uncle, Nathan Kinsman.  He married Ann L. Woodward, who was from Boston MA.  According to Bowdoin College records, he later “wandered away into the Southwest” spending time “in the Cherokee country.”

Widgery spent most of his adult life in the south. For a time Widgery was clerk of the Mississippi House of Representatives.  He then moved to Little Rock prior to 1840.  By 1840, he was Recorder for the City of Little Rock.

According to media reports at the time, several tradesman groups encouraged Widgery to run for Mayor in January 1841.  He did run but lost to Rev. Samuel H. Webb.  The next year, Widgery ran again and this time was elected Mayor.  He took office in January 1842.  On May 24, 1842 he resigned from office.  He later served as Secretary of the Arkansas Senate (where he made $8 a day when the Senate was in session).

Widgery eventually settled in St. Louis.  He later returned up north.  He died on August 2, 1873 in Portland ME and is buried there.  He and his wife did not have any children.

No known painting or photograph of Mayor Widgery exists.

Little Rock Look Back: First Little Rock High School graduation

The Sherman School at 7th and Sherman Streets, which contained Little Rock’s first high school. It is now the site of the Kramer School apartments.

On June 13, 1873, the first Little Rock High School graduation ceremony took place. Newspaper accounts do not indicate how many were in the class.

The ceremony took place at the Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church, North, which was located on Main Street in the 400 block.  (Part of the Little Rock Technology Park is now on a portion of that site.)

Miss Eva K. Smith, the class Salutatorian was unable to attend and bring opening remarks due to illness.  However, several other speeches by students were given including “Earth’s Battlefields” by Mattie A. Chrisman, “Arkansas, Her Past and Future” by Marcus Mentzer, “Turning the Leaves” by Mary W. Smith, and “Water” by Ella Wood.  Mr. Mentzer also delivered a valedictory address which was praised by those in attendance, according to newspaper accounts.

School Board President Frederick Kramer also made remarks as did the school’s principal, Mr. Helm, and General A. W. Bishop.  Mr. Kramer also passed out the diplomas.

While education opportunities had been offered in Little Rock since the 1820s, these had been with private tutors or private academies.  A one room public school was created in the 1850s and governed by the City of Little Rock. No records exist of anyone graduating from that school.  In February 1869, the Arkansas General Assembly authorized the creation of school districts in cities as separate entities.  Little Rock voters approved the establishment of a Little Rock public school system.  Classes began in the autumn of 1869.

The Sherman School was originally built as one of Little Rock’s elementary schools but also contained the first high school classes.  In 1885, high school classes moved to 14th and Scott Streets to the Scott Street School. In 1890, they moved to the Peabody School at Capitol and Gaines Streets where they were located until the new Little Rock High School opened in 1905. This building was constructed on the site of the old Scott Street School. Today it is the East Side lofts. It served as Little Rock High School until 1927 when what is now Little Rock Central High School opened.

In the 1860s and 1870s, African American students studied at Capitol Hill and Union schools, which both contained elementary and secondary classes. By the early 1900s, Gibbs High School had opened as a new elementary and secondary school for African American students. It would serve as the City’s African American high school until Dunbar opened in 1929.

70 Years Ago Today – War Memorial Park dedicated by President Truman with foreign affairs address

Though President Truman was in Little Rock for a military reunion, he did conduct some official business while here.  In his Presidential role, he spoke at the dedication of War Memorial Park on June 11, 1949.

(It is sometimes erroneously reported that he dedicated the stadium.  That took place in September 1948, at a Razorback game with former Razorback player and future Lt. Governor Maurice “Footsie” Britt delivering the keynote.)

President Truman’s address took place inside War Memorial Stadium at 2:30 p.m..   It was not a brief dedicatory speech, but instead was a lengthy treatise on foreign affairs.  The address was carried live on nationwide radio (though some radio networks opted to broadcast it later).  The text of his address can be found here.

The stadium was by no means full.  A major reason for that was that many thousand individuals had turned out to witness a parade downtown in which President Truman marched along side Governor Sid McMath.  The parade was in conjunction with the military reunion.  Given the June heat in Arkansas (in which parade spectators had been standing for several hours) and the difficulty of getting from the parade route to the stadium, most (if not all) parade spectators opted for skipping the presidential address.

Before the parade, President Truman (who was still riding high from his upset victory in the 1948 election) was asked by a local reporter if he would run in 1952. He refused to answer stating that the national media would think he had planted the question with a local member of the press.

Prior to the name War Memorial Park, the land had been known as Fair Park.  It was a former location of the State Fair.  In the 1930s, it had briefly been known as Overman Park in honor of then-Mayor R. E. Overman.  The City Council had named it for him as a tribute to his work on a variety of projects. When he displeased them, they reversed their decision and renamed it to Fair Park.

FDR in ARK for State Centennial

On June 10, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Little Rock as part of a day-long series of appearances in conjunction with the Arkansas Centennial celebration.  (The actual statehood dates is June 15.)

His day started in Memphis before he journeyed by train to Hot Springs. After events there that morning and lunch at Couchwood (his longtime friend Harvey Couch was chairman of the Centennial celebration).  He then traveled to Rockport and Malvern for appearances before arriving in Little Rock.  He made his remarks at the State Fairgrounds in a temporary structure called “Centennial Stadium.”

The street he traveled to get to the fairgrounds had been renamed Roosevelt Road in February 1935 in anticipation that he would visit Little Rock in 1936 as part of the state centennial and would likely use that route.  The street was officially named Franklin D. Roosevelt Road.  But given the unwieldy street signs that would be required to bear that name, the ordinance was amended to note that the signs would bear the name “Roosevelt Road.”

Following his remarks, which officially kicked off the six month Arkansas Centennial celebration, he retired to Senator Joseph T. Robinson’s house on South Broadway.  He dined with the Robinsons in the house before departing with the Senator at 8:45 that evening.  The Presidential entourage then journeyed to Texas for the next day.

70 Years Ago Today – Truman in LR

Outside of his capacity as President of the United States, Harry S. Truman visited Little Rock on June 10, 1949, for the annual reunion of the 35th Division, his World War I unit.  He was joined on this trip by members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation and his sister.

Upon arriving in Little Rock, President Truman gave brief remarks at a welcome reception inside Robinson Auditorium.  He also spoke at a reception at the Hotel Marion and following a ball given at Robinson Auditorium.

In all of his June 10th remarks, President Truman spoke of the hospitality he always enjoyed in Little Rock. He discussed visits he had made over the years, including a stay at the Hotel Marion while in Arkansas campaigning for Senator Hattie Caraway.

At the ball, he commented on how, as a Baptist, he had not learned how to dance.  He then joked that however he had picked up other habits which were perhaps not in keeping with his Baptist faith.

At one event, President Truman asked all in attendance to shake hands with their neighbors as a way to shake his hand by proxy.  He explained that on inauguration day, he had shaken over 25,000 hands. Given the fact that he signed 600 documents a day, regardless whether he was in Washington or not, he felt he could not keep up with shaking hands all day.

As he concluded the day, he previewed that he would be giving a national address the next day while in Little Rock.  In his usual, self-deprecating way, Truman remarked “…if you want to hear the President of the United States you had better come out to the stadium tomorrow, and I will tell you something that will be good for your souls.”

The texts of all of his remarks while in Little Rock can be found here.