Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


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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.


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Little Rock Look Back: Mayor Lottie H. Shackelford

While this headline may say “Little Rock Look Back,” Lottie Shackelford is still very much focused on the present and the future!

On April 30, 1941, future Little Rock Mayor Lottie Shackelford was born. Throughout her career in public service she has been a trailblazer.

Active in community activities and politics, she ran for the City Board in 1974 and lost.  But she was appointed to the Little Rock City Board in September 1978 to fill a vacancy.  This made her the first African American woman to serve on he City Board, and indeed on any governing board for the City (during Reconstruction, there were at least three African Americans on the City Council, but they were all men.) She was subsequently elected to a full-term on the City Board in 1980 winning 55% of the vote over three male candidates.

She was subsequently re-elected in 1984 (unopposed) and in 1988 (with 60% of the vote).

In January 1987, Shackelford became the first female mayor of Little Rock when she was chosen by her colleagues on the City Board to serve in that position. She was Mayor until December 1988.

From 1982 until 1992, she served as Executive Director of the Arkansas Regional Minority Purchasing Council.  She left that position to serve as Deputy Campaign Manager of Clinton for President.  She subsequently served on the Clinton/Gore transition team. She later served on the Overseas Private Investment Corporation from 1993 to 2003. She was the first African American to be in that position.

A graduate of Philander Smith College, she has also studied at the Arkansas Institute of Politics at Hendrix College and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Mayor Shackelford has also served on numerous boards including the Little Rock Airport Commission, Philander Smith College, Chapman Funds (Maryland) and Medicis Pharmaceutical Corporation (Arizona).  She has been the longest serving Vice-Chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Mayor Shackelford was in the first class of inductees for the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.  In 2015, she was inducted into the Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail.


Little Rock Look Back: President Thomas Jefferson

On April 13, 1743, Thomas Jefferson was born in Virginia.  Along with Benjamin Franklin, he was one of the first American multi-hyphenate Renaissance men.  Author, musician, inventor, diplomat, epicurean, architect, educator, and President. Certainly his writing of the Declaration of Independence was of paramount importance to the US, even if he had never served as President.

It was during his Presidency that Thomas Jefferson actively pursued the Louisiana Purchase which brought what is now Arkansas into the United States.  While he never visited the area, he did send explorers to chart out the Louisiana Purchase.  The subsequent surveying which took place during the Madison presidency was based on standards developed by Jefferson for the surveying of Ohio.

In Little Rock, Jefferson is remembered with Jefferson Elementary and Jefferson Street. He is also the eponym for Bill Clinton’s middle name.


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Women’s History Month – Janis Kearney, first presidential diarist

Janis Kearney is the only person to have held the title of U.S. Presidential Diarist. In 1995 she was appointed to that position by President Bill Clinton.

After graduating from the University of Arkansas, she was hired by the State of Arkansas as a program manager.  Nine years later, she became managing editor for the Arkansas State Press. She later purchased it from owner Daisy Bates.

In 1992, she took a leave from the paper to work on the Clinton presidential campaign.  Following the election, she worked in the transition office, the White House, and the U.S. Small Business Administration until her appointment as Presidential Diarist.

In 2001, she moved to Chicago and started working on a book, while also having fellowships at Harvard and DePaul.  In 2004, she founded Writing Our World Press and published her first book, Cotton Field of Dreams.  Her Clinton biography, Conversations: William Jefferson Clinton-From Hope to Harlem was published in 2006.  Since then she has also published a novel, a biography of Daisy Bates, and the second part of her memoirs.

 


Little Rock Look Back: President Clinton performs with Arkansas Symphony

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton addresses the audience after reciting Martin Luther King’s famous speech, ‘I Have A Dream’, to the music of Alexander L. Miller at Robinson Auditorium March 25, 2003 in Little Rock. (Photo by Karen E. Segrave/Getty Images)

On March 25, 2003, former President Bill Clinton took the stage of Robinson Center Music Hall to perform with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. Entitled “Let Freedom Ring – A Patriotic Celebration,” the evening was a joint fundraiser for the Symphony and the Clinton Foundation.

Before a packed house, Clinton narrated Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait which weaves excerpts from Lincoln speeches with Copland’s own unique classical take on American heartland music.  Clinton also narrated Let Freedom Ring, a symphonic setting by Alexander Miller of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

The evening also consisted of Broadway veteran and Little Rock favorite Lawrence Hamilton singing “Wheels of a Dream” from the musical Ragtime.  On Broadway and on national tour, Hamilton had previously sung the song.

The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra also performed An American in Paris by George Gershwin and “Jupiter” from The Planets by Gustav Holst.  This final selection was a tribute to the seven astronauts who had died in the crash of the space shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003.

David Itkin, who was then the musical director of the ASO, conducted the concert.