The words just seemed to flow, not from a place of memorized text but from a familiar place like home.
I'm walking with my team among the exhibits of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center and onto the mostly vacant lots near the museum on historic West Ninth Street. We're discussing the history of this once-flourishing commercial corridor and our shared vision for the 2022 Juneteenth observation. These spaces will soon be filled with new vibrancy, and I am reminded that my ancestors gave it its first life.
Juneteenth is the oldest national known holiday that commemorates the ending of slavery in America. It originated in Galveston, Texas, when the message of freedom finally reached many of the enslaved African Americans there. They were some of the last to receive the news of emancipation with General Order No. 3. In Arkansas, the celebration has been going since the 1880s in Black communities across the state.
The West Ninth Street Corridor--known by many as "the Line"--was home to hundreds of Black businesses and families around the time of the Civil War. After the war, many decided to stay in the majority Black neighborhood. The community was often a safe space for Blacks at a time when segregation and discrimination was the order of the day. Despite the challenges that faced them, Little Rock's resilient and genius Black men and women still found a way to succeed.
In the late 19th century and well into the 20th century, West Ninth Street was the place to be. Every inch of the district radiated Black excellence and culture. Music, food, doctors' offices, shopping, movie theaters--all Black-owned and patronized. At its peak, the "city within a city" totaled more than 140 Black-owned establishments.
In 1913, the Mosaic Templars of America (MTA), the museum's namesake, opened as an insurance company founded by two formerly enslaved men, John Bush and Chester Keats. Booker T. Washington gave the speech at the opening ceremony of the headquarters building, and the MTA rose to become an internationally known business.
Many of the earliest known Juneteenth or Emancipation Day celebrations began within this very community. Little Rock's African American community has celebrated the emancipation of slaves in some form since the late 1800s. Around the world, what we now know as Juneteenth has had many names including Freedom Day, Emancipation Day and Jubilee Day. Many of those traditions were centered around community celebrations and churches. There were parades, speeches, lots of food, fellowship and my personal favorite, singing. The observances commemorated the history of struggle, but also were used to recognize achievements and to take action to move the Black community forward.
Several Black groups helped to organize the events, including members of Mosaic Templars of America, who are recorded in local newspapers as leading efforts for Emancipation Day celebrations in 1904. MTA founder John E. Bush and National Grand Master William Alexander were committee members, and the National Grand Auditor and Little Rock's first NAACP president, John H. McConico, gave an address. The celebration was held at First Baptist Church. Today it is one of Arkansas' oldest Black congregations. Other community members included were Mifflin Gibbs, the nation's first elected Black municipal judge, and Jefferson Gatherford Ish, who served as principal of three Black schools in Little Rock.
Many of those who celebrated Emancipation Day here in Little Rock knew firsthand the significance of recognizing the day. Those like Bush had felt the harsh and dehumanizing realities of slavery. To know that when Mosaic Templars Cultural Center celebrates each year, we are standing on traditions and historical evidence over 100 years in the making, is humbling to me.
Each year as the museum prepares for our annual Juneteenth celebration, I know the ancestors are with me, and I am reminded of what used to be. I think about Children's Drug store as we walk the streets strategizing placement of clothing merchants. As we measure spots for food trucks, I imagine the aroma of Mary's Chicken Shack that would've tickled my palate. I smile as I recall the images of the Gem Black movie theater as we choose the films that will run in our auditorium, and I can hear the melodic sounds of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald drifting over Ninth Street, and I know this place, my block, continues to speak.
My team and I walk down Ninth Street, pointing and planning for our Juneteenth in Da Rock celebration. As we do, we feel the presence of those who have come before us. Their legacy has become our strength.
As we prepare to host a community event that invites people of all races to recognize and celebrate the significance of Juneteenth to the American experience, I can feel the spirits of my ancestors watching us, and I believe they are proud.
Quantia "Key" Fletcher is director of Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, which opened in 2008 with a mission to preserve, interpret and celebrate African American history and culture in Arkansas. It is part of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.