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El Dorado commission plans to form Black history panel

by Tia Lyons | February 23, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

EL DORADO -- The El Dorado Historic District Commission is forming a committee that will help identify places, people and landmarks to preserve the history and heritage of the city's Black community.

A survey and inventory of nearly 330 properties is underway in the Mellor, Bodenhamer, Forest Lawn and Eastridge subdivisions to determine if the mostly residential areas would be eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places as local historic districts and/or individually listed properties.

The work is being done by Terracon Consultant Services Inc., which is headquartered in Kansas. The firm's Austin, Texas, office is conducting the El Dorado survey.

Historic district commissioners said the team from Austin, Texas, is expected to visit El Dorado on March 8 to wrap up field work and archival research.

Elizabeth Eggleston, executive director of the El Dorado Historic District Commission, said she will request signs from City Hall to notify residents in the areas that Terracon will be working there.

She said she also plans to contact Police Chief Kenny Hickman so he can make patrol officers aware of the work that will be going on in the designated residential areas in early March.

The historic district commission will focus on the Retta Brown and Country Club Colony neighborhoods for the next study. Eggleston said she has already submitted a letter of intent to apply for a grant to cover the study.

The survey and inventory for the Mellor Park area is being covered by a $49,049 grant that was awarded last year by the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program.

On Feb. 11, commissioners discussed the matter.

"I'd like to see us do the African American context. It's such an interesting project," said Historic District Commission Chairman Ken Bridges.

New Historic District Commissioner Steve Biernacki, who is also the executive director of the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society, agreed and asked for additional information.

Eggleston said she previously reached out to Biernacki about conducting interviews to collect oral histories to identify notable Black people, businesses, churches, neighborhoods, landmarks, etc.

HISTORIC BLACK NEIGHBORHOODS

The citywide survey recognized the St. Louis and Fairview additions as the oldest Black American settlements in El Dorado, dating to the post-Civil War era.

The St. Louis neighborhood was once home to a cluster of thriving black-owned businesses and a bustling entertainment district, which hosted some of the biggest show business names who stopped in El Dorado.

Eggleston pointed to one such venue -- Continental Club -- that was once a centerpiece of the St. Louis neighborhood, which is roughly bordered by North West Avenue, College Avenue, Robinson Street and Fifth Street.

The two-story Continental Club sat just west of the intersection of North West Avenue and Liberty Street and was part of a small group of businesses, including hotels and other clubs, that played host to Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King, the Ike and Tina Turner Revue and others in the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

The buildings have long since been razed.

Janice Bush, president of the El Dorado-Union County chapter of the NAACP, previously reached out to the Murphy Arts District about a project to install historical markers recognizing Hill Avenue as former commercial-business district that was home to businesses and professional offices that were either Black-owned or served a largely Black clientele.

The Fairview Addition covers a large part of the city's south east side and is anchored by Mattocks Park.

Other Black American neighborhoods in the city include Douglas, Fordsville, Memphis Heights and Rock Island.

The Douglas neighborhood is named after Tom and Sarah Douglas, a married couple who were founders of Douglas Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, now located at 969 Smackover Highway.

The Douglases were interviewed in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project that was commissioned by the Works Projects Administration to interview the last generation that was born into slavery in America.

Tom and Sarah Douglas were thought to be 91 and 82, respectively, when they were interviewed for the project in 1936 and 1937 in their home with an address of Route 2, Box 19-A, El Dorado.

The couple moved to El Dorado from Union Parish, Louisiana, in January 1893 after Tom Douglas was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan for his political activities that included the fight for social justice for Black Americans.

The Douglases owned 120 acres of land in what would become known as the Douglas Addition and donated land on East Cook Street that served as the first site of Douglas Chapel.

Because the church was near an oil refinery at the time, members, fearing an explosion, moved to a new location in the 1200 block of East Hillsboro for several years.

PRESERVING HISTORY

The story of the Douglases is the type of material the El Dorado Historic District is looking to collect and preserve as recommended by the city's historic preservation plan.

Eggleston noted: "It's difficult because a lot of the buildings have been torn down, but there could be markers. When people come home for El Dorado Days, they don't know where their old neighborhoods are."

El Dorado Days is a biennial homecoming celebration that began in the 1960s with former El Dorado residents in California and graduates of Washington High School, the former all-Black high school that is now the site of Washington Middle School.

Eggleston said the historical areas could be denoted with street sign toppers, such as those that were installed for the city's residential historic districts.

The job would require a working group, and commissioners agreed to form a committee by reaching out the city's Black community.

Biernacki said the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society would offer its help "in any way ... possible."

"There's a treasure trove of folks that we can go to that were here during the heyday and after the heyday that could provide great perspective," he said.

Commissioner Diane Murfee said the first order of business after forming the committee should be to collect oral histories.

Anyone who is interesting in joining the committee can send an email to Eggleston at elizabetheggleston@sbcglobal.net.

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