Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Letter from the Director January 2021


ASA Director David Ware
Outside my office window as I write this, I can see a relatively full parking lot; the empty spaces that appeared in the days before Christmas and continued through the New Year’s weekend are empty no longer. Soon, with the start of the 2021 session of the Legislative Assembly, the Capitol Hill parking lots will become zones of competition as legislators, government staff and workers in the various agencies of the Capitol complex all contend for a not-quite-adequate supply of spaces close to their respective buildings. This is, of course, nothing new: in 1939, a planning commission proposed acquiring the property due north of the Capitol, to create a formal approach to the building and to make room for new parking lots.  This plan was not immediately pursued, but in the years following World War II, the land—occupied by residences and commercial properties, including a liquor store (converted from a filling station) built to resemble a giant mushroom and a café—was bought by the state. The structures were cleared and the ground landscaped; today, what might have been a humble but useful parking lot is the site of the Capitol’s rose garden.

Proposed Development North of the Capitol

As time passed and Arkansas’s government grew, adequate parking remained a challenge. Parking spaces lined the streets of the Capitol Mall; parking lots appeared behind the Education building and atop the hill just west of Wolfe Street.  One other parking lot is worth mention: when it was installed, it broke the hearts of many young people. I refer to the lot located just west of One Capitol Mall, the building familiarly known as the Multi-Agency Complex or “Big Mac,” which happens to be the home of the Arkansas State Archives.  In the years before the Capitol complex’s postwar expansion, the area was a low-lying zone with a few houses on it, prone to occasional flooding as high water on the Arkansas backed up into Wolfe Creek.  In the early 1950s, Secretary of State C.G. “Crip” Hall proposed making the flood zone into a fishing pond for the youth of Little Rock.  The pond would be stocked and maintained by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, whose offices were on the north side of the Capitol Mall, overlooking the pond.


The pond was built, and it proved popular; over its approximately two decades of existence, countless young people learned the noble art of angling along its banks.  Adults were permitted to help their children, but the fishing was reserved for the young alone.  Ultimately, though, recreation yielded to the demands of more serious things: the pond was drained, graded, and paved in the 1970s to serve as a parking lot for One Capitol Mall.


During Construction of Parking Lot

The pond may have disappeared but memories of it survive. During my years working in the Capitol I frequently received requests for pictures of the pond; these almost always came from once-young anglers, who remembered the good times they had along its banks, swatting mosquitoes and casting, forming habits of pleasure which have lasted long after the pond itself went dry.  I remember their happy stories as I look out over the concrete expanse that was once water; I am grateful to have a parking place down there, but in these gray wintry days, a pond would be a welcome reminder of warmer times to come, ones with the promise of relaxing with friends, with a line in the water.


Aerial View

Elsewhere in this issue, Brian Irby looks at what was once a common element of Arkansas newspapers in the weeks before Christmas: children’s letters to Santa Claus.  I enjoyed the excerpts from the missives and one in particular caught my eye: in 1899, young Alvin Roy Solomon of Helena, promised Santa that if he brought Alvin all that he asked for, Alvin’s father, who was a tailor, would “make you a nice overcoat to keep you warm all the winter.”


Using the online genealogical resources available in our research room, I looked for more information about young Alvin.  I discovered that he was the son of Samuel and Bertha Solomon of Helena; Sam was indeed a tailor with a well-established business in the Queen City.  The Solomons were members of the Beth El congregation, but Alvin’s writing to Santa did not particularly surprise me, since even then, “Santa” was a secular seasonal figure, whose appeal (like that of receiving gifts) transcended racial and religious boundaries.  What did surprise me, however, was Alvin’s age: he had been born in March of 1896, making him all of three and a half years old when he made Santa the conditional offer of a warm coat. Alvin was either a child prodigy or (and this seems more likely) he may have had just a little help with that letter.


We cannot know how Alvin Solomon fared in that Christmas season, but we know a bit more about him.  As a young man who knew his duty, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served during World War I.  He returned to Helena in time to be a witness to the racial violence that swept Phillips County in 1919, known today variously as the Elaine race riots or, more often, the Elaine Massacre. He remained a Helena resident all his life, marrying a local girl in 1933. In 1996, labor historian Kerry Taylor interviewed centenarian Alvin Solomon about the events of October 1919; the interview forms part of Taylor’s collection of newspaper clippings, primary documents, notes, secondary sources, and miscellaneous materials on the Elaine Massacre preserved in the University of Arkansas’s Special Collections.


Alvin Roy Solomon died in 2001, at the age of 105.  He is buried in Helena’s Beth El cemetery, along with other family members. He was a witness to history: his letter to Santa reveals something of the customs and life of being of a young Jewish boy in a prosperous Gentile community, while his late-life testimony casts light on one of the darkest episodes in Arkansas’s history. His story is one of the thousands of Arkansas lives worth exploring; I am grateful to Brian Irby for making the introduction.