Sericia Cole with son, Evan and daughter, Sydney are pictured in front of a historical photographic mural at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center.  (Not pictured: husband, Rod Cole and son, Julien)

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,

When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore

When he beats his bars and would be free; It is not a carol of joy or glee,

But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,

But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings- I know why the caged bird sings.

The excerpt from African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy,” among his other works, inspired another acclaimed poet and author, Maya Angelou. She titled her 1969 autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” about her early years of life in Stamps, Arkansas. It was the first in a seven-volume series illustrating the transformation of a victim of racism and trauma into one of the country’s most identifiable voices of creativity, talent and perseverance.

Maya Angelou is just one of over 85 African-Americans with Arkansas roots who are featured in the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, established in 1992 to celebrate their accomplishments and significant impact on American History. An impressive exhibit of the Hall of Fame’s inductees is housed on the third floor of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center (MTCC). It highlights the inductees’ achievements in art, music, education, civil rights, sports and more from the early 20th century to the present.

MTCC Director Sericia Cole says, “The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center is Arkansas’ museum of African-American History. We collect, preserve, interpret and celebrate that heritage. The Arkansas Black Hall of Fame is an important part of our work showing kids and members of the community different achievers that did not come from places of privilege.”

“Every job I’ve had has been about making people’s lives better. The focus of my career has been about helping Arkansans,” Sericia shares. “We do that here. We have a unique responsibility as a cultural center to address issues in the community, to understand and appreciate humanity in one another, and to not create negative cycles all over again. We’re a state museum for everyone. This is Arkansas’ and everybody’s history.”

Sericia shares that message with her own family. She is married to Rod Cole. They have three children, Julien, 25; Sydney, 19; and Evan, 16; and two grandchildren. “Education opens and exposes you to so much. We have a responsibility to seek opportunities,” she says. “My grandparents weren’t educated. They were working hands, working the land, being domestics. My parents were first generation college students. And, they were the only ones of their siblings that went to college.”

Sericia Cole with daughter, Sydney, and son, Evan at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center.

“We are more than a museum. We want every aspect of what we do to help young people see ways to excel. We use every aspect to grasp, enjoy and sneak in history in a non-threatening way for them. People feel better when they have something of their own they can claim. It gives them a sense of pride and belonging and responsibility,” Sericia affirms. “Our programs (at MTCC) do that. I want my kids and all kids to understand Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s as well as others’ legacies and the responsibility of being of service to others and the community,” she says.

The History of Arkansas’ Museum of African-American History

The Mosaic Templars of America was an African-American fraternal organization founded in Little Rock in 1882 by two former slaves, John E. Bush and Chester W. Keatts. It was established to provide important services that did not exist for the African-American community, such as burial and life insurance. Bush and Keatts experienced great success, expanding operations to include a newspaper, hospital, and building and loan association.

The organization attracted thousands of members and built a complex of three buildings at the corner of West Ninth Street and Broadway. All were completed by 1921. Although the business was devastated during the economic strife of the 1930s, the entrepreneurial spirit of Bush and Keatts, as well as other African-American business minds, stood as shining examples to future black entrepreneurs in Arkansas and elsewhere.

(Photo taken in 1924 courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Central Arkansas Library System. Modern photo courtesy of the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau.)

Little Rock’s West Ninth Street was a social center and economic hub of the African-American community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There were physicians, pharmacists, barbershops, jewelers, restaurants, hotels and more. There were several churches and community gathering places. The Dreamland Ballroom in Taborian Hall held graduations, basketball games, dances and musical performances.

Though businesses declined during the Great Depression, World War II renewed growth and activity. However, urban renewal, highway construction and city landscape changes impacted the decline in the 1960s.

“Starting in the 90s, there was a grass roots effort by historians to save the Mosaic Templars structure at 9th and Broadway,” explains Sericia. “They lobbied to save the building. The city purchased the property and sold it to the state. The Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus proposed legislation to build the museum. It would be the only publicly-funded black museum in Arkansas.”

Efforts continued to bring the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center to fruition. “In 2005, two homeless men set a warming fire on the third floor and tragically the building burned. Governor Huckabee approved $212 million to rebuild. The new building opened September 19, 2008. It’s almost an exact replica of the original Mosaic Templars structure,” she states. “The museum is for and by and about African-Americans and our state’s history.”

What’s Happening at Mosaic Templars Cultural Center? Check it out!

  • “Freedom! Oh, Freedom!” Arkansas’ People of African Descent and the Civil War: 1861-1866 exhibit
  • The Creativity Arkansas collection of visual arts
  • Entrepreneurial Spirit exhibit
  • The Arkansas Black Hall of Fame
  • Artifacts, resources and research opportunities
  • Tours, workshops, summer camps
  • Juneteenth community-wide program
  • Auditorium available for rent
  • An INCREDIBLE Museum Store

Mosaic Templars Cultural Center: A Museum of African-American History
An agency of the Department of Arkansas Heritage
501 West Ninth Street, Little Rock
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.–Sat.
FREE admission