Renovated museum celebrates ‘what it means to be Black in Arkansas’
The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center has fully revamped its Little Rock galleries with fresh exhibits that are especially timely during February’s Black History Month.
The museum, founded in 2008, spent five years and $3.5 million on the project. The new approach more forcefully conveys the challenges faced and overcome by Black Arkansans since the time of slavery. Displays give wide attention to successes achieved by individuals and communities, while also addressing the Jim Crow era’s pervasive racial bias.
“There tends to be a lot of focus on the hardships and discrimination faced by African Americans when people talk about Black history,” says Quantia Fletcher, the center’s executive director. “And of course, that is with good reason. It is something we should never forget. We speak to it in very frank, very direct terms through our exhibits.
“That said, we also want people to feel uplifted by their visit. We tell difficult stories, but we also emphasize the celebration
of what it means to be Black in America. We want people to feel the joy in being part of this unique, rich culture — and to understand that our achievements in the face of overwhelming adversity can be celebrated in their own right.”
Before exploring the exhibits, visitors watch a wide-ranging audiovisual preview. Fletcher describes the varied images as “setting the stage for everything visitors will see and hear in the museum. They emphasize the creation of the Mosaic Templars of America and highlight the experiences of people who exemplify what it means to be Black in Arkansas.”
Inception and expansion
Founded in 1883, the Mosaic Templars of America fraternal society provided insurance to members in an era when white insurers widely discriminated against Black Americans. The society formally dedicated its national headquarters in 1913 at Ninth and Broadway streets in Little Rock.
After the society’s demise during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the building deteriorated as it sometimes stood vacant. Nonprofit efforts saved the site from demolition in 1996. The City of Little Rock bought it for transfer to what is now the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism’s Division of Arkansas Heritage.
A fire destroyed the structure in 2005, two months after rehabilitation work had begun. The state persevered to rebuild again for the museum’s opening 16 years ago. Its third floor houses the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.
In the new galleries, some displays focus on legends like the nine intrepid Black students who desegregated Little Rock Central High School in 1957 and their mentor Daisy Bates. A posting titled “The Importance of the Little Rock Nine” reminds visitors of their global impact.
Widely honored memoirist and poet Maya Angelou, who spent much of her childhood in the Lafayette County town of Stamps, is quoted conveying an inspirational message: “Develop enough confidence in yourself so that you can stand up for yourself and then for others.”
Other figures, such as Charlotte “Lottie” Stephens, are less familiar. Born as a slave in 1854, she became the first Black teacher in Little Rock at age 15 in 1869. Her career in segregated classrooms spanned seven decades before she retired in 1939. Little Rock’s Stephens Elementary School carries her name.
Fletcher says, “Covering the entire state of Arkansas beyond Little Rock was a high priority for us while planning the new space. We have been sharing the story of Little Rock’s historic West Ninth Street ever since our inception. But there are stories from every corner of the state, and we want to make sure they are preserved.”
Inspiration and interaction
In its new guise, the museum has added topics like music, sports, food and military service to its exhibits. Fletcher says, “The African American community in Arkansas has made significant contributions to these areas, with incredible talent from the Delta blues to those who have made sacrifices for our country in foreign lands.”
She adds, “The Black community is also united through love of our food culture, music and sports. So, we wanted to give
visitors a chance to feel the sense of unity and comfort that comes from these shared experiences.”
Making the museum highly interactive “was the top priority in the redesign,” Fletcher says. “It’s one thing to read about the
community and its history, but it’s so much more to be able to hear and see it in real time. Our sights and sounds are all locally sourced. It’s just another way to drive home the point that this is our space, built by us and for our community.”
One colorful gallery offers hands-on activities for children, posing such interpersonal questions as, “How are we the same?” and “What does it mean to be fair?”
The museum’s most interactive exhibit asks visitors of any age to sit in a booth and “share your story. Come and be a part of our history by sharing your thoughts and experiences just around the corner