Black Wall Streets: Little Rock, Arkansas’ West 9th Street was a hub for Black business

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  • Published on July 27, 2022
  • Last Updated March 10, 2023
  • In History

It once was a lifeline in the Black community in Little Rock, but it was systematically dismantled in response to desegregation efforts.

When Union soldiers captured Little Rock during the Civil War, they began housing freed enslaved people in what was then known asBlissville, close to West 9th Street. Soon the area came alive with vibrancy, the site of any number of Black businesses and venues, securing Little Rock’s reputation in the area as an entertainment destination with the famous Dreamland Ballroom hosting acts like Nat King Cole, B.B. King and Ella Fitzgerald. So bustling and contained was the enclave that it was often referred to as a “city within a city”.

The pulsing heartbeat of the Black community came to a stop in the period of “urban renewal” that saw Black communities around the country segregated by highways, which saw numerous homes and businesses claimed by eminent domain. The story was the same in Little Rock, where I-630 was constructed after many citizens were effectively defrauded out of their homes, and those not claimed by eminent domain were often sold in predatory deals.

A murmur of that heartbeat has returned in the form of the 16,000-square foot venue being constructed in a currently abandoned warehouse on historic West 9th Street. Slated to be named “The Hall,” this project was conceived of back in 2020 when the political upheaval surrounding George Floyd’s murder brought back to the surface historical memories and a hunger to reclaim what was lost.

Stemming from the same cultural moment is the business development incubator West Ninth Spirit of Entrepreneurship. Housed on the campus of Southeast Arkansas College, this venture aims to help newly emerging businesses find their footing through resources and opportunities. They have also developed a Mobile Market that works to bring fresh, healthy meals and groceries reaching over 22 underserved counties. Through partnerships with local restaurants, they have created 45 new jobs in addition to serving meals for kids after school who experience food insecurity.

While the wounds of the past linger in this area, new energy and life is on the horizon. Food nourishes the body and will be a platform for young entrepreneurs to find their foothold in the city. Music nourishes the soul and will help bring life back to the community.

This story was created by Detour, a journalism brand focused on the best stories in Black travel, in partnership with McClatchy’s The Charlotte Observer and Miami Herald. Detour’s approach to travel and storytelling seeks to tell previously under-reported or ignored narratives by shifting away from the customary routes framed in Eurocentrism. The detour team is made up of an A-list of award-winning journalists, writers, historians, photographers, illustrators and filmmakers.

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