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Discovering the Best in Little Rock, Arkansas
Article and Photos by Eleanor Hendricks McDaniel

When you visit Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas, the “must-see” site is all about the state’s most famous and celebrated native, Bill Clinton: The Clinton Presidential Center. The three buildings of the center sit on 30 acres of a city park, and the public may tour the Library which opened in 2004. Begin by watching a 12-minute video that gives a quick overview of President Clinton’s life and political career. Then continue on to the many exhibits where you can study him in depth. Start with the Alcove Exhibits, whose design was inspired by the library at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.  Thirteen alcoves concentrate on the policies of Clinton’s administration, and the piers of each alcove contain archive boxes filled with White House correspondence.

Replica of the Oval Office
Replica of the Oval Office

You’ll be able to enter the replica of the Clinton Cabinet Room, and interact with the exhibits that explain the organization of the Cabinet and the White House presidential staff. You’ll also learn about the making of critical decisions.       

Upstairs, you’ll find a replica of the Oval Office, memorabilia and fabulous gifts received from foreign heads of state. Throughout the center are displays commemorating the accomplishments and personal remembrances of Clinton’s two terms as president. Located on the third floor is the private apartment where the Clintons stay when in Little Rock, which is not open to the public.

One display not to miss is the case devoted to the Little Rock Nine. You’ll see the Medals of Honor (the highest award in the country) that President Clinton had Congress give to them.

Little Rock Central High School
Little Rock Central High School

The Little Rock Nine put the city on the national map. On September 23, 1957, the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, denied entrance to Little Rock Central High School to nine African American students. He was testing the authority of the federal court system that had ruled in favor of desegregation throughout the United States. (This incident was the first important challenge to the historic decision of the 1954 US Supreme Court that segregation was unconstitutional and harmful to black students.) The Little Rock police escorted the students pass a vicious mob of white protestors, and into the school. When the mob outside became violent, the black teens were swiftly and safely removed.

The next day, by orders of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the students were escorted inside the school by armed Arkansas National Guards who had been federalized. A taskforce of guardsmen remained inside the building with them for the entire school year.

Three of the Little Rock Nine graduated from that high school, and most finished college and went on to exceptional careers. They are still alive, but only one resides in Little Rock.

Little Rock Central High School has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and has been deemed a National Historic Landmark. Although the school is still in use, you may visit it by joining a tour at the museum across the street, operated by the National Park Service.

To learn more about African American heritage in Little Rock, head over to the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. The Mosaic Templars were once one of the most important African American fraternal organizations in the USA. It was established in 1882 in Little Rock as a vehicle to provide insurance to the black community who were unable to purchase it from white companies. It also provided other services, educational opportunities and social interaction.

A museum is housed within the center, and reveals both the proud achievements and horrific history of African Americans in Little Rock and Arkansas, such as the lynching of John Carter and the story of the millionaire Hedwood family who discovered oil on their land. Photographs, busts and artifacts fill the galleries. A temporary exhibition, Shades of Greatness: Art Inspired by Negro Leagues Baseball, will be on display until December 1, 2013.

Shades of Greatness: Art Inspired by Negro Leagues Baseball
Shades of Greatness: Art Inspired by Negro Leagues Baseball

Be sure to go to the third floor to view the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame with luminaries like Maya Angelou, John H. Johnson (the founder of Ebony), Dr. Debby Turner (a former Miss America) and Dr. Jocelyn Elders (the US Surgeon General under Bill Clinton). Stop by their gift shop for collectibles, art and an extensive selection of books on African American history.

For contemporary African American books, head to Hearne Fine Art Gallery that has an amazing collection of books, especially those for children. Hearne also specializes in showcasing artwork by emerging and established national and local black artists. In its permanent collection are works by Henry O. Tanner, Edward Bannister and Clementine Hunter.

For more mainstream art, the Arkansas Arts Center has a permanent collection of European and American artwork and crafts. The institution highlights the importance of drawing, but you’ll also discover paintings by Paul Cezanne, Alfred Sisley and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Look for a wonderful woodcut by Albrecht Durer.

The center also includes a museum school of art for adults and children. Its Kids Theater has six performances a year, enjoyed by 45,000 youngsters.

South on Main restaurant food
South on Main
Another important art makes its home in Little Rock. The Oxford American, a quarterly literary magazine that focuses on Southern culture and the work of Southern writers, is published in Little Rock. Although its offices aren’t open to the public, you may dine at its new restaurant, South on Main, that serves the best of Southern cuisine. The venue also presents a forum for film, literature and art of the South.

Little Rock and the region hold many other innovative, interesting, entertaining experiences and venues – too many to list here. So go, already.

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