A graduating student is shedding light on the removal of one of Little Rock’s first working class African-American suburbs, West Rock, as part of the city’s urban renewal efforts of the 1950s and 60s.
Nancy Tell-Hall, who will graduate Dec. 14 with a master’s degree in public history, studied the city’s removal of the neighborhood for her master’s thesis, “Urban Renewal PROJECT-ARK-4: The Demise of West Rock, Arkansas: 1884-1960.”
West Rock was a part of what is now the Riverdale neighborhood near Fred Allsopp Park and downhill from present day Hillcrest. West Rock provided affordable housing and accessibility to many people who had domestic, service, and labor jobs. The Slum Clearance Referendum of 1950 allowed Little Rock to accept federal assistance to remove dilapidated urban housing under the guise of “urban renewal.”
“The Little Rock Housing Authority and city leaders had all of them removed by 1960,” Tell-Hall said. “The plan to remove West Rock started in 1926 because the city needed to open the westward corridor to make room for segregated western suburbs and to expand Highway 10. They knew the property would be very valuable one day.”
When Little Rock bought West Rock, the city estimated the land was worth about $59 per acre. The city purchased the property at that price and sold it for $12,380.03 per acre. The residents were relocated to other areas of the city. Just this spring, some of the land in the area sold for more than $475,000 per acre.
“Today, that area is prime, commercially zoned land,” Tell-Hall said. “I often think about the residents forced to move. Some families owned West Rock land for generations. There are those who say the Housing Authority did them a favor by providing the residents a better place to live. However, a 1960 newspaper article wrote the Little Rock Housing Authority was about rehabilitating neighborhoods. I wonder why they didn’t upgrade the housing that was already there. Removal was not rehabilitation.”
Tell-Hall researched primary historical documents from the time to tell the story of West Rock’s creation to its removal in 1960. She has also created an educational website about West Rock public use.
In addition to telling the story of West Rock, Tell-Hall has been involved in promoting the history of racial justice in Arkansas. In 2018, Tell-Hall won second place in the F. Hampton Roy Award competition for her paper revealing the unusual circumstances surrounding the desegregation of Fisher’s Bar-B-Q in Little Rock in 1962. Unlike many sit-ins and Freedom Rider protests that targeted white-owned or white-controlled operations, the protesters targeted an African-American owned business that segregated its customers.
UA Little Rock’s Department of History recognized Tell-Hall’s civil rights research earlier this year when she was awarded the department’s $5,000 Little Rock Nine Endowed Scholarship, which is awarded to a graduate student focused on race relations and community development.
One lesson Tell-Hall wants to emphasize to all college students is that it’s never too late to complete your education.
“I find it very exciting,” said Tell-Hall, 58. “I’ve heard people say that 50 is the new 30. I talk to a lot of people who wish they had gone to school, and I recommend to anyone who is older to go to college. I was often older than my professors, and I found that younger students appreciate having older students who have lived through some of the experiences you talk about in class. I remember studying about the night the Berlin Wall fell. I watched it all on CNN! I think people appreciate hearing living history.”
Tell-Hall left college in 1979 to concentrate on raising her son. The two family members coincidentally graduated together from UA Little Rock in 2017, both having earned bachelor’s degrees. Four decades after leaving college, Tell-Hall’s college education is now complete after earning a master’s degree.
“Originally, I considered 2017 the year my academic journey ended,” Tell-Hall said. “I never considered going to grad school. While it is true that grad school can be intense, it was rewarding beyond imagination. To be considered a ‘master’ in the field of racial and ethnic American history is quite satisfying and exciting.”
After graduation, Tell-Hall and her husband of 37 years, Jeffrey, plan to move to Okmulgee, Oklahoma, the capital of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Tell-Hall became a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in 2012 after discovering her father’s unknown lineage. There, she plans to put her history research skills to work for the tribe.
While at UA Little Rock, Tell-Hall has worked as a graduate assistant with the Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity, interned with the City of Little Rock Planning and Development Department, the Sequoyah National Research Center, and volunteered with the National Register of Historic Places.
“Nancy flourished as a graduate assistant at the Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity, which provided the hands-on experience that will help her land what she describes as her ‘dream job’ upon graduation,” said Dr. John Kirk, George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History.