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What's in a name? Plenty, Mosaic Templars supporters say

Little Rock museum considering changing its name.

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MOSAIC TEMPLARS CULTURAL CENTER: The original 1913 building at Ninth and Broadway streets was destroyed by fire in 2005 and reconstructed in its entirety. The museum opened in 2008.
  • MOSAIC TEMPLARS CULTURAL CENTER: The original 1913 building at Ninth and Broadway streets was destroyed by fire in 2005 and reconstructed in its entirety. The museum opened in 2008.

A five-year strategic plan's suggestion that the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center change its name to the Mosaic Museum of African American History and Culture drew the ire of around 40 people attending a Sunday community meeting called by the museum.

Attendees at the meeting, held on the campus of Philander Smith College and facilitated by Philander marketing director Jenelle Prim, quickly commandeered the structure of the meeting, refusing Prim's request that they break into small groups to consider several questions put forward by the museum regarding its role and future growth.

The name change is included in a document drawn up as part of the museum's application for national accreditation. Museum Director Christina Shutt said the name change idea "came out of the community in part" and from reports of reviews of Mosaic Templars by other museum people. "It kept coming up," she said. "I looked and said, 'Here's an opportunity.' " Shutt stressed that the change was only a suggestion, and that she had no intention of changing the legislative name of the museum (the Mosaic Templars of America Center for African American Culture and Business Enterprise). Instead, it could keep that name but do business under another — "doing business as," Shutt said — that would make clear the museum's mission of presenting African-American history in Arkansas

But that idea incensed Sunday's meeting attendees, who included members of the Mosaic Templars Building Preservation Society, which worked for nine years to get the state legislature on board to create the museum; former Mayor Lottie Shackelford; state Sen. Irma Hunter Brown; and Arkansas Black History Commission chair Carla Hines Coleman.

The Mosaic Templars of America fraternal organization was founded in 1882 by former slaves John E. Bush and Chester W. Keatts and became an international order. The preservation group's passion to create an institution that would honor Bush and Keatt's efforts to create what would become, by 1913, the largest black business in the United States, was such that when the Mosaic Templars office building burned to the ground in 2005, just after work to restore it had begun, the state determined to rebuild the building as it was in its prime. It includes exhibits on African-American businesses at the turn of the century, the history of Ninth Street and urban renewal's degradation of the neighborhood and a third-floor auditorium, which is entered through the Black Hall of Fame.

After meeting attendees persuaded Prim that they wanted to meet as a committee of the whole, she began to go through a series of questions with them: What do you think of when you think of Mosaic Templars? What is unique about the museum? What are its most important programs?

But no matter the question, the answers took the form of testimony about why the Mosaic Templars should be remembered and honored, rather than casting the museum as about African-American history in general.

Constance Sarto, who is married to the grandson of Mosaic Templar Founder John Bush and was the museum's first director, said she'd had no idea "of the power that that organization had shortly out of slavery" when she first arrived in Little Rock and that the fraternity's history continues to be an "engaging" and rich source of knowledge about African-American entrepreneurship in Little Rock.

John Graves, a professor of American History at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia and the author of "Town and Country: Race Relations in an Urban-Rural Context," said he became involved with the effort to establish the Mosaic Templars center because "I found out it didn't matter what race or ethnic group, [people] knew nothing about black history in Arkansas prior to 1950." He said John Bush had organized in 1891 a protest of the segregation of railroad cars and had successfully lobbied the legislature to block passage of a law Gov. Jeff Davis was pushing that would have limited taxes for black schools to those generated in the black community, "which would have destroyed black schooling." He expressed surprise that "even now, we don't have this [history] in the museum exhibits."

"Black civil rights activism did not begin in 1957, and we need more of that history ... and certainly not minimizing the history of the Mosaic Templars," Graves said.

Coleman recalled John Bush's gift to the city of Little Rock of 15 acres for the Oakland-Fraternal Cemetery. She noted that five acres of the land is under Horace Mann Middle School, suggesting that the city was repeating history, trying to bury the Bush legacy by changing the name of the museum.

Phyllis Brown, a Little Rock native and activist, went so far as to suggest the setup of the community meeting was a disingenuous ploy to distract Mosaic Templars supporters from the name issue. "You are programming us away from the main focus," she told Prim. "One day we're going to walk into Mosaic Templars and the words of John Bush will have been removed from the wall ... and it will say, 'We was good to our niggers.' "

In a phone interview later, Brown said that removing the Templars name was a "form of revisionist history. ... Templars is the core of the building — the international organization — and I just feel that the current director is trampling that history. She's being the one to enforce this whiteness, to make it more appealing to white people."

Shutt, an archivist who before taking over the Mosaic Templars in June 2016 was the associate librarian for special collections at Hendrix College in Conway, said the response at the community meeting "took me a little bit by surprise. We had hoped to speak more about the strategic plan." (The plan can be found on the museum's website, mosaictemplarscenter.org.)

The museum is working to reach more people, Shutt said, noting its #InclusiveArkansas campaign to increase the numbers and diversity of its visitors, including those who are disabled. "It isn't just a museum for the 72201 ZIP code," she said. "Black history is Arkansas history," she added.

A question that the group didn't get to — "What other black history museums can you name" — was meant to address the fact that museum names do change, Shutt said. She gave as examples the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, which began as the Ebony Museum; the Charles H. White Museum of African American History in Detroit, which opened as the International Afro-American Museum; and the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, which was opened as the Anacostia as an outreach project to bring more people from that largely black neighborhood to the Smithsonian's museums.

But one person attending the meeting Sunday described some museums as being "a little bit of this and a little bit of that, interesting but not with one major blockbuster piece of history. If we change the name, then what we are doing is divorcing the community from its own history. And there's no need to do that."

The museum will finalize its accreditation application by January, Shutt said.

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