LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Stories are fading away and those who remember the iconic West 9th Street in Little Rock are hoping those stories stay alive. The street was a booming place for African American owned businesses, and at night it would cater to traveling musicians.
When you ask anyone what they remember about the street, they’ll tell you it was the place to be if you were an African American living in Little Rock.
“You would see mothers with their daughters, going to get their hair fixed, fathers with their sons going to get their haircut,” says Kenneth Brown.
During the day – the street was a hangout for families, but as soon as the lights went down, the street would come alive.
“When the day people would ease off and the night people would come out, there would be this transition,” adds Brown. “You would see these musicians pull up in their cars, the trumpet player would pull a horn out of his car, he would go into the club and he’d start warming up his instrument.”
“West 9th Street was a hopping place,” says Christina Shutt, Director at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. “I don’t know if that’s a cool phrase to use anymore but it was a hopping place.”
In the 1940’s and 50’s – it wouldn’t be hard to spot a traveling musician.
“You had big names like Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Sara Vaughn, Duke Ellington,” Brown continues. “Little Rock was part of that ‘Chitlin Circuit’,” says Shutt.
“When the band is really cranked up, you can almost see the buildings sway,” says Brown.
Music and energy that once made the city come alive is now seen only in pictures and heard from those who remember it before it faded away.
“The first decline came after the lynching of John Carter,” Brown explains.
“And the final nail on the street was the creation of the 630 highway,” says Shutt. It inevitably cut off the African American community from itself.
“Just reminiscing you ask yourself, where are all of these thriving businesses now,” says Little Rock native, Phyllis Hodges.
Hodges never knew the history of the street.
“When I was growing up we didn’t really come in this area, we just passed through and the buildings were old, they were raggedy, there was an area where you would say ‘Wow, I don’t want to live down there or who in the world could have lived there’,” she says..
She never heard her parents talk about that time, until asked about the street for this story.
“They would walk down here, and that’s several miles,” says Hodges.
Vacant lots – and grassy fields sit where there used to be a thriving neighborhood. By the early 1980’s only five buildings remained – all eventually crumbling to the ground or torn down. The surrounding area became better known for record high crime rates rather than the street that united this community.
“It really saddens me,” says Brown. “And when I look our my window, everything is gone. In my mind I visualize where everything was on West 9th Street.”
People who remember it hope the stories survive by being passed down from generation to generation.
“That’s what makes me sad when I think about the children today. Do they even know to ask the question, “What happened to West 9th Street?” She’s hoping this history hidden in the buildings once filled with people and the sounds of music doesn’t disappear.
“What Beale Street is for Memphis, that was supposed to have been what 9th Street was for Arkansas,” says Brown. “And we lost all of that and we will never get it back.”
The legacy has been left behind underneath the pavement and in the hearts of those who knew it best.
Click here to see AETN’s full documentary on the street.