Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


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Little Rock Look Back: Clinton Center opens in 2004

wjc library openingIt has been thirteen years since the Clinton Presidential Center opened on a wet, cold Thursday.

The days leading up to it has been glorious.  And while the weather may have literally dampened spirits a bit, it was still an important day for Little Rock and Arkansas.

The events leading up to the opening included a concert by Aretha Franklin with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and an appearance by Senator John Glenn at the Museum of Discovery.  Events were hosted by the Arkansas Arts Center, Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Historic Arkansas Museum, and Old State House Museum.  There were scores of receptions and parties as Hollywood, New York, and DC descended on Little Rock.

November 18 dawned rainy and cool.  As the day continued on the precipitation continued while the temperature did not warm up.  Years of planning for a grand opening ceremony came down to this.  But at the appointed time, festivities began.

On the site of an abandoned warehouse district and unofficial dump which had previously been a train station, many leaders of the free world were gathered.  They rubbed shoulders with thousands of Arkansans from probably every county in the state.

It had been seven years and eleven days since Bill Clinton had announced the site of his presidential library.  It had been five years since artifacts and articles started arriving from Washington DC in Little Rock.  There had been lawsuits, threats of lawsuits, the threat of a Counter-Clinton Library, and countless meetings.

After speeches from Presidents Carter, Bush 41 and Bush 43, remarks from President Clinton and then-Senator Clinton (who was made even wetter by water pouring off an ill-placed umbrella), and even a musical performance by Bono and The Edge, Chelsea Clinton turned over the ceremonial key from the Clinton Foundation to the National Archives to officially open the Clinton Presidential Center.

In his capacity leading the Clinton Foundation, Skip Rutherford oversaw the planning for the Clinton Library and the grand opening festivities.  He, along with the foundation’s Executive Director Stephanie Streett, oversaw a phalanx of volunteers and staff to anticipate every detail.  The 1,000 days countdown sign that had been on the construction site (the brainchild of Tyler Denton) finally reached 0.

Isabelle Rodriguez, Shannon Butler, Mariah Hatta, Jordan Johnson, Lucas Hargraves, and Ben Beaumont — among others — had been putting in twelve plus hour days for months on end to get ready for the opening.  City Manager Bruce T. Moore led a team of City officials who had assisted on the planning and execution of the site preparation and making sure Little Rock was ready to welcome the world.  Moore and City Director Dean Kumpuris had been appointed by Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey to lead Little Rock’s efforts to land the library.  After Clinton’s announcement of the site, Dailey, Kumpuris and Moore continued to work together to ensure the library would be successful.

While the weather on November 18, 2004, may have been a disappointment, the people who were gathered knew they were witnesses to history.  And thirteen years later, is a day people still talk about.

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Little Rock Look Back: Bill Clinton announces LR as site for his library

Refuse on the site where the Clinton Center would be built

On November 7, 1997, President Bill Clinton announced his intentions to locate his presidential library in Little Rock at the end of a warehouse district.

The Little Rock City Board met in a special meeting that day to rename part of Markham Street, which would lead to the site, as President Clinton Avenue.

While the announcement was met with excitement in many quarters, there were still some skeptics who had a hard time envisioning a presidential library and park in the middle of a wasteland worthy of a T. S. Eliot poem.

There would be many hurdles between the November 1997 announcement to the December 2001 groundbreaking. But for the moment, City of Little Rock leaders, celebrated the achievement.  Then Mayor Jim Dailey had appointed City Director Dean Kumpuris and City employee Bruce T. Moore to lead the City’s efforts.  Moore and Kumpuris worked with Skip Rutherford and others to narrow the potential sites.

In September 1997, the Clintons were in town for the 40th anniversary of the integration of Central High School.  They surprised Kumpuris and Moore with a decision for a Sunday afternoon visit to the warehouse district proposed site. Secret Service would not let the limousine drive in part of the property, so the Clintons, Moore, Kumpuris, and Rutherford walked up a path to the roof of the abandoned Arkansas Book Depository.  It was there that the Clintons could see the Little Rock skyline which would be visible from the library.

Of course by the time the library had opened in November 2004, the Little Rock skyline was different. Spurred on by the library, several new highrises had been constructed in downtown.


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Little Rock Look Back: Sixty Years of the Little Rock Nine

Sixty years ago today the Little Rock Nine entered Central High School and stayed. On one hand, this brought to the end a nearly month long standoff between segregationists and those who wanted to obey the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision.

In the bigger picture, the struggle did not end that day.  Throughout the remainder of the school year, the Little Rock Nine were subjected to threats, isolation and hostility.  Outside of the school, while the crowds may had dispersed after September 25, the raw feelings did not subside.

This was evidenced by the fact that the following year the high schools were closed to avoid having them integrated.

But September 25, 1957, was an historic day in the United States. Under guard of members of the 101st Airborne Division of the Army, the Little Rock Nine were escorted into Central High School. This action by President Dwight Eisenhower was the result of the intrusive efforts of Governor Orval Faubus who had used the Arkansas National Guard to keep the nine students out.

The City of Little Rock was largely a bystander in this issue. The form of government was changing from Mayor-Council to City Manager in November 1957. Therefore Mayor Woodrow Mann and the entire City Council were lame ducks. Mann, whose son was a senior at Central, tried to focus on keeping the peace in Little Rock. Most (if not all) of his Council members sided with the Governor.

Congressman Brooks Hays, a Little Rock resident, had tried to broker an agreement between the President and the Governor but was unsuccessful.  Following that, Mayor Mann was in discussions with the White House about the ability of the Little Rock Police Department to maintain order.  Finally, in the interest of public safety, the President federalized the National Guard and removed them. This paved the way for the Army to come in.

Though the school year was not easy, the nine youths who became known worldwide as the Little Rock Nine were finally in school.  They were Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton, Governor Mike Huckabee and Mayor Jim Dailey, famously held open the doors of Central High for the Little Rock Nine on the 40th anniversary.  Ten years later, Clinton, Huckabee and Dailey returned joined by Governor Mike Beebe and Mayor Mark Stodola to host the 50th anniversary events.

Today, President Clinton was once again at Central.  This time he was joined by Governor Asa Hutchinson and Mayor Stodola.  Two people who have played parts in organizing all three of these commemorations are City Manager Bruce T. Moore and Central High Principal Nancy Rousseau.  Others, such as Skip Rutherford and Annie Abrams have participated in all three commemorations.

In light of its role in history, the school is a National Historic Site, while still functioning as a high school.


Little Rock Look Back: Ernest G. Green

Ernest G. Green is the Managing Director of Public Finance for Lehman Brothers in Washington, D.C.  Featured in the 2006 list of Black Enterprise Magazine’s “75 Most Powerful Blacks on Wall Street”, Mr. Green has served as senior investment banker on transactions for such key clients as the City of New York, State of New York, City of Chicago, Port of Oakland, City of Atlanta, State of Connecticut, Detroit Wayne County Airport, Denver Airport, and the Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority.

Mr. Green served as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employment and Training during the Carter Administration.  President Clinton appointed him to serve as Chairman of the African Development Foundation.  Secretary of Education, Richard W. Riley, appointed him Chairman of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Capital Financing Advisory Board.

Born in Little Rock, on September 22, 1941, Mr. Green was the first African American to earn his high school diploma from Central High School. At the age of seventeen he was awarded the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, as one of the Little Rock Nine. In 1995, he was awarded the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award.  Mr. Green is also a recipient of the Urban League’s Frederick Douglass Freedom Medal, and the John D. Rockefeller Public Service Award. On November 9, 1999, with the Little Rock Nine, he was presented by President Clinton with the Congressional Gold Medal.

Several books, movies and documentaries have chronicled Mr. Green and his eight classmates’ historic year at Central High School in Little Rock — the most recent being the “Ernest Green Story”, produced and distributed by the Walt Disney Corporation.

Mr. Green holds a B.S. in Social Science and Masters in Sociology from Michigan State University, and honorary doctorates from Michigan State University, Tougaloo College, and Central State University.  He currently serves on the Board of Directors of Fisk University, Quality Education for Minorities (QEM) Network, Clark Atlanta University Board of Trustees and the African American Experience Fund Board of Trustees among other distinctions.

Mr. Green and his wife Phyllis live in Washington, D. C.  He is the proud father of Adam, Jessica and McKenzie Ann.


Little Rock Look Back: Mahlon A. Martin

On July 19, 1945, future Little Rock City Manager Mahlon A. Martin was born in Little Rock.

After graduating in 1963 from Horace Mann High School, he attended Philander Smith College.  (He had received a baseball scholarship to Grambling, but chose to remain in Little Rock to be near his ailing grandmother.)  Martin graduated from Philander Smith in 1967 with a degree in business administration.

After working in the private sector for two years, Martin was hired by City Manager Jack T. Meriwether to work for the City of Little Rock in 1969 after the City had received a Model Cities grant.  Martin started working with community organizations and then became promoted to the City’s recruiting officer.

In 1972, he was named to leadership posts at the four-county Central Arkansas Manpower Program.  Three years later, he returned to the City of Little Rock to work on the staff of City Manager Carleton McMullin.  In 1976, Martin was named Assistant City Manager for Little Rock.

Martin left City Hall in 1979 to become a top executive at Systematics, Inc.  However, his stint in the private sector was short-lived.  In 1980, the City Board of Directors asked him to come back and be Little Rock’s sixth City Manager.  At thirty-four, he was one of the youngest chief administrators of a major city in the country and the first African American City Manager for Little Rock.

In 1983, Governor Bill Clinton asked him to join the state of Arkansas as the Director of the Department of Finance and Administration.  He was the first African American to lead that or any major Arkansas state department.  Throughout his tenure with the State, he oversaw numerous initiatives to restore the state to sound financial footing.

Martin joined the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation as president in 1989.  He held that position until his death in 1995.

The name Mahlon Martin lives on in a son and grandson named after him, in an apartment complex on south Main Street, in a street in Clinton Presidential Park, and in the City of Little Rock’s Employee of the Year award.  The latter was created by City Manager Bruce T. Moore in 2004.  At the time Moore noted that Martin had been so popular while City Manager, “It was said you could criticize the Razorbacks to a City of Little Rock employee, but you better not say anything bad about Mahlon Martin to them.”

In 2001, Mahlon Martin was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.  A decade later, the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies created a fellowship in his memory.  It supports research and programming in the field of public policy in Arkansas.  In 2015, he was included in the Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail.


Happy 90th to former LR Mayor Buddy Benafield

Future Little Rock Mayor James Weldon “Buddy” Benafield was born on July 5, 1927 in Coy, Arkansas.  As a child he spent part of his time chopping cotton.  He graduated from England High School and then served in the U.S. Navy.  Following his stint in the military, he enrolled in Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas).

After college he returned to England.  From 1967 to 1974 he served as Mayor of England.  While in England, he also worked to establish a hospital there. While he was Mayor, Benafield also served as a legislative aide to Governor Dale Bumpers.

After moving to Little Rock, Benafield served as legislative aide to Governor Frank White.  He had been a donor to former Governor Bill Clinton, who had been defeated by White. Though a staunch Democrat, he remarked to the media at the time that he had been a friend of White’s and never declined a Governor’s request for help.

Long active in Democratic politics, he had served as Secretary of the State Democratic Party.  (One of his daughters, Dawne Benafield Vandiver has carried on the family tradition serving in several leadership positions in the State Democratic Party.  Most recently she was Executive Director of the party.)

In January 1982, Benafield was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Little Rock City Board of Directors. He ran for election to a full term in November 1982 and was reelected in November 1986.  From January 1983 to December 1984, Benafield served as Mayor of Little Rock.

After leaving the Little Rock City Board in January 1991, he has remained engaged in civic matters.  He served a term on the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Commission.  He was first appointed in January 1993 by Gov. Jim Guy Tucker to fill out the remainder of Rodney Slater’s term. Slater had resigned to to take a job in the Clinton Administration in Washington DC.  In 1995, he was reappointed, this time to a full ten year term.  This was only the second time a member of the Highway Commission had been reappointed.

Buddy Benafield is the only Little Rock Mayor to have also been a mayor of another Arkansas city.  He continues to be involved in farming and a variety of business ventures and has maintained his interest in politics.


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.