May is Arkansas Heritage Month, and this year's theme is "Dreams and Determination: Arkansans at Work." Our state has a rich tradition of determined citizens who made history and changed lives for the better. Because of that tradition, it is fitting that the kickoff for Heritage Month will be held at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock. The Center, through its own story and the exhibits it houses, draws attention to some of the richest examples of perseverance in Arkansas history.
The Mosaic Templars of America was founded as a fraternal organization in Little Rock in 1883. It was established by innovative Black leaders who were determined to provide illness, death, and burial insurance to African Americans who were denied such services from the white establishment. Eventually, other industries were housed in the original downtown headquarters, including a building-and-loan association, a publishing company, a business college, a nursing school, and a hospital. By launching such businesses, the organization's leaders improved life dramatically for Black Arkansans during the long era of segregation.
The Mosaic Templars of America was so successful that its economic effect reached beyond Little Rock to towns across Arkansas, and well beyond our borders. By the 1920s, it was recognized as one of the largest Black-owned business enterprises in the world. The organization also provided skills-training that otherwise was unavailable, and many of its members were actively involved in the fight for civil rights.
Even the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center building itself, which stands on its original site on the corner of West 9th and Broadway, offers a valuable lesson in strength of character. Years ago, as the area declined and businesses moved out, the building eventually stood empty and abandoned. A grassroots effort by community leaders worked to save it from destruction and to turn it into a museum. But, in 2005, just as renovation began and a new life for the building was within sight, a fire destroyed the entire structure, except for the cornerstone.
Not to be deterred, the Department of Arkansas Heritage built a new building, closely resembling the initial historic structure. Dedicated to telling the history of African-American life and business in Arkansas, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center collects, preserves, interprets, and celebrates Black heritage, culture, and community. It contains stories and artifacts of Arkansas history from 1870 to the present. In doing so, it provides all of us the opportunity to learn more about the achievements of African-American Arkansans, particularly those who have excelled in business, politics, and the arts.
The exhibits showcased at the Center give visitors, young and old, examples of perseverance, resolve, and determination. By tracing our history, we can see how the work of our ancestors affects us today. In remembering that history, we are better equipped to make the right decisions moving forward.