A University of Arkansas at Little Rock student received an award from the Pulaski County Historical Society for her paper revealing the unusual history of Little Rock protestors who took on an African American-owned restaurant that practiced segregation.
Nancy Tell-Hall, who is pursuing a master’s degree in public history at UA Little Rock, received a $200 prize and second place in the F. Hampton Roy Award competition, which is presented by the Pulaski County Historical Society each year to recognize a research article that makes a significant contribution to the expansion of knowledge of Pulaski County history.
Tell-Hall was honored during a Feb. 11 ceremony at MacArthur Park, when the society planted a willow oak tree as part of the state’s World War I Centennial Commemoration.
Her paper, “An ODD Story: The Desegregation of Fisher’s Bar-B-Q in Little Rock, Arkansas,” will be published in the spring edition of the Pulaski County Historical Review, which is coming out in March.
Tell-Hall’s advisor, John Kirk, director of the Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity, said that her paper adds a fascinating dimension to understanding the dynamics of racial change in Little Rock.
“Nancy is among our first group of graduates from the Anderson Institute’s Race and Ethnicity minor, and it is an outstanding achievement for a student to have their undergraduate work published and recognized with an award,” Kirk said.
Tell-Hall’s paper tells the story of Fisher’s Bar-B-Q, owned by Corlee “Doll” Robinson. While the restaurant had an integrated sitting area, it also contained a whites-only room that had nicer flooring and air conditioning. According to Tell-Hall’s paper, the restaurant was a favorite hangout of Arkansas politicians and their families, who entered through the kitchen to avoid the mixed-race dining area.
“It was an interesting little episode in Little Rock history,” Tell-Hall said. “As Mr. Boston Torrence (co-owner of a flower shop across from Fisher’s Bar-B-Q) said, ‘that’s just the way it was.’ Mrs. Robinson even went so far as to give the African-American customers the worst cuts of meat.”
In June 1962, Wanda Knight Hamilton, an administrative worker at the Urban League of Greater Little Rock, and her friend, hairdresser Irma Coleman Armstrong, both African Americans, sat down in the whites-only section at Fisher’s Bar-B-Q. They were refused service and left after Robinson, who was holding a knife, told them to leave.
Afterwards, Hamilton, Armstrong, community members, and organizations began to protest the segregation at the restaurant. In August 1962, Daisy Bates, co-owner of the state’s largest African-American newspaper, met with Robinson, who refused to change her ways.
After the contentious encounter with Robinson, Hamilton and Bates formed the Organization for the Destruction of Discrimination, which began picketing the segregated seating at the restaurant on Aug. 20, 1962. The protest continued until Sept. 3, 1962, when the restaurant caught on fire.
After meeting with Robinson on Sept. 8, ODD declared a victory. Robinson remodeled the restaurant with one large seating area for all the customers. After the protest, Robinson would even sometimes send complimentary food to the Urban League office, where Hamilton worked.
While Little Rock was no stranger to protests against racial segregation, including sit-ins at restaurants, Tell-Hall noted that that the protest was “highly unusual in that it targeted an African American-owned business, whereas the sit-ins and Freedom Riders targeted either white-owned or white-controlled operations.”
“Nevertheless, the ODD story does demonstrate the way that local activism captured the attention of Little Rock’s media in the early 1960s,” Tell-Hall wrote. “Acting independently of national movements and the endorsement of national organizations, local African Americans organized and directed social action to pursue their own particular and localized struggles against discrimination… In the end, the freedom struggle knew no color. It was simply about freedom.”