Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


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Little Rock Look Back: MLK in LR

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Ernest Green, Dr. King and Daisy Bates share a relaxed moment — which was probably rare for the three in 1958

Today is the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday.  It is an apt time to think about Dr. King and Little Rock.

A friend of L. C. and Daisy Bates, he attended the 1958 Central High School graduation to witness Ernest Green receiving a diploma. Each senior only received eight tickets to the ceremony at Quigley Stadium. Dr. King was in the state to address the Arkansas AM&N (now UAPB) graduation.

His attendance was briefly mentioned in the local press, but there was no media photo of him at the ceremony.  The Little Rock School District limited the press to one Democrat and one Gazette photographer. Other press were limited to the press box.

Ernest Green has a photo of him with Daisy Bates and Dr. King (pictured on this entry).

In 1968, when Dr. King was assassinated, Little Rock did not see the unrest that many cities did.  Part of that was probably due to quick action by Governor Winthrop Rockefeller. The Governor released a statement fairly quickly expressing his sorrow at the tragedy and calling for a day of mourning. He also made the State Capitol available for the NAACP to have a public memorial, as well as worked with a group of ministers to host an interdenominational service.

Little Rock Mayor Martin Borchert issued a statement as well:

We in Little Rock are disturbed about the incident in Memphis. We are disturbed regardless of where it had happened.  Killing is not the Christian solution to any of our problems today.

In Little Rock, we feel we have come a long way in 10 years toward solving some of our problems of living and working together regardless of race, creed or color.

The city Board of Directors in Little Rock has pledged itself toward continuing efforts to make Little Rock a better place in which to live and work for all our citizens.

We feel the efforts of all thus far have proved we can live in harmony in Little Rock and are confident such an incident as has happened will not occur in Little Rock.  We will continue our most earnest efforts toward the full needs of our citizens.

The day after Dr. King was assassinated, a group of Philander Smith College students undertook a spontaneous walk to the nearby State Capitol, sang “We Shall Overcome” and then walked back to the campus.  President Ernest T. Dixon, Jr., of the college then hosted a 90 minute prayer service in the Wesley Chapel on the campus.

On the Sunday following Dr. King’s assassination, some churches featured messages about Dr. King.  As it was part of Holy Week, the Catholic Bishop for the Diocese of Little Rock had instructed all priests to include messages about Dr. King in their homilies. Some protestant ministers did as well. The Arkansas Gazette noted that Dr. Dale Cowling of Second Baptist Church downtown (who had received many threats because of his pro-integration stance in 1957) had preached about Dr. King and his legacy that morning.

Later that day, Governor Rockefeller participated in a public memorial service on the front steps of the State Capitol. The crowd, which started at 1,000 and grew to 3,000 before it was over, was racially mixed. At the conclusion of the ceremony, Governor and Mrs. Rockefeller joined hands with African American ministers and sang “We Shall Overcome.”

That evening, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral was the site of an interdenominational service which featured Methodist Bishop Rev. Paul V. Galloway, Catholic Bishop Most Rev. Albert L. Fletcher, Episcopal Bishop Rt. Rev. Robert R. Brown, Rabbi E. E. Palnick of Temple B’Nai Israel, Gov. Rockefeller, Philander Smith President Dixon, and Rufus King Young of Bethel AME Church.

Earlier in the day, Mayor Borchert stated:

We are gathered this afternoon to memorialize and pay tribute to a great American….To achieve equality of opportunity for all will require men of compassion and understanding on the one hand and men of reason and desire on the other.

Mayor Borchert pledged City resources to strive for equality.

Another Little Rock Mayor, Sharon Priest, participated in a ceremony 24 years after Dr. King’s assassination to rename High Street for Dr. King in January 1992.  The name change had been approved in March 1991 to take effect in January 1992 in conjunction with activities celebrating Dr. King’s life.  At the ceremony, Daisy Bates and Annie Abrams joined with other civil rights leaders and city officials to commemorate the name change.

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Little Rock Look Back: The Central High Chili Incident

Minnijean Brown Trickey & Dent Gitchel at 2006 chili cook-off (Richelle Antipolo/ Flickr)

On December 17, 1957, a chili bowl was dropped in the Central High cafeteria.

It was, of course, not just any chili bowl.  It was dropped by Minnijean Brown as she was being harassed by white students who were trying to make it difficult for her to navigate the cafeteria.

Balancing food on a cafeteria tray and maneuvering around narrow paths around chairs and tables can be difficult in the best of circumstances. But doing it when you are being harassed for the umpteenth time that day makes it even more of a challenge.

Reports differ as to whether she dropped the tray or let it slip. In the pandemonium of the moment, it may be six of one, half-dozen the other.  But what is not disputable is that the chili fell on a junior who was sitting at a table and not taking part in the harassment. That junior was future attorney and UA Little Rock Bowen School of Law professor Dent Gitchel.

While no one had stepped in to stop the pestering, after Minnijean had dropped the chili on Dent, officials swooped in and sent both students to the principal’s office.  Dent was sent home to change clothes.  Minnijean was suspended for six days.  This incident and suspension would be fodder for her foes who pressed for her eventual expulsion in February 1958.  (The student other student involved in that incident – a white female – was only suspended and later returned for the remainder of the school year.)

Minnijean and Dent went their separate ways.  While many knew about the chili episode, the name of the student who was on the receiving end had become forgotten.  It was not until many years later that his name was once again attached to it.  In 2005, he was named in an article in an historical journal.  By that time, he was a retired law school professor.  Later that year, he gave a brief interview to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about it.

In March 2006, the Central High Museum Inc. board organized a chili cook-off as a fundraiser.  Minnijean and Dent reunited for the first time since December 1957 to serve as co-chairs and judges of the cook-off.  The other judge was Central High principal Nancy Rousseau.  There were nine chilies made by Little Rock area celebrities:  Mark Abernathy of Loca Luna and Bene Vita, “Broadway” Joe Booker of Citadel Communications, Dave Williams of Dave’s Place, Max Brantley of Arkansas Times, Michael Selig of Vermillion Water Grille, Pamela Smith of KATV, Channel 7, Sanford Tollette of the Joseph Pfeifer Kiwanis Camp, Scott McGehee of Boulevard Bread Co. and state Sen. Tracy Steele.

Ten years ago – on the fiftieth anniversary of the incident — NPR did a story and interviewed by Minnijean and Dent.  In various interviews, Minnijean has commented that she told officials that day she knew that Dent was an innocent bystander.  In the few public statements he has made, Dent has commented that while he did not cause problems for the Nine, he also was not one of the very,very few white students who befriended them.  Today, they both focus their comments on the continued need for reconciliation as well as facing up to the issues in order to move forward.

So have a bowl of chili today. And think about how far we have come.  And how very far we still have to go.


Little Rock Look Back: J. N. Heiskell

At the age of 87, J. N. Heiskell in 1960.

John Netherland (J. N.) Heiskell served as editor of the Arkansas Gazette for more than seventy years.  He was usually called “Mr. Heiskell” by all, but a very few confidantes felt confident to call him “Ned.”

Mr. Heiskell is the person most responsible for Robinson Center Music Hall being located at the corner of Markham and Broadway.  As Chair of the Planning Commission and editor of the Arkansas Gazette he had twin bully pulpits to promote this location when those on the City Council (who actually had the final say) were looking at other locations.  He felt the location would help create a cluster of public buildings with its proximity to the county courthouse and to City Hall.  Mr. Heiskell finally succeeded in winning over the mayor and aldermen to his viewpoint.

He was born on November 2, 1872, in Rogersville, Tennessee, to Carrick White Heiskell and Eliza Ayre Netherland Heiskell. He entered the University of Tennessee at Knoxville before his eighteenth birthday and graduated in three years at the head of his class on June 7, 1893.

His early journalism career included jobs with newspapers in Knoxville and Memphis and with the Associated Press in Chicago and Louisville. On June 17, 1902, Heiskell’s family bought controlling interest in the Arkansas Gazette. Heiskell became the editor, and his brother, Fred, became managing editor.

Governor George Donaghey appointed Heiskell to succeed Jeff Davis in the United States Senate after Davis’s death in office. Heiskell served from January 6, 1913, until January 29, 1913, when a successor was chosen by the Arkansas General Assembly.  His tenure is the shortest in the U. S. Senate history.  His first speech on the Senate floor was his farewell.  He was also only the second US Senator to live to be 100.

On June 28, 1910, Heiskell married Wilhelmina Mann, daughter of the nationally prominent architect, George R. Mann. The couple had four children: Elizabeth, Louise, John N. Jr., and Carrick.

In 1907, he joined a successful effort to build the city’s first public library. He served on the library board from that year until his death and was issued the first library card.  He also served on the City’s Planning Commission for decades.  In 1912, he was instrumental in bringing John Nolen to Little Rock to devise a park plan.

In the paper and in his own personal opinions, he crusaded on a variety of progressive causes.  Perhaps the most famous was the Gazette’s stance in the 1957 Central High desegregation crisis.  It was for this effort that the paper received two Pulitzer Prizes.

Although Heiskell stopped going to the office at age ninety-nine, he continued to take an active interest in the newspaper. He began by having a copy of the newspaper delivered to his home by messenger as soon as it came off the press each night. Eventually, he switched to having his secretary call him daily at his home and read the entire newspaper to him. He operated on the premise that “anyone who runs a newspaper needs to know what’s in it, even to the classified ads.”

A few weeks after turning 100, Heiskell died of congestive heart failure brought on by arteriosclerosis on December 28, 1972. He is buried in Little Rock’s Mount Holly Cemetery.  Interestingly, he is buried in the same cemetery as two of his most notable adversaries: Governor Jeff Davis, and segregationist Congressman Dale Alford.

Mr. Heiskell donated his vast papers to UALR. They are part of the Arkansas Studies Institute collection. These papers give insight into not only his career as a journalist, but also his political and civic affairs.  Thankfully he saved much of his paperwork. Without it, much insight into Little Rock in the 20th Century would be lost.


Central to Creativity – Phyllis Brandon

Phyllis D. Brandon played a unique role in shaping and supporting Little Rock’s cultural life.  As the first and longtime editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette‘s High Profile section, she promoted cultural institutions, supporters and practitioners.

Since it started in 1986, being featured in High Profile has been akin to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.  It exposes cultural institutions and events to new and wider audiences.  There is no way to put a monetary measure on the support Brandon gave to Little Rock’s cultural life during her time leading High Profile from 1986 to 2009.  From 2009 to 2011, she served as editor of Arkansas Life magazine, again supporting and promoting cultural life.

With her unassuming manner, she coaxed stories out of interview subjects and captured photos which highlighted events.  A journalist since her junior high school days in Little Rock, Brandon has also been a witness to history.  As a recent graduate of the University of Arkansas, Brandon returned to her alma mater, Little Rock Central High, to cover the events in early September 1957 for the Arkansas Democrat.  Eleven years later, she was in Chicago for the contentious and violent 1968 Democratic National Convention as a delegate.

From 1957 until 1986, she alternated between careers in journalism and the business world, as well as being a stay-at-home mother.  Upon becoming founding editor of High Profile, she came into her own combining her nose for news and her life-long connections within the Little Rock community.  As a writer and photographer, she created art in her own right. A look through High Profile provides a rich historical snapshot of the changes in Little Rock and Arkansas in the latter part of the 20th Century and start of the 21st Century.


Central to Creativity – Bruce Moore

Today’s feature is not a Central alum or faculty member – but he has been an active supporter of Central High School and is looking forward to being the father of a Central High student in a few years.

Bruce T. Moore was appointed as Little Rock City Manager on December 17, 2002, after having served as Assistant City Manager since April 1999. Prior to that appointment, he served in a variety of capacities with the City of Little Rock including Assistant to the Mayor and Assistant to the City Manager.

Bruce is one of a very few people who worked on the 40th, 50th, and 60th anniversary commemorations of the 1957 integration of Little Rock Central High.  He served as Chair of the 60th anniversary activities.

As City Manager, Bruce is the principal adviser to the governing body on all operational matters pertaining to the overall direction and administration of municipal government overseeing nearly 2,500 employees and a budget of $222.6 million. In addition, he served as the lead City Staff person for the development of William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center and Park in downtown Little Rock.

Brucehas a Master of Public Administration degree from Arkansas State University and a Bachelor of Science degree from Henderson State University. He is a member of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), Arkansas City Manager’s Association (ACMA), immediate Past President of the National Forum of Black Public Administrators (NFBPA) Board of Directors, Chair of the Henderson State University Board of Trustees, Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and Downtown Little Rock Partnership Executive Board. He has been the recipient of the Just Communities of Arkansas Humanitarian Award, one of Arkansas Business’ “40 Under 40” and the United States Army Commendation Medal/Operation Desert Storm.

Bruce was selected by the United States/Japan Foundation as one of twenty Americans to participate in a two-year business and cultural exchange program with Japan. He also completed the Senior Executive in State and Local Government Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and is a graduate of Leadership Greater Little Rock. Bruce is Co-Chair of the Board of City Year Little Rock, and was recognized by City Year as the 2011 Red Jacket Ball honoree.


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Central to Creativity – Nancy Rousseau

Though not a graduate of Little Rock Central High School, Nancy Rousseau is a Central High Tiger through and through.

She has been principal of Little Rock Central High School since the summer of 2002. Born in New York, she graduated high school in Tenafly, New Jersey.  After attending Ohio University, she graduated from Adelphi University with a degree in English education.  Her first job was teaching in Port Washington, NY, where she won the “New Teacher of the Year” award.  After teaching in Midwest City, Oklahoma, she arrived in Little Rock in 1976.

From 1976 until 1986, she taught English at Pulaski Academy.  After receiving her master’s degree in educational administration from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, she was hired by the Little Rock School District as an Assistant Principal at Central High School.  From 1991 until 1998, she served in that capacity. During that time, she worked on the planning for the 40th anniversary of the integration of Central High by the Little Rock Nine.

In 1998, she became principal of Pulaski Heights Junior High School.  She led the school’s transition from a junior high to a middle school.  When the position of Central High School principal became open in 2002, she applied for the job.

Since returning to Central as its principal, Mrs. Rousseau has been a very visible champion of the school, its students, faculty and alumni.  She served as co-chair for the Central High Integration 50th Anniversary Commission.  During her tenure, the school’s physical plant has been upgrade and much of the historic façade and interior has been restored.  A Central High Alumni Association and a Tiger Foundation have been formed.  Through their effort, the arts, academics and athletics have been enhanced.

Mrs. Rousseau also participated in the planning for the 60th anniversary of the school’s integration.  She is one of a very few who worked on the 40th, 50th and 60th anniversaries.


Little Rock Look Back: Elizabeth Eckford

After 60 years, the most dramatic images of the 1957 crisis at Little Rock Central High School remain those of 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, being taunted as she walked through a hate-filled mob, on her way to school.  Today, Ms. Eckford recalls how difficult it was for her parents, Oscar and Birdie, to allow her to continue the struggle to integrate the Little Rock schools.

Born on October 4, 1941, she grew up in Little Rock.  Because all of the city’s high schools closed her senior year, Ms. Eckford moved to St Louis, where she obtained her GED. She attended Knox College in Illinois, and received her BA in History from Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.  While in college, Ms. Eckford became one of the first African Americans to work in a local St. Louis bank, in a non-janitorial position, and later she worked as a substitute teacher, in Little Rock public schools.

Ms. Eckford, a veteran of the U.S. Army, has also worked as a substitute teacher in Little Rock public schools, test administrator, unemployment interviewer, waitress, welfare worker, and military reporter.  Along with her fellow Little Rock Nine members, she is a recipient of the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal and the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal.  Together with one of her former tormenters, Ms. Eckford also received a Humanitarian award, presented by the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ), following their meeting 34 years after an apology.  The award recognizes forgiveness and atonement.  They talked to students for two years, and, together, attended a 12-week racial healing course.

Ms. Eckford has started to walk through the painful past in sharing some of her story.  She has said that true reconciliation can occur if we honestly look back on our shared history. She believes that the lessons learned from Little Rock Central High School must continue to be shared with new generations, reminding audiences that “the dead can be buried, but not the past.”  Ms. Eckford continues her interest in education by sharing her story with school groups, and challenges students to be active participants in confronting justice, rather than being passive observers.

Ms. Eckford lives in Little Rock, and is a probation officer for the First Division Circuit Court of Pulaski County.