History Commission Begins Research on Black History in El Dorado

The El Dorado Historic District Commission recently discussed an ongoing project to identify notable black people, businesses, churches, neighborhoods, landmarks, etc., in El Dorado, as recommended in a plan of city-wide historic preservation completed in 2020.

The African American Context Project is one of many recommendations listed in the city’s Historic Preservation Plan, which was drafted in 2020.

The project is part of the ongoing efforts to implement the plan and will be among the first projects EHDC has undertaken since the plan’s completion.

EHDC members initiated two other priority projects in the plan — Determination of Eligibility (DOE)/surveys and cultural resource inventories for three neighborhoods, Country Club Colony, Retta Brown and Mellor Park, Forest Lawn/Eastridge and a small section of the McKinney Subdivision, including some plateauless properties.

Surveys are nearing completion and will help determine whether neighborhoods will be eligible for nominations to the National Register of Historic Places, either as districts or with individually listed properties. The work is covered by certified local government grants that were channeled through the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program.

El Dorado is one of approximately 20 CLG communities in the state. CLGs partner with the state and federal government to preserve local historic resources.

For its efforts, the EHDC was recognized with a nomination for the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions Award of Excellence for Commission of the Year.

The Lakota Group, an Illinois-based planning and design firm that developed the city’s Historic Preservation Plan, another EHDC-initiated project, submitted the application to NAPC. Winners will be announced at the NAPC national meeting in July in Ohio.

When discussing the award nomination on April 14, commissioners for the historic district referenced an earlier decision to move forward with the African-American background and include the project in a nomination for the next CLG grant cycle.

Elizabeth Eggleston, executive director of the EHDC, told commissioners that the grant cycle covers eligible projects undertaken between March 15 and September 30, 2023.

Commissioners said the African American context will begin by focusing on the St. Louis neighborhood, which is roughly bordered by Robinson and Fifth streets and West and College avenues, and Mattocks Park, which is located in the neighborhood of Detroit and Sharp streets.

St. Louis was once home to a thriving cluster of black-owned businesses. including professional offices and entertainment venues that have hosted many musical legends including BB King, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and the Ike Review and Tina Turner.

The Nile and Marzell Smith Museum of African American History (Museum) is one of the focal points of the neighborhood.

The museum is housed in the former Carver Elementary School and El Dorado School District building at the intersection of Grove and Columbia streets.

The building itself is steeped in historical significance.

It once served as the campus of Booker T. Washington High School — then, a white, wood-frame building built by men from the community — and later, Carver Elementary School — both of which were intended for black students during the days of segregation in El Dorado.

When the El Dorado School District moved its administrative offices to the current location on Oak Street, the Carver Building, as it came to be known, was used for a time to house a special education program for the district.

The late Marzell Smith, a former ESD English teacher, saw the move of the central office and special education program as an opportunity to help fulfill a long-held dream for what was called originally the South Arkansas African American History Museum.

In December 2010, Marzell Smith made an impassioned presentation to the El Dorado School Board to allow the use of the Carver Building for the museum.

The school board eventually approved the request, but, unfortunately, Marzell Smith did not live to see the official opening of the museum in the Carver building.

His health began to decline when the South Arkansas African American Historical Society (Society) began transferring inventory from the museum’s former location – the Old Goodwin Home on Fifth Street – to the Carver Building.

Marzell Smith died on December 31, 2013, three years after the death of her husband, Nile Smith Sr., also a retired ESD educator.

After Marzell Smith’s death, the Society was encouraged to rename the museum in honor of the Smiths and the name was officially changed in 2014.

Sims Mortuary, Inc., is another historic point of interest in St. Louis, having operated in the neighborhood for nearly 71 years.

The company was started by the late Pete Sims Jr. and Clarence Shaw of Lawton, Oklahoma, who entered into a partnership and formed what was then called Sims-Shaw Mortuary.

The business partners aimed “to expose Union County and surrounding areas to a more dignified funeral service.”

In 1959 Sims became the sole proprietor and the business was operated as a sole proprietorship until 1969 when it was incorporated as a Sims family company with several family members as directors, including Sims’ brother, Floyd Sims.

Sadly, Floyd and his wife Alberta were killed in a car accident on February 12, 2012.

Pete died on April 12, 2016 after a brief illness in a loss that reverberated throughout the community.

He was also a local historian who assisted the Nile and Marzell Smith Museum of African American History, First Baptist Church-Cordell, and other entities with historic preservation projects, particularly those involving the black community.

Reverends Felton Burgie and Barry Dobson succeeded Pete as owners/operators of Sims Mortuary and on October 14, 2016 the business was purchased by current owners Robert and Natashia Henderson, both of whom are striving to honor Pete Sims’ legacy and his vision. of a family business that serves the community with dignity.

Dobson is still funeral director and Burgie, chaplain.

Park of pickaxes

Mattocks Park, located in the Detroit and Sharp streets area, was home to the city’s only public swimming pool for nearly 70 years.

Demolition recently began for the swimming pool, pool house, and pumphouse as part of an El Dorado Parks and Playgrounds Commission master plan to improve city parks.

The EPPC voted in 2021 to raze the facilities due to their deterioration.

Just over a year ago, Robert Edmonds, director of public works for El Dorado, acknowledged that the facilities had not undergone any significant improvements or upgrades since they were built in the early 1950s.

The pool opened shortly after the Mattocks Park land was donated to the city by late El Dorado resident Cornelia Mattocks.

Mattocks approached the El Dorado City Council, first in May 1952 and again in March 1953, and offered the city deeds for over 15 acres of land in the Detroit and Sharp streets area.

Mattocks’ donation came with conditions, specifying that the land “should be developed…as a public park and playground for members of the black race”.

The park was to be named Mattocks Memorial Park in honor of Cornelia Mattocks’ late husband, PR Mattocks, and it was to be “perpetually maintained by the City of El Dorado, its successors or assigns”.

Mattocks Park is also the only park in town with a fishing pond.

The James Johnson Gymnasium is adjacent to the park and is home to the Character First youth program, led by Dr. Bob Weido.

Anyone interested in participating in the African American context can call Eggleston at 870-315-2308 or email [email protected] or [email protected]