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Urban Renewal bulldozes historic Little Rock communities

Arkansas News Tidbits Communities

Urban Renewal bulldozes historic Little Rock communities


Urban Renewal had no meaning or significance to me as a young adult, but today it is a dirty word. In my opinion, the passage of the Federal Housing Act of 1949 divided the City of Little Rock. The pattern we see today of Blacks living primarily east of Interstate 30 and whites to the west of Interstate 430 is a result of post-World War II housing practices that sought to “redevelop” blighted areas. 

Today, I serve on the board of the Dunbar Historic Neighbor- hood Association so it caught my attention that the first area of Little Rock that was declared blighted and prime for redevelopment was the Dunbar neighborhood in the downtown area. The history of Dunbar is rich but sadly, historically significant buildings continue to be bulldozed even today.

 The Encyclopedia of Arkansas quoted B. Finley Vinson as saying that the Little Rock Housing Authority (LRHA) systematically worked to “continue segregation.” Those are strong words so I dug deeper. Mr. Vinson was from Corpus Christi, Texas, and found his way to Little Rock following World War II when the Navy transferred him to Arkansas to help dispose of surplus properties. He became executive director of LRHA in 1950 and went into banking afterward. 

Vinson became the chairman of Little Rock’s First National Bank. As chairman of the Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission, Vinson was among those who envisioned what’s now the Statehouse Convention Center. He also helped convince Batesville businessman Doyle Rogers to build the Excelsior Hotel which later became the Peabody, and today is a Marriott. The current members of the Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission meet on the third Tuesday of each month at the Cromwell Building. A quick look at the members and you’ll see it is primarily business owners in the hospitality industry. 

I wish Vinson were around to interview today. Did he experience any sort of moral dilemma in carrying out something that he openly stated continued segregation? Perhaps he felt that the good outweighed the bad. As I researched I saw the statement about segregation in context; Vinson has said of his time with urban renewal in the 1950s: “I think it missed some of its goals, and there were serious flaws in the program. But the bottom line is, it was a distinct plus for Little Rock. … downtown areas were sometimes over-cleared, and that bothered me.”

 In a 1993 interview, Vinson admitted that “the city of Little Rock through its various agencies, including the housing authority, systematically worked to continue segregation” using slum clearance and public housing projects. One can’t help but wonder what the city would look like today had black residents not been displaced.

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