“The Ladies . . . Want Action”: The Greater Little Rock Women’s Chamber of Commerce and the Crusade for Urban Renewal

In our fifth installment of the 2019 UHA/The Metropole Grad Student Blog contest,  University of Mississippi PhD candidate Monica N. Campbell explores the role of white women in pushing through urban renewal and slum clearance, advancing the “life cycle” of their cities. Through her essay, Campbell suggests that historical tropes about urban renewal, often seen as the provenance of more traditional East Coast and Midwestern cities, need to be reevaluated in light of experiences like those of Little Rock, Arkansas and the women, for ill and for good, who led the charge. 

On May 9, 1950, voters in Little Rock, Arkansas, approved the local housing authority’s plans to clear and replace more than 8,000 slum houses, making Little Rock one of the first cities in the United States to initiate an urban renewal program under the Federal Housing Act of 1949.[1] Five years later, an Arkansas Gazette feature praised the Little Rock Housing Authority (LRHA) for leading the charge against the city’s slums.[2] While the LRHA laid the plans for Little Rock’s fledgling urban renewal program, however, it only got off the ground thanks to a local civic group composed of white businesswomen and professionals. Rather than passive consumers toward whom urban renewal efforts were directed, these women were active participants, leading the drive and forging a powerful political network of businessmen and city officials to carry out downtown redevelopment in the 1950s.[3] From imagined consumer to very real advocate, the Greater Little Rock Women’s Chamber of Commerce (WCC) urban renewal life cycle demonstrates both the organization’s and the city’s historical development with respect to urban revitalization. Through their crusade, these southern white middle-class women succeeded where local male officials could not. Thanks to their efforts, Little Rock emerged as a national leader in slum clearance and urban renewal.

Little Rock, [Arkansas]. Filming high school classes, Thomas O’Halloran, September 1958, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In 1955, the WCC spurred renewal efforts when it tackled Little Rock’s slum areas as part of its fire prevention and city clean-up projects. An auxiliary of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, the WCC comprised 150 women concerned with upholding the city’s reputation as Arkansas’s “City of Roses.”[4] The persistence of slums, especially those bordering the downtown central business district, threatened “both the city’s excellent fire record and its claims to beauty.”[5] The WCC pinpointed almost seventy buildings condemned as fire and health hazards in the city’s east end and “almost in the heart of downtown” at 12th and Spring Streets, which “posed the main challenge” that year. Some had been ordered demolished as early as 1947. But no action had been taken against the owners. To address the issue, the WCC appointed a fire prevention committee with Barbara Sparks as chairman along with Nona White and WCC president Edna Harrison. The WCC strategically employed the local media to bolster their efforts.[6] Recruiting an Arkansas Democrat photographer, the committee launched a “female-powered offensive” on February 9 against the condemned buildings.[7] Five days later, the women initiated the second phase of their crusade, appearing before the City Council with pictures from their tour, “armed with a resolution and several pinpointed questions on why the buildings have not been razed.”[8] As a result of public pressure from the WCC, the City Council quickly cleared slum houses on the northeast corner of 4th and Bond Streets in the city’s east end, kickstarting what the male leadership had considered “Little Rock’s most futile crusade.”[9]

The WCC’s campaign highlighted a common issue around which public and private housing forces – often at odds – could rally, helping to solidify the public-private cooperation that came to define the city’s urban renewal program. The women’s work inspired the local real estate board to begin composing a set of proposed ordinances, using “facts and figures” supplied by the WCC “to put some teeth into city condemnation laws.”[10] President James East declared that the board would “go 100 percent behind the ideas of the WCC crusade,” and on February 26 the board officially joined the campaign.[11] The WCC planned to “add fuel to the crusade” with an organized tour of condemned houses bordering downtown and lining the route to the governor’s mansion on March 12.[12] Arguing for strong enforcement as “the only way we can preserve our city against deterioration,” president Edna Harrison declared the WCC “either wants the present condemnation code aggressively enforced, or passage of one that can be enforced.”[13] Roughly sixty people joined the two-hour tour, including city officials and representatives from the LRHA, the real estate board, and the City Beautiful Commission.[14] As a result of the tour, Mayor Pratt Remmel appointed a fifteen-member Housing Code Committee (HCC) to develop new regulations to enforce condemnations.[15] The group involved “representatives of public and private housing interests,” including East, LRHA executive director Knox Banner, and Acting Planning Director James R. Stephens. Barbara Sparks served as acting chairman.[16]

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Little Rock, Pulaski County, Arkansas, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

The HCC proposed a new condemnation ordinance to help reinforce the city’s urban renewal program. On April 25, the HCC filed two proposed ordinances to re-condemn 49 of the substandard houses which were part of the WCC’s campaign.[17] The legislation allowed the city to invoke eminent domain in the event that the owners refused to tear down the condemned houses, and to place a lien “on the cleared property to insure that the city would be repaid for its troubles.” The following day, Little Rock’s aldermen passed an ordinance, by a vote of 7-2, that re-condemned twelve houses “mostly in outlying districts.”[18] Taking care not to jeopardize the LRHA’s Philander Smith College Redevelopment Project Area, the HCC reconvened on May 1 to consider a second ordinance that sought to re-condemn 37 houses in the downtown district while excluding “those structures included in the [Redevelopment Project] area.” The ordinance also addressed the lack of coordination among city departments tasked with code enforcement.[19]

The WCC’s success led local planners and business leaders to recruit the organization to rally the general public around regional planning issues. Organized to coordinate the planning efforts of local governments in the cities that made up the Pulaski County Metropolitan Area, the local planning commission, Metroplan, framed Little Rock’s proposed renewal program as a means to “contribute to good citizenship and the up-building of decent communities.”[20] Additionally, Sam B. Zisman, a San Antonio native employed as Metroplan’s planning consultant, recognized the influence of citizens’ organizations like the WCC and worked to harness their power to boost area planning by encouraging cooperation “between the communities of Pulaski county.”[21] Praising the WCC’s campaign in an April 26 meeting, Zisman appealed for the women’s support to carry Metroplan past its “honeymoon period” and through the “long, hard years of married life.”[22]

The women’s crusade helped push Little Rock’s renewal program into the national spotlight. While the Housing and Home Finance Agency (HHFA) praised Metroplan as a potential national model, federal Public Housing Commissioner Charles Slusser acknowledged the WCC’s work, commending its members “for arousing Little Rock-wide interest in the problems of urban renewal with its recent condemnation campaign.”[23] In September 1956, the local Chamber’s Little Rock Report praised the WCC and the LRHA for their work, which garnered the city national recognition “for doing something about its slums and bad housing.”[24] In April 1957, a committee chaired by HHFA Administrator Albert Cole presented Little Rock a Look magazine Community Home Achievement Award “for outstanding progress in improving and rehabilitating residential areas.”[25]

Exterior, Richard Sheppard Arnold U.S. Post Office and Courthouse is a monument five-story limestone building in Little Rock, Arkansas, Carol M. Highsmith, 2010, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Despite early enthusiasm, by 1955 Little Rock’s new renewal program languished due to weak condemnation laws and waning public support. This changed when the WCC launched their campaign, in the tradition of early-twentieth-century municipal housekeeping drives, to condemn and clear substandard housing in the city’s slum areas, thus reigniting the city’s urban renewal efforts.[26] While women like Shirley Hayes and Jane Jacobs proved formidable opponents of urban renewal in their fight against New York’s master builder Robert Moses during this period, the WCC became an equally remarkable ally, leading the charge for downtown redevelopment in Little Rock.[27] In the process, the WCC facilitated the necessary alliance between business and civic leaders to bolster Little Rock’s urban renewal program, recruiting allies from organizations like the local real estate board, LRHA, and City Council over the course of their crusade. As a result, the WCC managed to wrest control of Little Rock’s slums away from property owners and pass them into the hands of city planners. At the same time, the women drew national attention to the city’s redevelopment efforts, helping to secure Little Rock’s place as a leader in slum clearance and urban renewal.

Monica-CampbellMonica N. Campbell is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Mississippi. She received her B.A. in History from the University of Central Arkansas (2010) and her B.A. in Sociology (2013) and M.A. in Public History (2015) from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. Her research focuses on mid-twentieth-century American urbanization, specifically the role of small cities in shaping national urban renewal policy.

Featured image (at top): Downton Little Rock, Arkansas, Thomas O’Halloran, September 17, 1958, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

[1] Urban Renewal was a program of federally-underwritten public efforts to revive U.S. inner cities enacted by Title I of the Housing Act of 1949. See Arnold R. Hirsch, “Urban Renewal,” Encyclopedia of Chicago, accessed July 7, 2019, http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1295.html. A part of President Harry S. Truman’s Fair Deal, the Housing Act of 1949 expanded the city’s powers of eminent domain, emphasized the role of private enterprise in the implementation of urban renewal programs as a means of boosting the housing industry, and provided federal funds for relocating those displaced by urban renewal in an effort to secure “the growth, wealth, and security of the Nation.” 81st Congress, 1st Session, “Housing Act of 1949,” July 15, 1949, 413, Library of Congress, accessed July 10, 2019, https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/81st-congress/session-1/c81s1ch338.pdf.

[2] Jason Rouby, “Slums – A Report of Progress: Five Years Ago, Little Rock Approved a New Program Aimed at Low-rent Housing and Clearance of the Slums; Here Is a Review of Achievements and Things to Come,” Arkansas Gazette Sunday Magazine, May 22, 1955, Box 1, Little Rock Housing Authority Microfilm Scrapbooks Collection, 1950-1980, UALR.MS.0085 (hereafter LRHAMS).

[3] Alison Isenberg, Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), 77, 171-172.

[4] Little Rock was dubbed the “City of Roses” in 1936 during Arkansas’s Centennial Celebration. Sarah A. Vestal, “Vestal Nursery,” The Encyclopedia of Arkansas, last modified June 20, 2019, accessed July 10, 2019, https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/vestal-nursery-4370/.

[5] Charles Rixse, “Drive to Eradicate Condemned Houses Opened by Women: Substandard Units Target Of Campaign: Many Condemned For Six Years Still Are Being Occupied,” Arkansas Democrat, February 10, 1955, Box 1, LRHAMS.

[6] Jane Jacobs famously employed the same strategy in her fight against Robert Moses. Anthony Flint, Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City (New York: Random House, 2009), 83-85.

[7] Rixse, “Drive to Eradicate Condemned Houses,” February 10, 1955.

[8] “Council To Hear Shack Complaints,” Arkansas Democrat, February 13, 1955, Box 1, LRHAMS.

[9] Charles Rixse, “Now For the Big Slum: Women’s C. of C. Got Results in Drive To Tear Down Little Rock Eyesores, But ‘Downtown’ Slum Remains Standing,” Arkansas Democrat, February 20, 1955, Box 1, LRHAMS.

[10] “Realtors Join Women’s C-C Slum Fight: Organization Drawing Up Ordinances,” Arkansas Democrat, February 20, 1955, 2A, Box 1, LRHAMS.

[11] “Realtors Join Women’s C-C Slum Fight,” Arkansas Democrat, February 20, 1955, 2A (quotation); “Realtors’ Group To Check Slums Ordered Razed,” Arkansas Democrat, February 26, 1955, 3, Box 1, LRHAMS.

[12] “Women All Set to Tour Condemned Buildings,” Arkansas Democrat, March 11, 1955, Box 1, LRHAMS.

[13] Ibid. According to Benjamin Looker, local and national corporate leaders were responsible for igniting anti-slum campaigns with these tactics, though their goal was to “ward off more drastic government intervention” like slum clearance by promoting rehabilitation and home-improvement. Benjamin Looker, A Nation of Neighborhoods: Imagining Cities, Communities, and Democracy in Postwar America (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), 70-105.

[14] “A Bus Load of Citizens Inspects Little Rock Slums,” Arkansas Gazette, March 13, 1955, 2A, Box 1, LRHAMS.

[15] “Drive On Buildings Gets Push: City Establishes Group to Draw Up New Regulations,” Arkansas Democrat, March 17, 1955; “Women’s CC Told of Area Plan Needs,” Arkansas Democrat, April 26, 1955, 2, Box 1, LRHAMS.

[16] “Remmel Names Study Group In Search for Housing Code,” Arkansas Gazette, March 17, 1955, (quotation); “Drive On Buildings Gets Push: City Establishes Group to Draw Up New Regulations,” Arkansas Democrat, March 17, 1955, Box 1, LRHAMS.

[17] “Council Delays Plan to Force Condemnations,” Arkansas Gazette, April 26, 1955, 3A, Box 1, LRHAMS.

[18] “New Method For Razing ‘Slums’ Set,” Arkansas Democrat, April 26, 1955, 4 (quotation); Charles Rixse, “49 Structures Recondemned,” Arkansas Democrat, April 25, 1955, 1, Box 1, LRHAMS.

[19] “Study Set On Housing Code Change,” Arkansas Democrat, May 1, 1955, 2A, Box 1, LRHAMS.

[20] “Metroplan Model,” March 1955, Box 1, LRHAMS.

[21] Local opponents condemned the new area planning trend as communistic, a “super government” that would “usurp . . . powers of local commissions.” “Area Planning Seen As Aid To Industry,” Arkansas Democrat, February 12, 1955, 2, Box 1, LRHAMS. “Plan Expert To Address CC Women,” Arkansas Democrat, April 24, 1955, 14B, Box 1, LRHAMS; “Women’s CC Told of Area Plan Needs,” Arkansas Democrat, 2, April 26, 1955, Box 1, LRHAMS (quotation).

[22] “Women’s CC Told of Area Plan Needs,” Arkansas Democrat, April 26, 1955.

[23] HHFA officials were impressed by Metroplan’s speedy formation. “Pulaski Seen As a Model for the Nation,” Arkansas Democrat, March 14, 1955; “Public Housing Here Praised by Slusser,” March 24, 1955 (quotation), Box 1, LRHAMS.

[24] The AIDC was the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, created in 1955 by Governor Orval Faubus and tasked with attracting new industry to the state. Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, Little Rock Report 2, 12, September 15, 1956, 4, Box 1, LRHAMS.

[25] Little Rock was one of nine cities, four of them southern, presented the 1957 Look award. New York (AP), “City Wins Top Award In Housing,” Arkansas Democrat, April 8, 1957, (second quotation); “The Look Award,” Arkansas Gazette, April 10, 1957, (first quotation), Box 1, LRHAMS.

[26] Specifically, the WCC worked to “bring together divergent private interests into a common bond and agenda” and depoliticized their campaign even as they “proposed and lobbied for legislation, fought for the enforcement of local ordinances, and got voters to the polls for their favored causes.” Isenberg, Downtown America, 32-33.

[27] Flint, Wrestling With Moses, 75-81.

4 thoughts on ““The Ladies . . . Want Action”: The Greater Little Rock Women’s Chamber of Commerce and the Crusade for Urban Renewal

  1. I would love to get some data on these “slums” that were cleared. Were they full of people or were they just empty and derelict? A cross-disciplinary analysis would be more interesting, one that overlays the civil rights struggle at the time with urban renewal.

    We know for a fact that building I-630 cleared out the heart of Little Rock’s downtown middle class black community. Was this urban renewal project a generation before related in any way? “While the map for the expressway showed key landmarks in the city being saved from demolition, the African-American business district—centered around 9th Street—and the homes of many low-income residents, mostly black, were in the path of the new highway.” (from: https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/interstate-630-6587/ )


    1. Thank you for your comment!

      There may have been some empty buildings here and there, but for the most part, these slums were still full of people. Contemporary newspaper reports included some wonderful photographs that I would have loved to use to help illustrate that better, but I wasn’t able to get permission, or good quality copies, unfortunately. But one of the complaints that the GRLWCC brought up repeatedly was that the condemned houses still had residents and no action had been taken to remove those residents or tear down the houses, despite the fact that condemnation notices were posted on the buildings. The University of Richmond’s “Renewing Inequality” project is a wonderful resource for visualizing the demographic breakdown of these areas by race (https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/renewal/#view=-4953.48/-2211.31/11.13&viz=map&city=northlittlerockAR&loc=13/34.7427/-92.2548)

      A couple of great studies on Civil Rights/black activism in Little Rock at this time are John Kirk’s _Redefining the Color Line: Black Activism in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1940-1970_ and _An Epitaph for Little Rock: A Fiftieth Anniversary Retrospective on the Central High Crisis_. He touches on urban renewal in both works as it was a key underlying element in segregation and the school crisis.

      This early push for urban renewal and the I-630 project were definitely related. In fact, they were part of a larger project that centered on specifically renewing Little Rock’s Central Business District. Local planners and architects designed what they called the Central Little Rock Project in 1957, which they presented before a national and international audience in Little Rock that summer. This project ultimately became the foundation for urban renewal in Little Rock and guided all decisions concerning urban renewal thereafter. I explore those connections and their implications for urban renewal on a national level in much more detail in my dissertation, which I’m still in the process of writing.


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