Little Rock, Arkansas

I had spent the previous day touring around in some of the Arkansas backcountry, spending a long time driving through the hills of the Ozarks and stopping mostly in small towns like Eureka Springs and Mountain View. Today I would instead visit the capital and largest city in the state, the somewhat-ironically named city of Little Rock, a place that has largely been known to history for all of the wrong reasons. This was the first state capital that I'd visited on the trip that seceded from the United States and joined the Confederacy during the Civil War. Little Rock was one of the places where the Jim Crow laws were codified in the following decades, setting up a legal system of segregation and discrimination against African Americans. The most famous event in Little Rock's history took place in 1957, when President Dwight Eisenhower was forced to call in the National Guard to enforce the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School. In more positive terms, the city has experienced a revival in recent decades and now serves as the clear economic and cultural hub of the state in addition to its political center of gravity. Little Rock and its surroundings are the headquarters for some of the largest non-profit organizations in the world, and the city has repeatedly come into the national spotlight due to its association with the Clinton family. While I wouldn't have taken a trip specifically to visit Little Rock, it was worth stopping to spend a day here as I continued to drive back eastwards.

This was another one of the few days where I didn't have to do too much in the way of driving. It was a two hour drive almost directly south from Mountain View down to Little Rock, and even though much of the route required taking local roads, this was still a far easier trip than the one that I'd done the day before. I could sleep in until 8:00 AM and still make it to Little Rock well before noon. This was a Saturday in early August, and my one regret was that the state capitol building wouldn't be open due to the weekend date. I wished that there could have been some way to switch the day visiting the Ozarks (on a Friday) with this day visiting Little Rock, but that hadn't been possible due to the geography of the two areas. Not without driving backwards and getting further away from home, at least.

My first stop in the city of Little Rock was at the Arkansas State Capitol, as I continued my tradition of visiting the state capitol in every state that I visited. The state government buildings were located on the western side of the city, on a small hill looking down towards the historic center that lay alongside the Arkansas River. The building architecture had the standard design for a state government seat: Neoclassical columns at the entrances and along the sides of the building, two main wings for the two legislative chambers, and a central dome reminiscent of the US Capitol building in Washington DC. The Arkansas State Capitol was constructed between 1899 and 1915, and out of all of the state capitols that I'd visited, this one looked the most similar to the US Capitol building's design. It was essentially a smaller version of the same general architecture. The Wikipedia article confirmed my initial impressions and added this detail: "as a smaller scale replica of the United States Capitol, the Arkansas State Capitol has frequently been used as a filming location". So apparently the two buildings are similar enough that movies will film in Little Rock and pretend that they're in Washington DC; I'm sure that there are less security concerns in Arkansas. Regardless, this was a very pretty building and it was showing its best face on this beautiful morning.

I walked a full circuit around the Arkansas State Capitol, checking out the grounds and getting some different angles of the architecture. I knew that I wouldn't be able to go inside, and with everything closed for the weekend it was predictably deserted. Some of the memorials on the grounds were controversial in nature, such as the prominent place of honor given to a statue dedicated to the "Confederate Women of Arkansas". I have sympathy for anyone who has to send a loved one off to war, but this is uncomfortably close to valorizing the Confederate cause in a war fought to defend slavery. Another statue elsewhere dispensed with any ambiguity and dedicated itself to "The Confederate Soliders of Arkansas", with an angel holding a laurel wreath of victory (!!!) over the head of a Confederate soldier carrying a flag. Someone might want to get that sculptor a history book and tell them which side won the Civil War. There's also a large monument to the 10 Commandments located just barely across the street from the official capitol grounds, therefore technically not endorsing a state religion by the letter of the law while simultaneously making the actual intentions of the legislators quite clear. I preferred seeing the memorial to the fallen firefighters of the state, and a new sculpture dedicated to the Little Rock Nine in their battle for civil rights. The students from Little Rock Central High are depicted walking towards the Arkansas State Capitol while carrying their schoolbooks, forever capturing the bravery of the individuals involved. That was where I was headed next, to the site where that civil rights struggle took place.

Little Rock Central High School is one of the very few schools in the country to also have the status of a National Historic Site with its own visitor center. Located across the street from the high school, this small visitor center provides the historic background to the clash that took place here in 1957. Segregation of schools under the "separate but equal" Jim Crow laws was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the landmark 1954 Brown vs Board of Education decision, and Little Rock had been ordered by the courts to desegregate its schools. Nine African-American students attempted to attend the school at the start of the 1957 term, only to be physically barred from attending by mobs of white protestors egged on by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. This prompted a dramatic conflict between state and federal powers, as President Dwight Eisenhower assumed control of the Arkansas National Guard and sent soldiers to enforce the desegregation order of the courts. The "Little Rock Nine" as they came to be known spent the rest of the school year attending classes while being escorted by military personnel to ensure their safety. They were shunned and reviled by their classmates, and it truly was an act of incredible courage on their part to go through with attending school given the very real death threats that they were facing.

When I read through the exhibits on the Little Rock Nine at the visitor center, I was struck by how incredibly young they were. Most of them were only 15 or 16 years old, and Carlotta Walls was even younger at only 14. I can't imagine being placed in a situation like that, facing down jeering mobs and needing soldiers for protection while going to school every single day. There's no way that I could have gone through that experience even today, much less when I was only 15 or 16. Unfortunately, there was no happy movie ending where the segregationists learned the error of their ways and everyone became friends afterwards. The city of Little Rock decided to shut down the high school entirely for the next two years in 1958 and 1959 rather than comply with the court orders to desegregate. Little Rock Central High School was also part of another famous court decision in 1968, when biology teacher Susan Epperson agreed to be the plaintiff in a case challenging an Arkansas law forbidding the teaching of the theory of evolution by natural selection in the public schools. Her case went to the Supreme Court and she successfully won her suit, whereby the teaching of evolution in schools could not be forbidden on religious grounds. It seems that the old guard leadership of Little Rock Central High was determined to be on the wrong side of pretty much every issue.

After finishing up at the visitor center, I made the short walk across the street to the grounds of the high school itself. Little Rock Central High has a beautiful building design that dates back to the 1920s, when it was constructed at great expense in the Gothic Revival style. I can see why African American students in the area wanted to attend classes here, as it also had the reputation of being one of the top schools in the city at the time and still remains so today. This is a large school that offers 141 different courses including 33 different AP classes. And while it took a long time and required great struggle, Little Rock Central High is a fully integrated school today: the racial breakdown of the school in 2017 was 55% Black, 33% White, 7% Asian, 4% Hispanic, and 1% two or more races. Things are still far from perfect but this genuinely seems like a pretty good place to attend school.

My next destination was the downtown portion of Little Rock that runs alongside the river. En route to that area, I decided to stop briefly at the Arkansas Governor's Mansion since it was located along the way. The governor's residence was situated in a swanky neighborhood of well-preserved late 19th and early 20th-century houses, well off the beaten path of the main tourist attractions. The Arkansas Governor's Mansion was not open for tours and therefore the only pictures that I have come from looking through the gates at the columned building inside. There was a small statue here of Bill Clinton who served multiple terms as Governor of Arkansas before being elected president. I would see a lot more of Clintons elsewhere before this day was finished.

I parked my car at the Bill Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, an attraction located at the eastern edge of the downtown. That attraction was the last place that I planned to see on the day, and there was some kind of carnival taking place outside the building when I first arrived. Instead of going into the presidential museum, I walked down to the river's edge where there were a series of hiking and biking paths that followed the course of the water. One of those paths led onto this bridge, the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge (yes, the Clintons like to put their name on everything) that was constructed in 2011. As it arched out across the Arkansas River, I was able to look back at the shoreline and get some views looking towards the downtown business district. One of the basic rules of traveling in new places is to go somewhere high up to get a sense of where things are located, and this was an easy way to do that in Little Rock.

I turned around and left the bridge behind, staying on the same side of the river as I walked towards the cluster of downtown buildings. Heading upriver on the Arkansas River Trail, I passed by the historic city marketplace with its big "Little Rock" letters overhead. There was an outdoor amphitheatre nearby that looked like it had been recently constructed, a pleasant place to watch musical acts on warm summer evenings. Further upstream was an outdoor sculpture garden with all sorts of unusual statues, including this portrait of a turkey dressed in a formal overcoat named "Lord Featherwick". I don't know what the artist was thinking with that piece of artwork but I liked it.

Nearby was another pedestrian crossing point over the river named Junction Bridge. As the design might suggest, this is an old elevated railroad bridge that has been converted into pedestrian use on a permanent basis. From the top of the bridge, visitors can get even better views of central Little Rock than from the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge that I had stopped to see a short time earlier. This is the oldest part of the city and the actual "Little Rock" itself that gave the city its name is located next to the base of Junction Bridge. This stone outcropping was used as a landmark when navigating on the Arkansas River, with this rocky area serving as the transition point from the flat Mississippi Delta region to the Ouachita Mountain foothills further upriver. The 1722 date marks the point in time when French explorer Jean-Baptiste Bénard de la Harpe first named this spot "Little Rock", although there was no European settlement here until a town was founded a century later in the 1820s. I didn't know much about the history of central Arkansas, and I was legitimately surprised to find that there was an actual "little rock" that gave the city its name.

I left the riverside walking trail at the western edge of the business district and headed back the way that I had come on Markham Street. This soon led me to the Old State House Museum, the site of the original capitol building for the state of Arkansas. The current Arkansas State Capitol that I had visited earlier in the day hadn't been constructed until the early 20th century, and up until that point, the state government had operated out of this much smaller venue instead. The Old State House was another building that was influenced by Neoclassical design, specifically in the form of the pillars that flanked the main entryway inside. There was no central dome here, however, and the overall scale of the building reflected the more modest ambitions of the frontier tower that Little Rock had been when it was first constructed in the 1840s. I also have to mention the sign that greeted visitors: no firearms, please. Only in the United States would tourists be greeted with a request like that upon entering a museum.

The Old State House Museum had several different exhibits on display. The first one that I walked through was somewhat randomly organized, a collection of information about different subjects in the state's history. The first section on the ground floor discussed the history of the building itself, indicating how there had originally been three separate buildings which were later combined together into a single structure, and about the terrible state of disrepair that the place fell into after the state government moved out and nearly resulted in its destruction. This transitioned in bizarre fashion into an area about the Clinton presidential campaign, only to then change into a natural and cultural history museum on the upper floor. There were all sorts of random artifacts on display owned by the Arkansas Historical Society, mostly related to the history of the state but not entirely so, like the whalebone armor worn by the traditional peoples of the Philippines in one glass case. Another display traced the evolution of the horse over the last 30 million years through a series of fossil skeletons, and yet another section had a bunch of objects related to the University of Arkansas where I had stopped briefly the previous day. This was a museum that could have used some more work organizing their collections for display purposes, as I never had any idea what the theme of the individual areas was supposed to be.

The legislative chambers of the Old State House were also open for visitors to see on the upper floor. The smaller of the two chambers was the former home of the Arkansas House of Representatives, in a room that dated back to 1836. The museum staff had done a fine job of recreating what the House chamber would have looked like back when the Old State House was still in operation; it was not a large room and it looked like it could seat roughly 30 legislators on hard wooden chairs. I was reminded of the Iowa Old Capitol Building which had been built during the same period in the 1840s, another place that similarly lacked much in the way of bells and whistles due to the lack of funds. Unlike the old state capitol building in Iowa, however, the Old State House here in Arkansas experienced a murder in its very first session when Speaker John Wilson killed Representative Joseph Anthony in a knife fight on the House floor in 1837. Dueling was still popular in the American South even at this late date, and it was seen as a matter of honor between the two.

The other room was the original home of the Arkansas Senate, although this latter chamber was expanded in the 1880s at which time the House and Senate swapped rooms so that the larger House contingent could make use of the additional space. The Senate chamber had not been restored back to its original state as a legislative body, with the floor instead containing a series of small displays chronicling the political history of Arkansas and some of its most famous politicians. The staff that put this together didn't try to sugarcoat some of the uglier incidents in the state's history, such as the secession convention that met here and passed an ordinance seceding from the United State in 1861, or the series of Jim Crow laws passed in the 1880s and 1890s that formally codified segregation into state law. There was a lot of information here and I found myself staying long enough to read through most of the display booths.

There was one last corner of the Old State House that I hadn't visited before. This section held a permanent exhibit on a series of quilts created by African Americans from Arkansas, with dozens of them in all sorts of colors and patterns. I thought that this exhibit would be the end of the museum, only to find that there was a staircase in the back of this area that led up to another floor with elaborately decorated rooms in period furnishings. I believe that these were meeting spaces for some high end prestigious clubs, as they were tucked away in a rather inaccessible part of the museum out of public view. These rooms were located near a final exhibit showcasing the gowns worn by various different Arkansas First Ladies:

These gowns came from several different decades and reflected the changing fashions associated with what the governor's wife was expected to wear at various state functions. (There's never been a female governor of Arkansas and therefore no chance to display whatever the appropriate garment would be for the First Gentleman.) As usual, the place of prominence was given to outfits worn by the Clintons, in this case both Hillary Clinton as First Lady of Arkansas and daughter Chelsea Clinton as a teenage girl. Other parts of the exhibit had formal dresses dating back to the 1950s from various other families. This area seemed to be the most popular part of the Old State House Museum despite its strange location, and it was the only place outside of the legislative chambers where I saw other tourists walking around.

After leaving the museum I continued walking east down Markham Street, which seemed to be the main road running through the central business district. These were some of the sights that I passed as I walked, going past the convention center (with its monument to the Louisiana Purchase), past a series of shops and restaurants, and then reaching the river market that I had seen earlier. I stopped at one of the restaurants and picked up a quick lunch here, grabbing a pizza at a place named Iriana's. One place that I missed by walking down Markham Street was the Historic Arkansas Museum, which was a block away on the next street over. I would have had enough time to squeeze in an hour at this museum, and I wish that I'd remembered to check it out.

My last stop for the day was the William J. Clinton Presidential Center, the official name for the museum opened by former president Bill Clinton. This is the home to the Clinton Presidential Library with its vast archival records from the Clinton administration, as well as the headquarters of the Clinton Foundation that attracted a great deal of attention during the 2016 election. The building itself has a futuristic design made of steel and glass, shaped in a long rectangle that dangles out over the side of the sloping shoreline to point towards the Arkansas River. The museum cost $165 million to build (which was raised from private donors) and it opened in 2004. Some of the most popular attractions in the museum include the presidential car used by Clinton (dubbed "Cadillac One") and full sized to-scale models of the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room from the White House. Anyone can take pictures in the Cabinet Room but the museum charges a fee to have your picture taken behind the desk of the fake Oval Office. I appreciated the small detail that the individual chairs in the Cabinet room had the names of Clinton's various Cabinet secretaries listed on them, and you could tell the prestige of the various departments by how close they sat to the center of the table. The State and Defense secretaries are positioned near the president, while departments like Education and HUD (Housing and Urban Development) are off at the corners of the room.

The core of the museum is the long rectangular section that runs off towards the riverbank. The design for this part of the museum was based on the library at Trinity College in Dublin, with long stacks of archival materials running down the sides of the room and tall glass windows that let in lots of outside light. The subject matter is of course devoted to the Clinton presidency, which ran from 1993 to 2001, and it was impossible for me to walk through this exhibit without feeling a lot of nostalgia for the 1990s. That was the decade when I grew up and had my most formative years (I was born in 1982) and I can remember hearing about all of the different issues that the museum highlighted on these big displays. In addition to the main timeline in the center, the sides of the room contained more specific exhibits on components of Clinton's administration, like a section on energy policy or the drive to reduce unemployment. The main criticism of this museum is that it's overly sympathetic to Clinton's presidency, and I found that very much to be the case. There's not much here on the Monica Lewinsky scandal that dominated Clinton's second term, and no mention at all of the egregious lame duck pardons that Clinton issued at the end of his term to shady figures like Marc Rich. This wasn't really a surprise given that I was visiting the Clinton Presidential Center but it would be nice if the place was a little bit less self-congratulatory.

I think that my favorite part of the museum was the back side of the main timeline, where there were about two dozen different personal letters on display that had been sent to and from the Clintons. Among the most interesting were a brief letter from Mother Teresa to Hillary Clinton, and this signed letter from the University of Arkansas basketball team to Bill Clinton in 1994, which earned a hand-written response of "Win the NCAA!" The Arkansas basketball team would go on to do exactly that a few weeks later, taking the 1994 national championship by defeating Duke in the title game. Elton John and Arsenio Hall also had letters included in the collection; Bill Clinton famously went on Arsenio Hall's late night talk show and played the saxophone during the 1992 presidential campaign. The president wrote back to Hall by saying "I like this job but it's tough going a lot of the time and I think I should be playing 'Heartbreak Hotel' on your show!" As a history Ph.D, I love these little details that get captured when going through archival documents, little snapshots into the personalities of those entrusted with power. For instance, I read through dozens and dozens of correspondences of Richard Wellesley, Lord Mornington, as part of my doctoral dissertation, and they left no doubt that the man was an egotistical jackass. Clinton's letters on display here suggested a good-natured chumminess, as well as a certain willingness to bend the rules a bit for his friends.

The upper floor of the museum contained displays of various different ceremonials state gifts that the Clintons had received, along with assorted objects that members of the public had sent to the White House. By law, elected officials in the United States can't accept gifts from foreign governments, and thus these varous gestures of goodwill are preseved for display in museums like this one. The Clintons apparently recevied an impressive collection of ceremonial swords along with fine porcelain, artwork, and small statuettes. Some of the gifts sent from members of the public were touching gestures, like the pencil drawing of "The First Family" that had been sent back in 2000 (including Socks the cat and Buddy the dog). The upper floor also contained a theatre running a film about the Clinton presidency, and a small convention hall for giving speeches to assembled guests or the press. Down in the lobby, there was a gift store selling all sorts of Clinton memorabilia, and I thought it might be amusing to pick up a Clinton/Gore '92 shirt for its retro charm but ultimately demurred.

The Clinton Presidential Center has emerged as one of the most popular tourist attractions in Little Rock, drawing close to half a million visitors each year to the city. It reflects the complicated legacy that Arkansas has with the Clintons. On the one hand, the progressive politics promoted by the Clintons have sharply diverged from the conservative views that dominate in Arkansas, and the Hillary Clinton campaign never made any serious attempt to win this state in the 2016 election where she was predictably crushed by 27 points. (What a swing from 20 years earlier when Bill Clinton won Arkansas in a rout by 17 percentage points.) On the other hand, Arkansas is a state that rarely gets much national attention, and the Clintons helped to put the state on the map in the 1990s. Bill Clinton's presidency was one of the very few times that everyone was talking about Arkansas, and in more recent years, the construction of the Clinton Presidential Center helped to revitalize the downtown area in Little Rock. The much-maligned Clinton Foundation has similarly taken money from wealthy donors and redistributed it to those in need, with a disproportionate focus on helping Arkansas due to it being the home state of Bill Clinton. There are a lot of people in Arkansas that dislike the politics of the Clintons while appreciating what they've done for the state.

That wrapped up my stay in Little Rock for the day, as the city's minor league baseball team was, you guessed it, also out on a road trip when I visited. I turned in for an early evening so that I could get some rest before another lengthy driving day upcoming tomorrow. I would be crossing the Mississippi River and entering the state of Tennessee, with the plan of visiting the state capitol in Nashville. I had one last state to see before finishing the journey home.