Life on the Line: A Historypin Tour of Little Rock’s West Ninth Street

A look down the Line at modern West Ninth Street
A look down the Line at modern West Ninth Street

From Reconstruction until the mid-twentieth century, the West Ninth Street business district of Little Rock, Arkansas served the city’s black community as a center of African American urban life. Going back to its beginnings as a Union camp for freed slaves, “The Line” provided a center for black-owned businesses and commerce made necessary by the restrictions and segregation in the Jim Crow South. Despite the many setbacks and challenges their community faced, Little Rock’s black business community thrived throughout much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By 1898 West Ninth Street housed forty-two black-owned businesses, and by 1959, the district reached a peak of 102 establishments, including restaurants, doctor’s offices, a dentist, pharmacies, a movie theater, beauty and barber shops, grocery stores, and much more.

By the 1960s, integration, urban renewal, and the construction of the interstate highway system contributed to the decline and eventual destruction of the West Ninth Street business district. Interstate 630 was built through the middle of Little Rock’s downtown black community, displacing neighborhoods and separating residential areas from the commercial zones. Increasing integration and acceptance of African Americans into the city’s white-owned businesses also contributed to the once-robust district’s decline, leaving only a small handful of establishments behind. However, many Little Rock residents still remember patronizing the Gem Theater, Red’s Pool Hall, and attending dances and concerts at the Dreamland Ballroom. Recent revitalization efforts have sparked a renewed interest in the once-thriving area, though much work remains to be done to preserve its history and bring business-owners and their customers back to the district.

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This project will work with the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, a museum of African American history, and the Department of Arkansas Heritage to create a Historypin tour of West Ninth Street, including photographs and oral history narratives recounting the rich community life found on The Line in the 1940s and 1950s. The tour will also work in conjunction with Pop Up in the Rock, a program that helps entrepreneurs see the possibilities of revitalization in various areas of Little Rock, which will focus on West Ninth Street in fall 2015. The Historypin tour will ideally increase awareness of the history of West Ninth Street by making photographs, the historical narrative of the area, and community memories available to a wider audience by utilizing a free web site and mobile app. Historypin is the ideal platform for the project, due to its capabilities in using Google Street View to compare how a particular site looks now to an older photograph, and because it allows collaboration and interaction with one’s audience. This digital history project will help the community see the past more clearly to re-envision the possibilities of the future.

The Historypin tour will focus on the businesses that existed in the late 1950s to early 1960s, as they are the establishments most people are likely to be familiar with today. The project will likely be limited by the scope of the primary sources available, as there are not widely available photographs of every single business on Ninth Street. However, I will acknowledge this limitation in the introduction to the tour, and due to the crowdsourcing possibilities using Historypin, I hope that as more people see and use the tour, they may be able to help add content in the form of memories or even photographs of the area.

I will primarily use three resources to develop the narrative and content of the West Ninth Street Historypin tour: Sanborn insurance maps, photographs, and oral history interviews. Because the majority of the former establishments have been demolished or otherwise destroyed, the Sanborn insurance maps will help me positively locate businesses to accurately place them on the map. Photographs of West Ninth Street will be the focal point of the project, as Historypin is largely geared toward images. These images will be sourced from the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, the Arkansas History Commission, and the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. Hopefully as the project gains recognition, individuals will add their own photos of West Ninth Street that I can in turn add to the tour. Lastly, the oral histories will give valuable background information to the photographs, contextualizing them and adding depth to the story. Though the photographs are vitally important, the oral history content will give them meaning, an integral part of any public history pursuit.

The primary audience for the West Ninth Street tour will be individuals who come into contact with it through the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center or another Department of Arkansas Heritage agency, or the Pop Up in the Rock program. The demographic will likely be older African Americans from Little Rock or elsewhere in Arkansas, and who are connected to the history of the area. Hopefully the tour will also attract a notoriously elusive younger audience of individuals in their teens and twenties, as well, through the use of an app and the focus on information sharing. Though the tour will be largely community focused, it will also be accessible to visitors to the city and other Arkansas residents who take an interest in the state’s history.

The goal of the project is ultimately to connect community members to the history of West Ninth Street as well as to involve them in the future of the area. The tour endeavors not only to tell the story of West Ninth Street and the people who worked, played, and built their community there, but to continuously add to that narrative through engaging an audience that wishes to share their experiences and memories. I aim to hand the tour over to the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center to launch and promote as part of their exhibition and history programming by at least October of 2015, in time for the Pop Up West Ninth Street event. By working with these organizations, the Historypin tour has the potential to reach a wider audience and make a real difference in telling the story of Little Rock’s African American history.

13 Replies to “Life on the Line: A Historypin Tour of Little Rock’s West Ninth Street”

  1. I’m thrilled that you’ve identified a partner organization to work with on this. It’s something that several of the projects folks have proposed for class are doing and it is just a super smart way to approach this kind of work.

    Using HistoryPin for this makes a lot of sense. It will let you get in there and do your thing with the content and let’s you sidestep a lot of the challenges that come with doing something from scratch. Along with that, you have a built in connection to an ongoing platform so that is helpful in it’s own right.

    Your “increase awareness” goal is laudable. With that said, I think to be able to make progress to that goal I’d need to hear a bit more about what you strategy will be to get the word out about the tour. Is this something you can get covered in the local press? Is it something you can print up flyers or postcards for and leave around town? I’d add that if you want to attract/engage a particular audience you likely should try and build in some explicit outreach on this. So that might be looking into contacting area high schools and seeing if history teachers might offer some extra credit or something. In any event, it’s moving away from “if we build it they will come” toward “how am I going to directly connect with and invite the audience I want to invite.” With the timeline you have to work from, it might be best for you to just scope in drafting up an outreach plan for them and potentially some of the promotional materials they could use.

    I like that you are thinking about handing this off too. It is great to go into this sort of thing with an exit strategy.

  2. This looks like a great project. Definitely let me know if you get stuck of have any questions when you start drilling into the Historypin component. This might be something we’d want to beta in our new project platform too, so we can look at that when you get to that point.

    Jon

    1. Thanks, Jon! I will certainly contact you with any questions or concerns, and I look forward to digging into Historypin.

  3. I grew up in Little Rock from the 40’s through the late 50’s. I am writing a book about segregation and mention Ninth Street with my childhood memories. If I can be of assistance, please let me know.

    I was a member of Bethel AME. Our family physician, and the doctor who delivered me, was Dr. Stanley Ish whose office was on Ninth Street. He delivered a lot of black children (he was black, of course), and many black boys in Little Rock had as part of their name Stanley because he had delivered them. I also remember going to a small cafe on Ninth Street, between Sunday school and church to have a Joe Lewis Punch. It was a grape soda that had the Brown Bomber in a fighting stance on the bottle. TRUE! Ninth Street was the heart of black LRA businesses. Location of Daisy and LC Bates newspaper!

    1. Thanks so much for your interest, Lois! I would very much value your input on this project, and would be happy to keep you up to date on its progress. My email is julie.n.mcvey@gmail.com if you would like to message me your contact info and any more personal memories you have of Ninth Street. I would like to include plenty of community input in the tour, and would love to get some more detailed information on your perspective.

  4. I’m glad to see your reference to the upcoming “Pop Up in the Rock” project along West Ninth Street on Saturday, 24 October 2015. (There will be another opportunity for community input from 5:30 p.m. until 8 p.m. on Monday, 6 July 2015 at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. Details are provided on the “Pop Up in the Rock” Facebook page.) If you have not done so already, you might consider contacting Berna J. Love (professional historian, museum consultant, educator), whose references (2003-End of the Line: A History of Little Rock’s West Ninth Street, 2012-Temple of Dreams: Taborian Hall and Its Dreamland Ballroom) are available for purchase at http://www.dreamlandballroom.org. (Some of the primary sources for her books still live in Little Rock.) Of course, quite a few of the fifty Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame inductees (profiled under “Hall of Fame” and listed on a reference sheet under “Downloads” at http://www.arjazz.org) performed at Dreamland and other venues along West Ninth Street (a jazz mecca in its heyday). Please contact me via e-mail or private Facebook message if I can be of assistance. – Alita Mantels, Secretary for Arkansas Jazz Heritage Foundation/Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame

    1. Ms. Mantels – Your post is really fortunate for me. I’m coming from California for one weekend in October and it happens to be right on the day that you mentioned. I definitely plan to make a trip to the specific area to see some of the area where my mother and uncles and aunties grew up. Thanks for such an informative message.

  5. This is really fascinating. My late grandmother lived at 1427 W. 9th in the ’40s. My uncles, who were young at the time, are starting to tell me about the life back then. A different one than I’ve been reading about as I do research into my family’s history. I hope to follow your efforts and am bookmarking this site. Best, Omar

    1. Hi Omar! Thanks for your comment, I’m glad you’re so interested in Ninth Street’s history. Definitely attend the Pop-Up event if you can, it’s sure to be fantastic as so many people are dedicated to honoring the history of the area while they push for renewal. I wanted to let you know that this particular blog was for a course I’m taking as part of my master’s degree, so unfortunately I won’t be posting more about the Historypin project here. However, I’d love for you to visit the Historypin site, http://tinyurl.com/ojdwlfd. You can even add your own photos if you find any during your research. Good luck, and enjoy your trip to Little Rock! Best, Julie

  6. I live on west 9th st. as a little girl. At Honeycutt’s Hotel. No one says anything about Honeycutt’s hotel. I was full of what most people would call low lives. It was my home burned and all. Use to come to the hotel after school and the tv would be on in the lobby. Mr. Mack Honeycutt’s hotel. My best friend’s dad had a drug store on the corner of west 9th. Carter’s drug store. Honeycutt’s was home

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