Arkansas Listings in the National Register of Historic Places

Article excerpt

Fraternal Buildings of Little Rock's Ninth Street Business District

ON THE MORNING OF MARCH 16, 2005, Arkansans awoke to news that the Mosaic Templars of America Headquarters Building, which was to house the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, had been destroyed in a nighttime fire. The loss of this centerpiece of African-American history in Little Rock was probably most deeply felt by the members of the Mosaic Templars Building Preservation Society, who had fought for more than a decade to preserve the building. Although plans for the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center move forward, a piece of history lay in ruins. Important in its own right, the building had also served as a cornerstone of the historic Ninth Street business district.

The importance of the Ninth Street area to Little Rock's AfricanAmerican community dates back before the Civil War. In 1854, the family of Chester Ashley, Arkansas's late U.S. senator, donated land at the corner of Eighth Street and Broadway to a congregation of black Methodists for the purpose of building a church that would bear the name Wesley Chapel. The completion of Wesley Chapel was followed a few years later by the construction of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at the corner of Ninth and Broadway. The two churches made the area a popular residential area for African Americans.

The neighborhoods surrounding Ninth Street grew quite rapidly after the Civil War, as did the city's black population. In 1860, there had been fewer than 900 African Americans living in Little Rock, but recently freed slaves began moving into the city in droves near the close of the Civil War. By 1870, Little Rock's African-American population had grown to nearly 5,300 and accounted for 43 percent of the city's population. Yet blacks were excluded from Little Rock's social organizations. Access to many essential services that white residents took for granted was restricted or simply denied. This resulted in the growth of businesses along the Ninth Street corridor that catered to African Americans.

Known as "the Line," the vibrant area from High Street to South Broadway remained the primary commercial district for blacks in Little Rock. As the Ninth Street area grew commercially, it also evolved into the city's social and cultural center for African Americans. The corridor saw a great decline beginning in the late 1950s, and by the end of the twentieth century only a handful of commercial buildings from its glory days survived. But, until that March night, the buildings of the two most prominent social groups in the neighborhood continued to stand: the Mosaic Templars of America Headquarters and Taborian Hall.

The Mosaic Templars of America was founded in 1882 by John E. Bush and Chester W. Keatts. Like many other enterprises along Ninth Street, the Mosaic Templars was founded in order to provide services not readily available to blacks; in this case, burial and life insurance. The Mosaic Templars proved to be a huge success, and within two months of its founding had membership rolls nearing 500. As the organization grew, it provided an ever expanding variety of services, including a building and loan association, a newspaper, a nursing school, and a hospital.

In 1911, the Mosaic Templars began construction of a large, fourstory brick building at Ninth and Broadway to serve as the organization's national headquarters. The 10,000-square-foot neoclassical-style building, designed by Massachusetts architect Frank Blaisdell, was completed in 1913 and dedicated by Booker T. Washington. The building incorporated several functions under one roof. Besides professional offices and retail businesses, the building housed an elegant auditorium on the fourth floor that was one of the most respectable venues in Little Rock, hosting theatrical and musical performances by some of the best known performers of the day.

John Bush died in 1916, and control of the Mosaic Templars passed to his son, Chester E. …

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