Monday, August 31, 2020

Curtis H Sykes Memorial Grant Program funds African American history preservation projects

Image shows record from the Norwood
Family Cemetery project.
By DeAnn Thomas, public information officer

High school students traveled from Mississippi to present “Death by Design,” a theater production about the fire that killed 21 boys at the Negro Boys Industrial School in Wrightsville, Arkansas. The community in Greenwood, Arkansas, cleaned up an unmarked grave site, found the descendants of those interred and dedicated the site as the Norwood Family Cemetery. The Morrilton Depot Museum created a documentary with oral histories from Black railroad workers and their families.

These may sound like very different projects, but they share two important characteristics: They all helped preserve and share African American history and culture in Arkansas, and they all received funding from the Curtis H. Sykes Memorial Grant Program.

The Black History Commission of Arkansas administers the program, which offers grants of up to $3,500 to individuals or groups for programs or projects that support the commission’s mission.  The mission is to collect materials about Arkansas Black history and history makers for the Arkansas State Archives and to raise awareness of the contributions and impact Black Arkansans have had on the state’s history.

Since the grant program was established in 1997, it has funded more than 100 projects.

“Especially in the difficult financial times we are living in, these grants play a valuable role in promoting the preservation, study and appreciation of African American heritage,” African American History Coordinator for the Arkansas State Archives Tatyana Oyinloye said. “Understanding the past helps us identify who we are now and plan for where we are going.”

In its most recent meeting Thursday, Aug. 20, the Black History Commission of Arkansas approved a grant for the Washington County Community Remembrance project. The grant funding will support establishing a marker to memorialize three enslaved men – Anthony, Aaron and Randall – who were victims of interracial violence in Washington County in 1856. The funding also supports engaging the public in discussion about the tragedy through educational components, like a youth essay contest with scholarship opportunities.

The Washington County Community Remembrance project coalition, in partnership with the Equal Justice Institute, plans to install and dedicate the marker in November and debut the educational outreach the following spring. Project records, like the winning essays, will be given to the Black History Commission to be preserved in the Arkansas State Archives.

The Black History Commission approved the grant request for approximately $2,107. Additional grants are available year-round through the Curtis H. Sykes Memorial Grant program for other programs and projects.

Curtis Sykes was a highly respected educator
and historian.
Although the program offering Black history grants was first established in 1997, the Arkansas General Assembly renamed the program in honor of Curtis H. Sykes in 2009. After growing up in the Dark Hollow area of North Little Rock, Sykes became a respected educator and historian. He was one of the first Black principals in the Little Rock School District in the late 1960s before the district became fully desegregated.

Sykes was instrumental in establishing the Black History Commission of Arkansas in 1991, was one of its original members and served as chair from 1993 until his death in 2007. During his time as the commission chair, he pushed for legislation to have African American history taught in Arkansas schools, leading to the passage of Act 326 of 1997.

 “Mr. Sykes worked tirelessly for the African American community,” Oyinloye said. “The grant program encourages others to carry on his efforts.”

The first step in the grant process is a consultation with Oyinloye, who can be reached at (501) 682-6900. Additional information, guidelines and the grant application are available at