Silent Witness

by | Feb 1, 2018 | Features

For more than a century the Latimore Home has served as cultural centerpiece for African-Americans in the River Valley. A witness to the past, and the last of its kind in Arkansas, the structure’s future is now in question.

In 1940 folk singer Woody Guthrie, no stranger to travel, captured the essence of America’s obsession with “hitting the road” in a scribbled ode to his fellow countrymen. His words were immortalized in what is considered the national anthem of the common man: This land is your land; this land is my land/ From California to the New York Island/ From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters/ This land was made for you and me. The irony is that during the height of the song’s popularity – and even at the exact time Guthrie wrote the lyrics – there was a group of citizens excluded from sharing in that expansive magisterial worldview. In fact, those citizens were not afforded the right to ride “that ribbon of highway” with the same impunity as their lighter skinned compatriots. The Latimore Tourist Home of Russellville is a testament to the disparity that played out for African-Americans in the burgeoning era of American transportation, especially on the highways that criss-crossed the South.
Russellville was a transportation hub situated at the nexus of intersecting major highways U.S. 64, running east-west, and Arkansas Highway 7, running north-south. It was also a railroad town with tracks running parallel to Main Street. The corner of Houston and 3rd Place was also the “historical hub of Black life in Russellville,” says Sister Geraldine Wilson, 88, who married into the neighborhood in 1948 and was friends with the eldest daughter Anna Jean Latimore. Wilson is also referring to the historical significance of New Prospect Missionary Baptist Church, currently situated on the property adjoining the Home.
According to the National Register of Historic Places, the Latimore Tourist Home, owned by Eugene“Gene” (1878-1980)* and his second wife Cora (Wilson) Latimore and located at 318 S. Houston, “is a rare survival of the era of segregation in Arkansas, especially related to segregated travel.” The Home’s rise to prominence in that role was because of its inclusion in the Negro Motorist Green Book, a mandatory encyclopedic travelogue that served as a guide to places that welcomed African-American travelers. These listings included restaurants as well as lodgings — motels, hotels, and private homes — associated in the South, particularly in small towns, by the term “tourist homes.” In the 1956 edition, 50 sites in Arkansas are listed. The Latimore Tourist Home is the only listing between Little Rock and Fort Smith.
Published from 1936-1964, the Green Book ceased publication with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. From its inception, however, The Green Book’s message was clearly articulated and in the 1949 edition reads, “With the introduction of this travel guide in 1936, it has been our idea to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trip more enjoyable.” The Home served as a touchstone for those travelers needing a respite from negotiating the minefield of segregated travel.
Ironically, many African-Americans old enough to have knowledge of the book never heard of it. Wilson grew up chopping and picking cotton in Kenwood (Conway County). Her family was so poor that they were unable to buy books or magazines. “We read what we had because we could not take the paper or anything like people do now,” she says, “and we certainly couldn’t afford a car. My mother had 17 children (six did not survive childhood).” Retired Menifee School District Superintendent Raymond Chambers and his wife Willye of Morrilton grew up in Hot Springs and were similarly clueless about the Green Book, even though Hot Springs had more establishments listed than any other Arkansas town, likely due to the well-established medicinal tourism industry and legal gambling. Chambers remembers waiting on tables at places that “black folks couldn’t patronize,” he says. His family was also unable to afford a car. “We had to use public transportation, and there were all sorts of places we weren’t allowed and things we couldn’t do,” he added. After a pause in the conversation, Chambers says, “I’m sure the Green Book was useful for those who could travel.”
The Latimore Home was built at the turn of the 20th century, according to the National Registry, but a letter written to the editor of the Russellville Courier on December 23, 2015, paints a slightly different picture. Russellville resident Sally Lawrence writes at least the concept of the safe house was already established much earlier. She wrote:
The Butterfield Stagecoach, commissioned to carry the mail between 1857 and 1861, came through Pottsville toward our founder Dr. Russell’s house on what is now Houston and Main. After a rest, it continued onward toward Fort Smith. We know this because of a memory passed down through the Latimore family to a friend of ours. When the stagecoach stopped, near what was then Norristown, Black slaves who rode along to tend the horses were dropped south of Dr. Russell’s home. They stayed on the very land now occupied by the Latimore Tourist Home.
The affordability of automobiles catered to the growing middle class, and the resulting boom in transportation led to the need for the Green Book, which included the Latimore Tourist Home.
The publicity ensured a constant stream of visitors, and the Latimores spent considerable time running the establishment. According to Mother Josephine Nichols, “Josie” for short, the obligations kept the two daughters busy. She vividly remembers helping the younger daughter change the sheets between visitors, and together they enjoyed watching folks sit on the second story porch outside the bedroom window.
Gene Latimore, however, divided his time between his passion and his vocation. He was also a veterinarian and a mighty good one, Nichols recalls. She does not demure when asked her age – or when asked anything for that matter. “I’ll be 91 if I make it to March the 5th,” she says, and to prove her perseverance, she declares, “I worked in the chicken plant ’til I was 78.” She remembers the Latimores well. She and Anna Jean were in the same class and graduated eighth grade from the James School. Further education was not an option for Nichols. “When I graduated, my mother said she wasn’t going to buy no more books, and so I started working,” she says, but the Latimore girls went off to get an education. She is speaking of Anna Jean and her younger sister Frances, known to all as “Princess.”
“Their daddy was crazy about them girls,” Mother Nichols adds. “You know, the Latimores built that house specifically for Black people to stay in. They’d come from far and near, and if they had an animal down, he could save them.” She remembers Princess died young like her momma (Cora was Latimore’s second wife). “When Princess came home, they added gas heating to keep her comfortable. I remember the whole house, and even the kitchen, were heated by wood before that,” Nichols says. She sits in silence, rocking gently in front of a wall overflowing with photos of loved ones, stops and leans forward, “That’s a historical place. Why can’t we fix it up for visiting preachers? It’d make a grand parsonage.” Nichols says and mentions her son Jimmy is a church deacon and one of the renovators that saved the Potts Inn.
The oldest living member of New Prospect Missionary Baptist Church (she joined when she was eight years old), Mother Nichols is one of the “three or four” women that hold the distinction of being named a Mother of the church. “As a rule, I work with and nourish young people,” she says. Known for her contribution in the kitchen, she also answers to the affectionate moniker of “Red Velvet Cake Lady” for her talent in producing desserts. Nichols laughs when she remembers those days. She is not able to cook like she used to. The histories of New Prospect and the Latimore Home are intertwined.
Deacon Andy Hatley oversaw the purchase of the Home in 2014 from The Latimore’s son-in-law Damon Stokes. “Mr. Stokes was really a Methodist,” Hatley says, “but he decided he would let us take it over.” Shortly after New Prospect assumed ownership, there was a report that burglars were hiding inside. Hayley laughs when he recalls the police officer’s hesitance to venture away from the front door. “Nobody had been in that place. It was just too dangerous, and the staircase didn’t look safe, but I went up, and when I came down the stairs caved in. That policeman’s eyes nearly popped out of his head,” he says with a laugh.
The current state of the Home is no laughing matter. In recent years, the declining integrity of the structure has demanded a response from the church. Condemned by the city, the shuttered house is a two-story white clapboard structure with a facade dominated by a massive front porch, Ornamental design is subdued, but includes turned spindles on the railing, and gingerbread work on the second floor of the porch. 
Structural features include a gabled or pitched roof, frieze boards below the roof and above the foundation, double-hung windows (that have recently been boarded), pilasters at the corners of the first floor and under the roof, and a striking foundation of native fieldstone.
The church has not formally responded in regards to the dilapidated structure but had originally intended it for youth ministry. Community members have expressed their hope that the church would commit to preserving the historical site. The Arkansas Tech History Department has expressed interest in the site’s preservation, and the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program has shared information about available funding. AHPP spokesman Mark Christ confirms his agency’s involvement. “We are in the business of preserving history,” he says, “and the church is a not-for-profit entity that qualifies for assistance. To my knowledge, the Latimore Tourist Home is the only existing structure in Arkansas that was included in the Green Book and has claim to such an important part of our national history, particularly as it relates to the African-American experience.” Local historian and caretaker of the Reed Cemetery, a historically African-American site, Rev. Jerry Linton is vocal about his concern for the Home’s fate. “The truth of the matter is,” he says, “the community wants to save it. Ask anybody. My people have just not preserved our Black history.”
Reverend Lee Tyus, who has shepherded the congregation for going-on eight years, is quick to point out that the funding Christ speaks of is not total funding, and part of Tyus’ obligation is to weigh the long-term financial consequences such a move would have on the church. He does not take this burden lightly, and solutions do not come easily or cheaply. Nevertheless, Hatley and Tyus are not native to Russellville — Hatley came by way of Arkansas Nuclear One, and Tyus lives in Conway — and so they are respectful of church members who have a long history in the area. The Reverend is not immune to the impassioned appeals made by community members. “We know there is a level of interest from the community about what we do with the building,” says Tyus, “and the church will make a decision soon, and it will be what is right for the church.” He assures concerned residents that his church is under prayerful consideration.
New Prospect, established in 1884, demolished its church that stood for 88 years and rebuilt across the street in its current location, as a new fortified brick facility. There are lingering sentiments about that decision. Sister Wilson shares her concerns. “What bothers me is the church is talking about tearing it (Latimore Home) down. I hated it so bad when our church was torn down because it was history, too,” she says, sitting in front of her plate glass window facing the church. “I’ve had people say to me it was symbolic of Black people here. The church was in bad shape, but I have seen other churches in far worse shape fixed up and continue to be used today,” she says. Sister Wilson lifts her cane just enough to display her conviction.“The majority is not always right.”
Sister Wilson fingers through news clippings she’s saved. “It bugs me now when people say, ‘forget tradition.’ Forget tradition? You can’t forget tradition. If you do, you won’t know who you are.” She compares her generation to younger generations. “A lot of Black people today don’t know where they are from. Black children don’t study Negro history. When we were coming up, we studied Black history. All they know is Martin Luther King, and he is great, but he stood on the shoulders of a lot of great men,” she says. “Not knowing the roots of all the good things our people has done causes a loss of pride,” she says with certainty.
Rev. Tyus has heard the whisperings and concerns. “Preserving history is a wonderful thing. Can we preserve our history without necessarily preserving the building because of a lack of adequate financial backing?” He and Hatley sit in the church foyer against walls plastered with black and white photographs documenting the stories preserved here. The departed faithful brothers and sisters, the buildings that housed them, the good works that have flowed into the community. The reception area doubles as an altar showcasing the sincerity of this 134 year-old, 125-member strong congregation that serves the hungry through Neighbor’s Table, a free weekly community meal located at the larger Episcopal church down the road and runs an active campus youth ministry. Rev. Tyus leans forward and asks, “How can we utilize this house or what this house represents in our ministry?” Many questions, not so many answers.
The bell tower outside the church entrance is evidence that a narrative can continue. Two cornerstones from the razed building are ensconced in the masonry, flanked by a commemorative plaque and topped with the very bell from the prior house of worship. Mother Nichols recalls that the sound of that bell announced the gathering of the congregation for 88 years. The Latimore Tourist Home, however, speaks to a time when ingenuity combined with hospitality addressed a horrific chapter in our national identity. How relevant is this discussion today?
The publishers of the Green Book anticipated a time when the guide would no longer be necessary and wrote to that effect in the 1949 edition:
There will be a day sometime in the future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment. But until that time comes we shall continue to publish information for your convenience each year.
To watch the old house breathe its last, drawn-out breath is a palpable act of reverence. There is no better way to describe it. A person who takes the time to pause in front of the house, long enough for the eyes to traverse its intricacies and past the signs of decay, can feel the joy of children running on the porch, the anticipation as an unfamiliar car parks in front, and the warm embrace of friendship that comes from shared struggles. This is a house with a story tended by people with a story, both rooted in the same sacred place. The church recognizes its obligation to make a decision. As keepers of the house, they have the power to write its history and the history of its people.
That power is unpacked by wisdom leaders of the church, however. Mother Nichols is pointed in her opinion. “Right now, they are not going in the right direction. I wish they would listen to me, but they won’t pay attention. They want to shut me down.” She leans forward, hands clasped on her walker, and stares resolutely at the framed certificate signed by Mayor Tyrone Williamson in 2007 in which he declared the day as “Josie Nichols Day” and affirmed her role as Mother of the church. Nichols turns her head and a smile slowly appears, spreading across her face, softening her wrinkles, and lighting her eyes. “I’m not gonna back down,” she says, “I AM a Mother of the church.”
* According to Reed cemetery, Eugene Latimore was born in 1871. According to the 1940 United States Census, he was born in 1872, but his obituary listed his birthdate as 1878.

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