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The Sentinel-Record - HER - Hot Springs - - Contents - Story by Grace Brown, pho­tog­ra­phy by Grace Brown and file pho­tos

Pre­serv­ing his­tory

Af­ter Cheryl Batts de­cided to leave the fast- paced city life and re­turn to her roots, she found the area that housed all her cher­ished child­hood mem­o­ries di­lap­i­dated and crum­bling. The sight of the once-thriv­ing Pleas­ant Street com­mu­nity be­ing re­duced to a frac­tion of its for­mer glory stirred some­thing pow­er­ful in­side.

“I had come back and I was look­ing at the neigh­bor­hood I grew up in on the east side there around Gul­pha and Pleas­ant Stree. It was just kind of bleak and dev­as­tated in com­par­i­son to what it was like when I was grow­ing up,” she said.

“It was a com­bi­na­tion of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, redlin­ing, and that fact that many of us ‘boomers’ had left Hot Springs in the late ’60s af­ter the civil rights bill was signed. We now had the right to go other places and our par­ents en­cour­aged us to step out but, I don’t think they an­tic­i­pated us not com­ing back.”

The ex­o­dus of tal­ented young African-Amer­i­can women and men left a gap in the com­mu­nity. The tra­di­tion of hand­ing down the fam­ily busi­ness to the next in line did not hap­pen, and Batts said the neigh­bor­hood broke down. With the com­mu­nity crum­bling right be­fore her eyes, Batts knew she must be­gin work­ing on ways to re­vive the area once

known as “Black Broad­way.”

For the past 20 years, her pas­sion for pre­serv­ing Hot Springs’ African-Amer­i­can his­tory has been the fo­cal point of Peo­ple Help­ing Oth­ers Ex­cel by Ex­am­ple, or P.H.O.E.B.E. Through com­mu­nity part­ner­ships and grant fund­ing, Batts works to share a col­lec­tive knowl­edge of the town’s rich African-Amer­i­can his­tory and has taken on the task of restor­ing the John Lee Webb house.

When the non­profit first be­gan, Batts went out into the com­mu­nity to pull in­spi­ra­tion and wis­dom from her peers. She quickly learned that the first step in pre­serv­ing the his­tory of her com­mu­nity in­volved doc­u­ment­ing the oral his­to­ries of the peo­ple who also grew up dur­ing Pleas­ant Street’s hey­day.

“One of the things that we re­al­ized is, your se­nior adults have all your his­tory in their heads. That was the first thing we did was start to honor our se­nior adults. We had pro­grams where they were in­vited to come to tell their sto­ries and we would video­tape their oral his­to­ries,” she said.

Even­tu­ally, Batts paired up the need for chil­dren and teens to have pos­i­tive out­lets with her his­tory project through The Uzuri Project Youth In­sti­tute, which has be­come the largest of the sub­sec­tions of P.H.O.E.B.E., the his­tor­i­cal re­search and doc­u­men­ta­tion pro­gram.

The stu­dents now con­duct the in­ter­views for the oral his­to­ries. Each class to en­roll in the P.H.O.E.B.E/ Uzuri Project Youth In­sti­tute’s eight-week pro­gram has the chance to learn about their town through a very dif­fer­ent lens. The con­cept of hav­ing school-age chil­dren work with se­niors filled large gaps in ser­vice in the com­mu­nity.

The pro­gram is di­vided into three dif­fer­ent tracks and each one builds off the next. Al­though they are all meant to be com­pleted, Batts said they can stand alone if for some rea­son a stu­dent can­not com­plete all three. In ad­di­tion to learn­ing about their town’s his­tory, the stu­dents en­ter into a type of men­tor­ship with oth­ers in­volved in the pro­gram.

“In (John Lee Webb’s) book, there are sev­eral things he talks about and one of them is the youth. He was very pas­sion­ate about help­ing young peo­ple bet­ter them­selves be­cause of what the rep­re­sent. He was the con­trac­tor for Home Har­bor, the su­per­in­ten­dent of the Roanoak Bap­tist Church’s Sun­day school un­til he passed, and he started the Na­tional Lay­man’s As­so­ci­a­tion,” Batts said.

“We all know the youth are our fu­ture. We know this, but in to­day’s so­ci­ety, we’re work­ing to find how to bet­ter pre­pare them and repli­cate

some of the things he did.”

Batts says that the P.H.O.E.B.E/ The Uzuri Project Youth In­sti­tute cre­ates an op­por­tu­nity to not only teach the chil­dren how to do oral his­tory in­ter­views, but a place where they learn lead­er­ship skills, eti­quette, pre­sen­ta­tional skills, and love vol­un­teerism. It picks up where tra­di­tional school­ing leaves off and teaches the es­sen­tials of what it takes to be a pro­duc­tive mem­ber of the com­mu­nity. So, in her own way, Batts is work­ing in the com­mu­nity to fur­ther Webb’s mis­sion of bring­ing the city to­gether and help­ing each gen­er­a­tion ex­ceed the next.

“If you don’t know your his­tory, your past, then you’re bound to re­peat it. What we want to do is have the chil­dren in­volved in very pos­i­tive things and tell them very pos­i­tive things about peo­ple who went be­fore them and laid the ground­work for so­ci­ety as we see it to­day,” Batts said.

“P.H.O.E.B.E. is Peo­ple Help­ing Oth­ers Ex­cel By Ex­am­ple. If we are go­ing to show peo­ple how to ex­cel by ex­am­ple, we are go­ing to show them how to do it with chil­dren and then we are go­ing to show the chil­dren how to work to­gether to ac­com­plish big­ger bet­ter things,” she said.

A large part of the three-track P. H.O. E. B. E./ The Uzuri Project Youth In­sti­tute is teach­ing young women and men how to carry them­selves in so­ci­ety. Dur­ing the eight-week pro­gram, the stu­dents learn the ins and outs of nav­i­gat­ing a so­phis­ti­cated, pro­fes­sional set­ting and at their High Tea. The High Tea takes place at the Ar­ling­ton Re­sort Ho­tel & Spa on April 20.

Also housed un­der the um­brella of P.H.O.E.B.E. is a pub­lish­ing com­pany and Save the John Lee Webb House. The ef­fort to save the struc­ture do­nated to the com­mu­nity by Webb has proved to be one of Batt’s largest un­der­tak­ings. Once the ren­o­va­tion is com­pleted, it with be­come the brick and mor­tar of P.H.O.E.B.E.

When Webb first came to Hot Springs in 1913, he saw the same draw that his­tor­i­cal fig­ures like Babe Ruth and Al Capone did — a nice, quiet place with a lot of po­ten­tial. Even­tu­ally, Webb moved his large fam­ily to Hot Springs and be­gan to lay the foun­da­tion for all the work he would even­tu­ally do for the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity.

Once the ren­o­va­tion is com

plete, Batts will have more than enough space to con­duct all of the non­profit’s busi­ness, in­clud­ing ev­ery­thing from record­ing oral his­to­ries to pro­vid­ing work­shops fo­cus­ing on col­lege pre­pared­ness.

“Th­ese other av­enues that have opened up to us opened up be­cause of the his­tory. Num­ber one, we were telling the his­tory and talk­ing about Mr. Webb a lot. We knew his house was on Pleas­ant Street but it was big and it was empty and peo­ple were talk­ing big sums of money. We thought it would never hap­pen,” she said.

In 2014, the or­ga­ni­za­tion in­her­ited the Webb house from a gen­er­ous donor. The house had al­ready been placed on Arkansas’ most en­dan­gered struc­tures registry by the donor. Al­though that opened up a few grant pos­si­bil­i­ties, Batts still had a daunt­ing amount of work ahead of her. Over the course of sev­eral years, Batts and the non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion have con­tin­u­ously worked to re­store the home to its for­mer glory.

Just re­cently, the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s board of di­rec­tors met with an ar­chi­tect to open bids for some of the work still need­ing to be done to the house. Batts said they op­er­ate al­most en­tirely off grants

and the rest comes by way of do­na­tions. Be­cause of this, the or­ga­ni­za­tion is of­ten lim­ited by what they can do be­cause of restrict­ing funds and grant avail­abil­ity. One of the more vis­i­ble up­grades to the Webb house has been the work done to re­place the struc­ture’s roof. Their next un­der­tak­ing will be work on the porch, porte-cochere, and other struc­tural up­grades.

Once com­pleted, P.H.O.E.B.E.’s satel­lite of­fices will of­fi­cially have a base of op­er­a­tions. Batts said she be­lieves that hav­ing ev­ery­one work­ing so hard on this project will profoundly im­pact their abil­ity to reach their goals for the Pleas­ant Street Na­tional His­toric Dis­trict.

“We will be cen­trally lo­cated on Pleas­ant Street so that gives us more abil­ity to pull the peo­ple in the com­mu­nity and in the neigh­bor­hood to­gether to tell the his­tory of Pleas­ant Street. We can speak with a real voice by what we will have done with this house. It is a re­ally big deal for us,” Batts said.

To find out more in­for­ma­tion about P.H.O.E.B.E/Uzuri Project and their up­com­ing High Tea, visit http://theuzuripr­o­ject.org.

Photo sub­mit­ted by P.H.O.E.B.E.

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