Remembering Joe T. Robinson

Eighty-two years ago today, on July 14, 1937, U.S. Senator Joseph Taylor Robinson died in his apartment in Washington D.C.

The Senator’s wife, Ewilda, was in Little Rock making preparations for a trip the couple was to take. (She was informed of her husband’s death when her sister-in-law called to express condolences. No one had yet notified her in Little Rock.) Following his demise, Mrs. Robinson went to Washington to accompany her husband’s body back to Arkansas.

As the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Robinson was usually President Franklin Roosevelt’s point person to shepherd legislation on Capitol Hill.  The Democrat’s 1928 Vice Presidential nominee, Senator Robinson was particularly close to FDR. He had successfully steered numerous pieces of New Deal legislation through Congress.  However, at the time of his death, the Senator was facing an uphill climb trying to build consensus on the President’s unpopular Court Packing scheme.

The Senator was honored with a memorial service in the Senate chambers on Friday, July 17.  President Roosevelt and the cabinet joined members of the senate on the floor in what was described as a state funeral without pomp.  Mrs. Robinson sat with her brothers and two nephews as well as Bernard Baruch and Arkansas Power & Light’s Harvey Couch, who were Senator Robinson’s closest friends.  Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the many crowded in the senate galleries observing the service.  Following the service his body remained in the chambers until it was transferred to a train to make the journey to Little Rock.

The funeral train bore his body, his family, 50 senators and over twenty congressmen. It reached Little Rock around 8am on Sunday the 19th.  From there, Senator Robinson’s body was taken to his house on Broadway Street until noon.  It subsequently lay in state at the Arkansas State Capitol until being escorted by military to First Methodist Church.

1,500 people packed the church a half hour before the service began. The sun shone through the windows onto the flag-draped coffin as Rev. H. Bascom Watts led the service. Among the pallbearers was former Vice President Charles G. Dawes. Governor Carl Bailey of Arkansas was joined by Governors Richard Leche of Louisiana and E.W. Marland of Oklahoma.

As the funeral procession reached Roselawn Cemetery, thunder echoed. The skies which had alternated between sun and rain that day, returned to rain. A deluge greeted the end of the service and sent visitors hurrying for shelter at the end.

Five months after her husband’s death, Mrs. Robinson participated in the groundbreaking of the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium.  The ceremony was the first time it was announced that building would be named in his memory.   On a plaque inside that building today, a quote from President Roosevelt stands as a further testament of the importance of Senator Robinson to the US.  Taken from President Roosevelt’s remarks upon learning of the Senator’s death, the plaque reads, in part, “A pillar of strength is gone.”

Seventy-eight and a half years later, the church was the site of the funeral of longtime US Senator Dale Bumpers in January 2016.

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Flag Day 2019

Flags mark graves at Mount Holly Cemetery

Flag at the Clinton Presidential Center

Flag at Robinson Center

The red, white and blue stand out against the night sky and limestone of the Arkansas State Capitol.

The flag on the Capital Hotel balcony at Christmastime

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.

One Rice tore down a Little Rock auditorium; his grandson helped restore another one

On June 7, 1920, the Little Rock City Council finally authorized the demolition of Little Rock’s 1906 temporary auditorium.  The structure had originally been built as a skating rink which, when chairs were added, could be used for public meetings.  Since the mid 1910’s, the City Council had discussed tearing it down over safety concerns.  But since Little Rock had no other structure as a substitute, the Council kept delaying the decision.

J Rice 1920In 1920, though there was not alternative space available, the Council decided that the structure had to come down.  So City Engineer James H. Rice was authorized to have the building removed.

JimRice RobinsonToday, Rice’s grandson, Jim Rice, is the COO of the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau.

In that capacity he  oversaw the renovation of Little Rock’s 1940 municipal auditorium – Robinson Center Performance Hall.

Robinson Auditorium cornice installed on June 1, 1939

Eighty years ago today, on June 1, 1939, the cornice was installed on Robinson Auditorium.

This granite slab noted the name of the building as the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium.  (It is interesting to note that it used the more modern “u” instead of the classical “v” which was often used in buildings during prior decades – as evidenced by the Pvlaski Covnty Covrt Hovse across the street.)

This was a milestone marking the completion of the front facade of the structure.  Much work would continue on the interior of the structure.  This step in the construction was considered major enough that the Arkansas Gazette mentioned it in a news article.

June 1, 1939, was also the first day on the job for the auditorium’s first director – William T. Clemons.  A former Little Rock resident who came from Rochester NY.  The Auditorium Commission which hired him would not disclose the sources of his salary, but assured Mayor J. V. Satterfield the money did not come from City coffers.

On this date in 2015 and 2016, the cornice was again surrounded by construction materials and braces. But the restoration of Robinson Center finished in November 2016. Once again, the cornice stands proudly atop the six columns with no impediments around it.

Final Dunbar High School Graduation – May 27, 1955

On May 27, 1955, on the stage of Robinson Auditorium, the Dunbar High School senior class graduated. This academic year marked not only the 25th anniversary of Dunbar’s opening, but it was the last year that the school building would offer junior high through junior college classes.

In the fall of 1955, the new Horace Mann High School would open. Dunbar would continue to be open, but only as a junior high.  (Though no reason was ever publicly given, the junior college component ended in May 1955.)

The new Mann High School was constructed, in part, as a way to delay any integration plans for the Little Rock School District.  With a new second all-white high school in the works for Little Rock, it was thought that a new African American school would placate the African-American community by not only giving them a new building, but relieving the overcrowding at Dunbar.

But on May 27, 1955, and the days leading up to it, the focus was on celebrating the final graduation class and the 25th anniversary of Dunbar High School.  On May 25, teachers who had taught for 25 years at the school, and original teachers who retired from the school were honored.

The school’s original principal, Dr. John H. Lewis, was the commencement speaker.  The current principal, Dr. L. W. Christophe presided over the awarding of the diplomas and announcements of scholarships.  Among the higher education institutions to which they received scholarships were the University of Michigan, Wiley College, Tennessee State, Arkansas AM&N, Talladega College, and Philander Smith College.

While the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat  both DID run stories on the graduation, it was hardly equal to the coverage they gave Central High School.  In fact, on the day after Dunbar’s graduation, the Democrat ran a photo of two Central graduates huddled under an umbrella in the rain – three days after the ceremony took place.

In 1971, Mann ceased its status as a high school as well.  Today, both Mann and Dunbar serve as middle schools within the Little Rock School District.