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.