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Plan for the homeless echoes Gillam Park history

It's a dumping ground, again.

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A "dumping ground" was how City Director Erma Hendricks recently referred to her east end Ward 1 city district. The occasion was a Little Rock City Board meeting, where plans were being discussed to establish a place for evening meals for the homeless beneath a tent on the grounds of a city homeless day care center on Springer Boulevard. This followed a proposed city ordinance that would make it all but impossible for church groups to serve meals to the homeless in the city.

The history of Ward 1, built and developed around Gillam Park, certainly bears Hendricks' "dumping ground" comments out. In the 1930s, Gillam Park was purchased by the city specifically as a dumping ground for jobless and homeless people who were victims of the Great Depression. It then became the site of a segregated Jim Crow park. Later, it was the cornerstone of a multimillion-dollar slum clearance and urban redevelopment plan that looked to relocate much of the black population into that part of the city.

The purchase of Gillam Park was authorized by Mayor Horace A. Knowlton and the Little Rock City Council at a meeting on Nov. 22, 1934, with the approval and support of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce. The purchase addressed two problems. The first was the growing transient population in the city, made up of jobless and homeless victims of the Great Depression who were being fed and sheltered by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Complaints from Little Rock residents about these people prompted the council to purchase the land to relocate the transients beyond the city limits. The removal of the transients intersected with a second problem, the lack of recreation facilities for Little Rock's black population. Although the city funded six whites-only parks, it provided none for its black population, contravening the established segregation principle to provide "separate but equal" facilities.

By purchasing the land on the outskirts of the city, the mayor and council hoped to win federal funds for relocating and temporarily housing its transient population and for the longer-term development of a segregated black park. By the end of 1935 the City Council proposed a bond issue of $15,000 "to purchase, improve and to cover the city's contribution for the development of the colored park." The park bond issue was bundled with two other bond issues, one for $468,000 to build the segregated downtown Robinson Auditorium, and another for $25,000 to construct and equip a segregated addition to the city library. The bond issue for the black park was added as a sop to win black support for the white projects and to encourage white voters to support the black park project. All three bonds passed in January 1937.

Although the whites-only projects quickly moved ahead, there was little action on developing the black park. In June 1941, the City Council discussed abandoning the park project altogether. The proposed site was a long way out of town and difficult to reach. When members of the Parks Committee went to take a look at the purchased land they "quickly became discouraged with the Granite Mountain location," the Arkansas Gazette reported. Several expressed "amazement that it had been bought by the city for a park" and one even suggested that the site was "more suitable for a concentration camp."

It was not until after World War II that the city returned to the project. When the black community began to protest, the city agreed to issue a bond for $359,000 to pay for the development of black recreation facilities at Gillam Park. In doing so, the city fully expected it to fail, but at least it would show token good will. The bond issue went to the voters on Feb. 1, 1949. Then, as the black newspaper the Arkansas State Press, owned by L.C. and Daisy Bates, described it, "the unexpected happened — the bond issue passed and has made the city the acme of deception and the laughing stock of the entire South." It declared that, "$359,000 ... is entirely too much money to be spent upon Negro recreation in Little Rock" and predicted, "it is not going to be spent any time in the near future if there is any way for the present administration to stop it."

Nothing did happen until the following year, when the city used the bond money as a lure for newly available federal money to instigate a comprehensive program of slum clearance and urban redevelopment that would involve the purposeful and premeditated development of segregated neighborhoods in the city. A special election in January 1950 mandated the city's slum clearance and urban redevelopment plans and the black park bond issue was successfully used to secure a federal grant of $9,641,000.

With the urban renewal money, work at Gilliam Park quickly began. By August 1950, a swimming pool had been built and an opening ceremony held. The State Press confessed its bewilderment. "We are a little puzzled over the dedication of a new pool exclusively for Negroes," ran its editorial. "We believe it came about twenty odd years too late for us to shout joy. In this day and time when the entire country is planning programs to stamp out segregation, it seems a little ironical that Little Rock Negroes should be dedicating the outmoded principles."

Less than a year after opening, the Gillam Park swimming pool was reported leaking. Attendance was poor. The State Press observed, "That is no more than natural. People do not support the things they do not want. [Blacks] did not want a swimming pool built out of the city in an insect infested mountain." Events came to a head in July 1954 when Tommy Grigsby, a black boy, drowned in the Gillam Park swimming pool. At the time, the pool was understaffed with lifeguards, it lacked a respirator that might have saved Grigsby's life, and its remote location meant that a doctor and rescue squad could not reach the scene in time to resuscitate him. The State Press lamented, "the whole affair was a study in second class citizenship."

Gillam Park became the focus of the city's efforts to force the black population into the eastern part of the city. The city's first segregated public housing projects under its urban renewal plans were the 400 units of Joseph A. Booker Homes built adjacent to Gillam Park at Granite Mountain. In 1952, Booker High School was built next to the Booker Homes. By a stroke of convenient racial gerrymandering, it emerged that although Gillam Park, Booker Homes and Booker High School all fell within the city limits and could qualify for federal funds for slum clearance and urban redevelopment, at the same time the Little Rock School District ended just short of the school so that it fell instead within the Pulaski County Special (Rural) School District.

When the school opened in September 1952 under chronically crowded conditions, there was still not enough room to accommodate all of the children of the black families residing at Booker Homes. Over a hundred black students were left stranded without provisions for their education. The city refused to take responsibility for them, with acting superintendent of Little Rock schools Dr. Ed McCuiston suggesting that they pay a private tuition fee of $12.50 a year to attend city schools. Such was the outrage among black and some white sections of the population in Little Rock that the Arkansas General Assembly was forced to rush through a "Booker Bill" that required Booker High School to be incorporated into the Little Rock School District.

In the 1990s, the Booker Homes were demolished due to rampant problems with crime and drugs, hardly surprising given the city's historical desire to abandon its marginalized population in that part of the city. Mining and other industries have been located out at Granite Mountain and it is on the regular flight path for the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, prompting allegations of environmental racism. The latest city flirtation with removing the homeless to the area brings it back full circle to the originally intended use of the site as a dumping ground for the jobless and homeless in the 1930s. The long and undistinguished use of the area by the city as a place to banish its undesirables appears to have changed little in the past 83 years.

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