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The rise and fall of Little Rock's 9th Street

One of Arkansas' most unique pieces of history is in downtown Little Rock. Historians say 9th Street marks a cultural corridor that set the tone for Arkansas, especially for the black community.

9th Street was a cultural mecca, full of vibrant businesses. Many Arkansans are connected to the corridor in some way.

Kenneth Brown is the Historic Site Manager of Mosaic Templars Cultural Center on 9th Street. Brown told Channel 7 he grew up in the cultural corridor.

"If you could see 9th Street through my eyes, you would see a beautiful place," Brown said. "You had barber shops, you had beauty shops, you had dining rooms, you had clothing stores, grocery stores, all your black churches were there. You name it, it was here."

Starting in the early 1900s, 9th Street was a place full of hustle and bustle, historians say it was informally known as Little Rock's black business district.

"There were two 9th Streets. There was your day time 9th Street and there was nighttime," Brown said. "During the daytime 9th Street was a family-oriented entertaining place. You would see mothers with their daughters getting their hair fixed. Fathers with their sons going to get their hair cut."

A plethora of business blossomed on 9th Street due to the city being segregated.

"All of your black doctors, your lawyers...we had our own movie theatre, our own cab company, all of your black churches were in this area," Brown said.

Many people have distinct memories about nighttime on 9th Street.

"You would hear a saxophone player warming his sax up, then pretty soon you would hear a guitar player, then see people coming into 9th Street. They were partying all night long," Brown said. "People like Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Duke Ellington, Count Basie."

Thousands of people filled ballrooms like Dreamland in Taborian Hall and the third floor ballroom in Mosaic Templars Cultural Center to enjoy internationally renowned acts right in the heart of Little Rock.

Although the corridor had great success in the time of blatant racial disparities, hard times brought on great turmoil.

"In 1927 there was a lynching that was done here in Little Rock. This was the last recorded lynching. There probably was lynchings after 1927," Brown said.

According to Brown, a black man named Frank Dixon was the bell ringer for Bethel Church. Dixon had a son named Loni Dixon. Loni used to date a Caucasian girl in town. After Loni and the Caucasian girl broke up, she began to date a Caucasian man. When the man found out, he killed the woman and put her in the bell tower to frame the Dixons.

A large lynch mob formed at the church, but the Little Rock Police Department would not let the mob lynch the Dixons. The mob had formed a large angry group that started to take up most of the street.

A woman named Mrs. Stewart was on a horse and carriage with her children on her way to another destination. She had to drive into the midst of the angry crowd. The crowd scared the horse and the horse began to run wild. A black man named John Carter was in the crowd and saw what was happening to the horse and carriage. Carter had a history of managing horses. He hopped on the carriage to tame the horse to help Mrs. Stewart. The mob thought he was attacking the woman and her child. Although Stewart begged and pleaded for the mob to stop attacking Carter, it was no use. They took him.

"They broke into Bethel, got some pews, built a barn fire, burnt John Carter's body. Then they took his body and drug it up and down 9th Street. They hung his body from a utility pole and used his body for target practice. Shot his body between a 120 and 150 times then they brought his body here to 9th and Broadway," Brown said.

After years of painful memories, the street became alive again towards the end of World War II, giving the district hope.

"When the soldiers were on 9th Street, people felt a lot safer so 9th Street started a rebirth," Brown said.

People went back to enjoying places like Reds Pool Hall and The Gem Theatre - the first black movie theatre for the area - the Diplomat, and Bobby's hot dog stand, just to name a few.

The city of Little Rock then went through a structural change.

"A lot of patrons that were on 9th Street in 1968 were told that they had to move because this freeway was coming through. A lot of them didn't want to move but they threatened them with eminent domain," Brown said "9th Street was really declining and prostitution came...and when that happened, everything just fell by the wayside."

According to Brown, prostitution stained the street for about five years.

"As fast as they started moving out, they were tearing these buildings down. That was a 10 year window from 1960 to the last building that was destroyed in 1978," Brown said.

As buildings and businesses disappeared, the street's twinkle had dimmed. Now the Mosaic Templars of America and Arkansas Flag and Banner, which once was Taborian Hall, stands as the last reminder.

"I doubt we will ever go back there again. Simply because we don't have the love for each other now like we had back then," Brown said.

Brown said he hopes that one day the street can have historical markers in the respective places to allow the cherished memories to live on.

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