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.
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.