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OPINION | GREG HARTON: Defenders of Black neighborhoods in Fayetteville want city to buy properties, but legality puts proposal under a microscope

by Greg Harton | June 3, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

The question of preserving historically Black neighborhoods in Fayetteville -- or more accurately, spending taxpayer dollars to do it -- is scheduled to come before the City Council Tuesday. The legality of what's proposed is a big question, too.

Ward 1 council members D'Andre Jones and Sonia Harvey have brought forward a resolution by the private Northwest Arkansas Black Heritage Association to authorize Mayor Lioneld Jordan to purchase real estate "to be returned" to the association "for restoration, redevelopment and advancement of the African American community into the vibrant and thriving district it is meant to be."

City Attorney Kit Williams says authorizing the mayor to do that wouldn't necessarily be illegal, but as soon as the mayor acted the authorization, it would violate the Arkansas Constitution.

The constitution, Williams said in a memo to the City Council, permits cities to purchase services from private corporations. But he cited a 1956 Arkansas Supreme Court case that "establishes beyond all question that a municipality cannot contribute to a private, nonprofit corporation ... .'"

Williams said he's concerned about authorizing a likely unconstitutional act even if the mayor properly refuses to exercise the power he's given.

So why would Jones and Harvey ask for such a measure? Because the Northwest Arkansas Black Heritage Association makes a pretty strong case that Black neighborhoods in Fayetteville have, over the course of decades, been targeted for erasure. At a recent meeting of Fayetteville's Black History Preservation Commission, association member Sharon Killian made a heartfelt plea to save what can be saved of neighborhoods that were historically populated by Black residents who were largely unwelcome in "sundown towns" around the rest of the region.

Much of the attention is focused on an area known for years as "Tin Cup," east of what is today Archibald Yell Boulevard but which later this month will be renamed by the city as Nelson Hackett Boulevard, recognizing the former slave Yell once ordered forcibly returned to his owner in Fayetteville.

Development of Fayetteville over the decades has systematically targeted Black neighborhoods, Killian told the commission. New housing developments continue the practice today, she said.

"What we need to be stopped right now is that some Black residents are selling properties, and what's happening is white developers are coming in and buying up the properties and putting up, you know, doing the in-fill thing that is approved [by the city], and we want to stop that because we really want to have some of the original landscape to rebuild our district, or our community, or our neighborhood."

According to the resolution advanced by Harvey and Jones, the mayor would be able to buy such properties for the Black Heritage Association, which according to Killian would be rededicated to the preservation of the region's most historically significant Black community.

"We didn't get the 40 acres and a mule," Killian said. "We had to suck up our pride and work for people who enslaved us, right here in this community."

She said the neighborhoods the association wants to protect a "gem sitting right here at our fingertips" that can again become a "sweet spot" of Black heritage preservation.

The arrangement, though, remains legally suspect, according to Williams. "If Mayor Jordan did as this resolution requests, he would be spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayers funds to purchase houses and buildings to give to a private independent group of persons for the 'restoration, redevelopment and advancement of the African American community ... .' This would be [the] same legally as giving this private group hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars directly, which appears to be to be in direct violation of the Constitution."

Harvey said at last week's City Council agenda session she intends the resolution to be a starting point for discussion among city leaders. It seems they will have a lot to discuss.

Print Headline: City in pinch on preserving Black heritage


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