BLACK HISTORY IN HOT SPRINGS: Historian Cheryl Batts talks Pleasant St. restoration, preservation
This is the first of four articles to be published in The Post's Black History Month Series. A new article will publish every Tuesday in February.
Black History Month is celebrated in February, and did you know Hot Springs's Pleasant Street National Historic District is the largest African American District in the state of Arkansas? Yet in what was once a place for people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bill Bo Jangles to stay while visiting Hot Springs, the neighborhood has seen a massive decline. Enter local historian Cheryl Batts, who is working to restore the late John Lee Webb's historic home in the neighborhood, hoping it will in-turn restore what's left of the district.
"We're in a process of trying to figure out how do we save that?" Batts said. "Because as a tourist town, you want to be known as having the largest established African American tourist thing in the state of Arkansas.
"... We hope that this (Webb House restoration) is kind of like a rock in the pond and the waves kind of go out from there and that there will be other homes that we'll be able to do the same thing with."
The nearly 3,000 square-foot home was gifted to Batts' organization, PHOEBE (People Helping Others Excel By Example), in 2014 by then-owner Patricia Perrin. Since then, about $500,000 has been put into the restoration project. Batts notes they did not expect it to take this long to restore the house, but that after about $300,000 more it should be complete. Receiving funding through donations and an annual grant from the Arkansas Historic Preservation, which the city of Hot Springs then matches with CBDG (Community Block Development Grant) funds, her estimated completion date is 2025.
"If we could get it done quicker, that would give me more time to pay attention to the historic district, because right now I'm focused on the house," Batts said. "... The district will be a bigger and a much larger piece to take on.
"Because the district has, it use to have, about 93 homes, then it went down to 83 homes, so now it may be down to 70 homes that are still standing. So that means each home has to be looked at and assessed as to how much money it might take to bring it up to par.
"... The people want to live better. These people want their houses fixed up."
Once the home is restored, PHOEBE plans to use it as a place for local youths taking part in PHOEBE's Uzuri Project Youth Institute to spend time and create and store store archives of local Black history.
In the Uzuri Project, children are taught leadership skills and given an opportunity to interview local senior citizens.
"We teach them to ask appropriate questions and be sensitive to that, so we've got a lot of stories from our seniors just by talking to our youth," Batts said. "... This whole house will be for the Uzuri Project Youth Institute. ... We also have upstairs where they will be taught, if they want to be taught to, videotape films, to videotape the oral histories."
When Batts' organization began researching the Pleasant Street District, they found out over half of its homes were listed in the Greenbook.
"So if you do any research on the Greenbook you know the Greenbook is something Black people would use to travel across country so they would know where to go to stay safe, so they wouldn't be lynched and everything," Batts said.
"So all these houses here that don't look like much now, were a part of that that kept our people alive as they travelled. ... And so that meant we had celebrities and stuff that stayed in these houses, and so documenting all of that and getting all the pictures together is a part of what the children do when they go to interview with the senior citizens.
"... We just stick to ... confirming the stories, the oral histories, that the seniors were telling us ... confirming those kind of people and those incidents ... places and events that make up the African American community as it was in Hot Springs, Arkansas. You can talk all day long, but if you can't prove it on paper some people don't believe you, and so that's what we've done."
In addition to a site for oral history archives, Batts said the restored home will also hold local Black history archives from people and things in the area like photos, letters, clothing and books.
Donate to the restoration project via CashApp at $pho, or via facebook at Save The John Lee Webb House/PHOEBE. For question or volunteer inquiries, email email@example.com.
The importance of Black History
"I wouldn't say it's more important ... what you have to look at is it's different," Batts said.
"Everybody else came over — we were drug over. That's why it's important. Because when we sit down and we talk to each other we usually cannot go back any further than our grandmothers or our great grandmothers, whereas other people can go back to 1700 and tell you who all their people were, and we can't do that.
"... They were brought here as slaves, and they were sold as cattle. They had no names, all they had were descriptions. ... So when something like that happens, when you can find out who you are — when you can associate yourself with history — that's significant and important. It touches something really deep inside of you that makes you feel welcome; that makes you feel."
The history of Webb and his house
The following is information found in a pamphlet Batts provided to The Post.
John Lee Webb was born in Tuskegee, Alabama on Sept. 11, 1877, during the first year of segregation.
"He was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but with a stutter, which he never allowed to stop him from becoming one of the most prolific speakers of the time," the pamphlet reads. "He picked cotton and waited tables to attend Tuskegee Institute. ... He was spoken highly of by Mrs. Booker T. Washington as a man of great accomplishment who had foresight, integrity and excellence in character."
Webb moved to Hot Springs with his family in 1919. He was the contractor for the five-story Woodmen of the Union Building, later known as the National Baptist Hotel. He ultimately became the founder of the National Laymen's Auxiliary of the National Baptist Conference, USA, Inc. in 1924. Webb died Aug. 30, 1946.
The house where Webb and his family lived in Hot Springs for nearly 30 years remains the focal point in the Pleasant Street Historic District. It was built around 1900 by the Edwin Hogaboom family, who operated the Rammelsburg Bath House, which is today known as Buckstaff Bath House.
Many of the homes in the Pleasant Street Historic District can be attributed to the contractual integrity of Webb.
For more information on Webb, Batts alongside others published the 2013 biography, John Lee Webb: The Man & His Legacy. It can be purchased here.