A Piece of Black History is Lost, by Kimberley Jane Wilson

A New Visions Commentary paper published December 2001 by The National Center
for Public Policy Research * 501 Capitol Ct., N.E., Washington, DC 20002, 202/543-4110, Fax 202-543-5975, E-Mail [email protected], Web http://www.nationalcenter.org.
Reprints permitted provided source is credited.

The Choctaw Terminal Freight Depot in Little Rock, Arkansas was demolished in November. That’s sad, and I’ll explain why a little later. What is even sadder is that outside of Arkansas, I doubt more than a few black people around the country have even heard of it.

The depot was built in 1899 by former slaves. According to Little Rock preservationist Gregory Ferguson, the depot "was probably one of the most integrated places in the city of Little Rock at the turn of the century." I don’t know how many historically important black sites have survived in Arkansas but, since so little of our history has been preserved nationally, every single site anywhere is precious.

In my preservation-minded hometown near the nation’s capital, which attracts a significant number of history-loving tourists, the Freedmen’s Cemetery was largely destroyed in the 1950’s when city fathers allowed a gas station to be built on top of it. The only thing left is the elaborate wrought iron front gate and a few headstones that were right next to it. The gas station is still there, and so are over a thousand graves – unmarked and unseen.

During segregation, there was no respect shown for black cemeteries or historic sites. But it’s a new era now, and we know better. Right?

Not exactly. The Choctaw Depot, considered a "little jewel" by preservationists due to its historical value and good condition, was demolished to make way for the presidential library of Bill Clinton. When asked about the depot, Clinton told CNSNews in September that "the building was of no use to anybody." He made this statement while attending a Congressional Black Caucus dinner. He was there to receive the Chair Award for his achievements on behalf of black Americans. Later that evening, he told the audience he was proud that some people consider him to be America’s "first black President."

I wish our "first black President" (I’m really sick of this facetious phrase!) could have been better informed about the significance of this site. I wish that someone from the Little Rock NAACP would have spoken up for this piece of black heritage. I wish that the destruction of the Choctaw Depot could have made the front pages of the newspapers. Instead, there was just silence. Would the reaction have been different if this situation arose when the libraries were built for Ronald Reagan or the elder George Bush?

I realize Bill Clinton is still wildly popular among black folks. I remember he had some blacks in his cabinet and, yes, I know that he has an office and eats soul food in Harlem. I also know that none of this justifies the silence that accompanied the destruction of a genuine black historic site.

If the depot could not have stayed intact on the library grounds, why was there no serious study on the feasibility of moving it? That is not as outlandish as it sounds. Several years ago, I visited an incredible English manor house that was bought by a wealthy American tourist, dismantled, shipped and completely reassembled in Richmond, Virginia. This house was several hundred years old. Compare that to the depot, which was only 103. We’ll never know now if it could have been saved.

Asked about what happened with Bill Clinton, former Depot owner Gene Pfeifer – who had the depot taken from him when the city took the property under dubious eminent domain procedures, said he thought Clinton’s "judgment is clouded by his private interests."

The black people who built the Choctaw Depot lived in hard times. They had been slaves and were surrounded by a community that despised them and, for the most part, probably wished that they were still enslaved. Instead of sitting in despair, they pressed on. They took their craftsman skills and built a depot that served Little Rock long after they had all passed away.

Instead of honoring their work by protecting it as a historic landmark, it was destroyed to make way for a presidential library. That’s a shame. The fact that no one on a national level came to the aid of the local preservationists who tried to save it is a bigger one.

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