Black History Commission of Arkansas

The Black History Commission of Arkansas (BHCA) was created as the Arkansas Black History Advisory Committee in 1991. Senator Jerry Donal Jewell introduced legislation that passed as Act 1233, establishing the seven-member, governor-appointed committee. In 1995, Act 980 changed the committee’s name to the Black History Commission of Arkansas. The BHCA was charged with preserving and promoting Arkansas’s black history, as well as advising the Arkansas History Commission (which later became the Arkansas State Archives) with respect to gathering, developing, and keeping the history of black Arkansans.

Ronnie A. Nichols, director of the Delta Cultural Center in Helena-West Helena (Phillips County), and North Little Rock (Pulaski County) educator and civic leader Curtis Henry Sykes were elected as the first chairman and vice chairman of the new committee. In January 1993, Nichols resigned the chairman position, and Sykes became chair. Sykes remained chair until his death in 2007. Historical preservationist Carla Coleman, who was appointed to the commission in 2005, became chair in 2008.

In addition to collecting and preserving the history of black Arkansans at the Arkansas State Archives, the commission has worked closely with the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) since its inception. Act 1233 requires that the commission cooperate with the ADE to develop curricular materials on black contributions to Arkansas history. Two additional pieces of legislation further promoted the collaboration between the commission and the ADE. Act 197 of 1993 directed the State Board of Education to cooperate with the commission to develop a program to increase the racial and ethnic sensitivity of teachers and administrators within Arkansas’s public schools. Act 326 of 1997 created a Black History Task Force that would operate within the ADE but whose members were appointed by the chair of the Black History Commission.

In 1997, the commission began funding small grants to support preservation projects and programs on Arkansas’s black history, operating initially through the Arkansas Humanities Council. In 1999, control of the grant program shifted to the commission, with administrative support from the Arkansas State Archives. In 2009, Senator Tracey Steele and Representative Fred Allen introduced legislation to name the grant program in memory of Sykes. The total number and dollar value of grants awarded by the commission are difficult to estimate. Based on commission records, however, it is fair to say that, by 2019, the commission had awarded over half a million dollars to more than 150 organizations for projects including cemetery preservation, historic marker placements, workshops and conferences, publications, oral history compilations, exhibits, and historic building condition assessments.

The commission receives only minimal support for its operations from the Arkansas General Assembly (less than one percent of the budget of the Arkansas State Archives), and from 2009 to 2014, the commission relied largely on sporadic General Improvement Funds to support its grant program. In 2015, through the efforts of Representative Frederick J. Love, the commission began receiving an appropriation for its grant program.

In 1996, the commission garnered attention for the state of Arkansas when its members presented a request to the state legislature (ultimately unsuccessful) for the erection of a monument on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol or in a public park renouncing and apologizing for the institution of slavery.

For additional information:
“Arkansas Considers Apology for Slavery—Memorial Could Change State’s Image Group Says.” Dallas Morning News, August 17, 1996, p. 38A.

Black History Commission of Arkansas. http://archives.arkansas.gov/about-us/bhca.aspx (accessed December 20, 2019).

Black History Commission of Arkansas Records. Arkansas State Archives, Little Rock, Arkansas.

Lisa Speer
Ouachita Baptist University

Last Updated: 12/20/2019