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Arkansas Dreamland: A call to preserve, celebrate and reconnect

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Arkansas Dreamland: A call to preserve, celebrate and reconnect

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By De’Stani Clar — The PBS team began with a quest to explore the architectural wonders of Taborian Hall. However, as the cameras started rolling, the narrative took an unexpected turn. For decades, Little Rock’s West Ninth Street was the heart of the city’s African American community, home to businesses, schools and fraternal organizations. The Mosaic Templars of America was a black fraternal order founded by John E. Bush and Chester W. Keatts, two former slaves, in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1883. Taborian Hall was also a black fraternal order in the building that eventually became Dreamland.

Although Tanisha recognized the architectural significance of the buildings, she told her boss, “We can’t. We’re not going to do a service to this if we just say this one building was built here and these were the bricks.” They had to find the people. West Ninth Street began to reveal a history that demanded recognition. 

åOne connection led to another as they searched for people now scattered across central Arkansas. Many had weathered the storms of segregation and urban renewal and were understandably wary of revisiting those chapters. The PBS team also faced reluctance, a natural response from a community accustomed to misrepresentation. 

But, armed with empathy and determination, Tanisha and her team saw beyond the hesitancy. They were able to make connections and gathered hours of footage from Little Rock trailblazers.

 

“Leon Majors, owner of Twin City Nightclub, guided us down the street of his youth because studio sessions ‘just wouldn’t do,’” said Tanisha.

 Many viewers and community leaders ponder how best to preserve and highlight West Ninth Street. In Tanisha’s vision, the streets would be lined with historical markers, displaying stories to passersby – tales of triumph, jazz, and businesses that once flourished. 

As we spoke, a proposal to create green spaces emerged, not just as physical locations but as symbols of community. Kwendeche, a renowned architect and Little Rock native agrees: “No one knows what Ninth Street was just by driving down the road today.”

 He believes that restoration to the facade of local buildings would attract historical tourism. Kwendeche said there is documentation outlining the business buildings and homes demolished in the 1960s. With the help of the community, backed by public policy, residents could bring reverence to the souls that helped birth this great city.

 Mosaic Templars, founded as the Mosaic Templars of America Center for African Ameri- can Culture and Business Enterprise, contained retail businesses, office spaces, and an impressive auditorium on the third floor. It now operates as a cultural center and museum, hosting celebrations throughout the year. 

The vision doesn’t stop with the documentary. The impact of Tanisha’s work has transcended the borders of Little Rock. Every year, a professor at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania weaves West Ninth Street into his civil rights tour, thanks to the documentary. The professor attests that “Dream- land” is perfect for teaching about public policy and the cascade of its impact. 

After seven years, Tanisha is still contacted by first-time viewers moved by the production. “Community can be mended through awareness,” emphasizes Tanisha “That’s the first step. As we continue to shine a light on the history of West Ninth Street, it’s not just a call to preserve and celebrate; it’s an intimate invitation to step into the footsteps of those who came before us. It’s about understanding, honoring, and investing in a legacy that is not confined to the past but shapes the very fabric of our present and Future.” 

As the interviews unfolded, the team listened to stories that spanned eras – from the rise after the Civil War to the dazzling heights of the 1920s-1950s, featuring icons like Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald, to the challenges of urban renewal..

Anne Abrams, highlighted in the documentary, is a revered community activist who met her husband at the Gem Theatre. She advocates for the recognition of West Ninth Street. “Gem Theatre and the Dreamland Ballroom shaped Black entertainment and provided a platform for black expression. These structures were not only prominent venues but places where lives intersected, fostering relationships and connections that endure through time,” said Abrams. 

The documentary reveals that the Knights and Daughters of the Tabor provided mutual aid that was essential to the community’s economic prosperity. Under the leadership of Scipio Africanus Jordan, successor to Reverend Dixon, chapters across Arkansas rallied to construct Taborian Hall between 1916 and 1918. Taborian Hall was an epicenter, housing not only the organizational activities of the Knights and Daughters of Tabor but also evolving over the years into a bustling center for various African American enterprises.

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