Historical Context: The Roots of the Mosaic Templars and Black Empowerment
During the 1800s the whole of the American South continued to be a rural and agricultural region. According to the 1900 United States census, only about ten percent of all people living in the South Central United States lived in urban locations of eight thousand or more people.
Little Rock, with 38,000 people in 1900 was, by comparison, a highly populated city.
The total black population was approximately 5,200.
To better understand the historical context for Arkansas black achievement during the decades from 1870-1930, contemporary readers must remember that living and working conditions for black people in particular varied greatly depending on whether one lived in a city or in a rural setting, yet all faced the common forces of “Jim Crow “segregation laws. Several of the Mosaic Templar leaders played significant roles in politics and civil rights efforts during this time, which reinforced the pivotal role of the Templars in black life in this state.
Black Political Leader’s Affiliation with the Republican Party
Early black enterprise leaders in
Little Rock: Mosaic Templars founder John E. Bush and Joseph
Booker flank Booker T. Washington and Emmett Scott. Washington
and other members of the National Negro Business Men's League
helped inaugurate the Mosaic Temple in 1913.
According to John William Graves’ paper, Mosaic Templars Leader John E. Bush and the Origins of Segregation in Arkansas, (on which much of the following history is based), the large majority of American black people living during the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century were affiliated with the Republican party, the party that was largely responsible for their emancipation and that had successfully won for them voting privileges, civil rights, and access to public education during the Reconstruction Era.
Many prominent leaders from within the Mosaic Templars organization, including founder John Bush for example, expanded their leadership roles and gained stature in local Republican affairs. Bush was elected to represent the sixth ward of Pulaski County at the Arkansas Republican State convention in 1883 and the following year was chosen secretary of the state convention. Pulaski County Republicans elected him temporary chairman of their convention in 1892; also in 1892, Bush and two other black leaders, Mifflin W. Gibbs and William La Porte, won elections as Arkansas delegates to the Republican national convention. Bush was listed as secretary of the Pulaski County Republican Organization in 1894.
Black Republicans partly owed their political success to a favorable relationship garnered with Powell Clayton, a former Reconstruction-Era governor and U.S. senator. After Reconstruction, Clayton remained the dominant figure in Arkansas Republican affairs through the 1800s. He valued personal loyalty and fidelity to the Republican Party’s chain of command more than any other qualities and joined Bush and other black people in keeping at bay "lily-white" movements within state Republican ranks.
Under their tacit understanding, black people supported Clayton’s need to be ‘first’ and in turn were assured a subordinate yet important voice in the Arkansas Republican Party. In 1898, President William McKinley appointed Bush himself, with Clayton’s backing, Receiver of United States Land Office in Little Rock. With the backing of Little Rock’s mayor, board of trade, bar association, every bank in the city, and Little Rock whites, Bush won his fight for reappointment and managed to continue to hold his position for eleven more years.
The Separate-Coach Law of 1891
Because of his prominence in both the Mosaic Templars organization and in the Arkansas Republican Party by the 1890s, John E. Bush had clearly established himself as one of the two or three most important African-American civic and political leaders in Arkansas. He was ideally positioned to rally black opposition to the new series of "Jim Crow" segregation laws being proposed by white Democratic legislators during this watershed period in Southern and Arkansas race relations.
In Arkansas, the first of these so-called "Jim Crow" laws was a measure introduced in the General Assembly of 1891 by Senator J.N. Tillman of Washington County mandating separate passenger coaches for blacks and whites on railway trains and separate waiting rooms in railway passenger stations. John E. Bush was instrumental in mobilizing blacks against the separate-coach proposal. He was a key organizer of a mass protest meeting held on January 19, 1891 at Little Rock’s black First Baptist Church, located at Seventh and Gaines Streets in downtown Little Rock. Over six hundred people were in attendance, and Bush chaired a special committee of black leaders who presented forceful resolutions to denounce the separate-coach law. They also showered Arkansas lawmakers with petitions that had been circulated throughout the state and signed by thousands, urging defeat of the Tillman bill. Bush later personally led a group of demonstrators to the steps of the State House on Markham Street, where a second mass protest was held in the chamber of the Arkansas House of Representatives.
Encouraged by these efforts, eleven of the then twelve black members of the General Assembly vehemently fought the proposal but failed to persuade most of the white majority in the legislature or prevent the Tillman bill’s passage. Despite well-organized black resistance, Arkansas determined to board the Jim Crow car and begin a journey into the past. Adoption of the separate-coach law was a genuine watershed development in the ongoing story of Arkansas’s race relations.
The Streetcar Segregation Act of 1903
By 1903, then Governor Jeff Davis brought about pressures for expansion of the Jim Crow system. The most important of these measures was the Arkansas Street car Segregation Act adopted by the legislature of 1903, modeled after similar measures already in force in Virginia and Georgia, assigning whites and blacks to different portions of the streetcar. Passengers who refused to move to another seat when so ordered by the conductor could be ejected, or subjected to a twenty-five dollar fine. Adhering to the "separate but equal" formula, the bill also prohibited discrimination in the quality or convenience of services offered the two races.
Subsequent legislation, the Gantt streetcar law, seen as more moderate, did not require separate coaches but did provide segregation within the same car. The line dividing the races could be moved at the discretion of the conductor. This measure proved intolerable to many black people who had been unable to oppose segregation within the legislature, since after disfranchisement, no black legislators remained. However, outside the General Assembly, John E. Bush, just as he had twelve years earlier, helped mobilize vigorous and sustained black opposition.
On March 11, 1903, Bush and five other principal speakers spoke at a protest meeting again held at First Baptist Church. Mifflin W. Gibbs, former U.S. Consul to Madagascar; two physicians, Drs. D.B. Gaines and G. W. Hayman; and two ministers, the Reverend J. H. Reed, pastor of Wesley Chapel Methodist Episcopal, and the Reverend W.A.J. Phillips, pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church, spoke at the meeting. All of the men were established spokespersons well known for their moderation and advocacy of interracial cooperation.
Reinforcing the protest meetings and resolutions, Arkansas blacks also brought economic pressure to bear upon white leaders by organizing boycotts against the state’s urban streetcar companies. Black boycotts took effect in Little Rock, Pine Bluff, and Hot Springs, on May 27, 1903, the first day of the streetcar law. Black traffic on the street railways of Little Rock fell by over 90 percent, with similar results in Pine Bluff and Hot Springs.
The boycotts worked to bring about racial unity in support of direct and active black resistance to racial oppression while usually avoiding confrontations that could lead to lynching, race riots, and other acts of violence against the black community. One such violent lynching occurred in Little Rock in 1927 as a white vigilante mob dragged a black man accused of beating two white women through the streets of the city and burning his body outside the Templars building at 9th and Broadway.
As historian LeRoy T. Williams noted in Persistence of the Spirit, "all in all, racism, disfranchisement, and Jim Crow segregation were prominent features of Arkansas and American life between 1900 and 1954. Throughout these struggles black Arkansans, not only persisted and survived but were triumphant in the overall cause to uplift the race."