Workers discover segregationist-era signs in Little Rock building

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Construction crews remodeling an old five-and-dime store uncovered a relic found most often in museums and history books: the words "WHITE" and "COLORED" painted over the spots where water fountains once hung.

"Well, I was pretty amazed," said Charles Moenning, the head of construction on a project to turn the old S.H. Kress store into loft apartments and retail space. "I have never seen anything like that in my life, in person, rather."

Black letters stand out from the beige plaster walls, recalling the days when segregation ruled the South. Blacks and whites were kept apart in schools, public transportation and accommodations. Integration arrived here slowly in the 1950s and 1960s, most anxiously as nine black students tried to enter Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

"I used to shop downtown when I was a kid and I used to remember all of those signs," said 63-year-old Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey, who dropped by the store Friday with the hope of preserving the wall. He said a Roman Catholic priest had raised his awareness about racial issues when he was in high school in the 1950s.

"He would talk about it's just not fair that a young man who's white can go to a movie and sit in a certain place and a black man cannot," Dailey said. "And somebody can't drink out of a certain water fountain."

Kress built the store on Main Street in 1943 and it remained a five-and-dime until the 1960s when a drug store moved in and occupied the space until the 1990s. Developer Frieda Nelson Tirado recently purchased the vacant three-story building.

Demolition workers clearing the basement for parking spaces were ripping out old walls about two weeks ago when someone noticed the lettering through the partially demolished partition. Moenning helped workers remove the last of material covering the words Thursday.

Marks on the wall, which has sections of exposed turquoise paint, suggest the water fountains were once separated by a partition.

While Little Rock is perhaps best known for its high school desegregation crisis, integration actually started in the city a bit earlier, said Laura Miller, a historian at the Central High School National Historic Site.

"I believe it was right around 1955 and 1956 when representatives from the NAACP started asking downtown store owners to desegregate water fountains and things like that," she said. "And they did, quietly, without telling their white customers."

But the desegregation of downtown Little Rock wasn't swift. In 1960, students from historically black Philander Smith College staged a sit-in at Woolworth's to protest continuing lunch counter segregation.

During the mayor's visit, Moenning agreed to save the wall from demolition.

Dailey said he would try to see that the signs are put in a museum, calling them "a dramatic reminder of a world that we don't want to go back to."

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