A family with deep ties to El Dorado gathered Thursday afternoon at the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society's Gallery of History to share details of late patriarch Lonnie Mitchell's life as part of an ongoing project to identify notable Black people, businesses, churches, landmarks and more from and in the area.
First proposed in 2020 as part of a citywide preservation plan, the El Dorado Historic District Commission is seeking to add an African American context to the city's historic records, and Thursday's interview was one of the first efforts towards that end.
Jean White and Virginia Charles, first cousins of Mitchell, were the focus of Thursday's interview, but they were joined by three of Mitchell's daughters -- Idonia Gardner, Kathy McAlphin and Regatta Mitchell -- and their own daughters, Debra White and Karen Prideaux, respectively.
Charles and Jean White spoke about growing up in neighborhoods near the St. Louis addition, a business district serving El Dorado's Black community when segregation was still in effect. Mitchell, they said, was an entrepreneur who owned multiple businesses -- everything from a laundry and restaurant to a pool hall and movie theater (the Moon Theater).
"In fact, from North West Avenue back to Cordell Street was basically owned by Blacks," said Charles.
The St. Louis addition was home to the schools that served Black residents -- Carver Elementary and Washington High School, which Charles and Jean White said they attended -- as well as myriad Black-owned businesses and churches.
Charles formerly worked for Lonnie Mitchell, she said, taking care of paperwork at his laundry for $10 a week while her uncle Norris Finley cleaned the clothes and her cousin took care of the financial aspects of the business.
"My uncle Norris Finley, he was a tailor -- the first Black tailor that I know of around this area... He tailor-made suits," Charles said.
Mitchell was known for providing employment for Black residents at his many businesses, and his cousins said he was also a provider for his family. He worked closely with his mother Idonia, after whom his youngest daughter is named.
"You had more love back then. People united together; Black people united together," Charles said.
"And that's their Daddy, he checked on me every night," Jean White added. "He was like Robin Hood."
Mitchell was also a World War II veteran, having served as a cook in the Army until he received an honorable discharge.
Preservation Society Executive Director Steve Biernacki explained Thursday that the goal of recording the African American history context for El Dorado is to eventually earn historical area designations for the St. Louis addition and other predominantly Black neighborhoods in the city with hopes to reestablish some of the attributes that helped the areas thrive.
"My charge is to research, learn, find as much information as I can about the St. Louis neighborhood, because we want to turn the St. Louis neighborhood into a historic neighborhood... By doing that -- we think we have some grant money that's going to help us with that -- it's going to allow that historic district to have some very significant tax breaks when it comes to renovation, rebuilding, business owners and ideally -- I'm getting goosebumps -- bring the St. Louis neighborhood, maybe not to its former glory, but as close as possible -- to have more Black-owned businesses, women-owned businesses," he said.
Charles and Jean White said the decline of the St. Louis neighborhood, which is which is roughly bordered by Robinson and Fifth streets and West and College avenues, was gradual, starting sometime after the city integrated. However, the efforts to revitalize the area would be something Mitchell could look back and be proud of, Charles said.
"I think that that's what they were trying to instill in the rest of us -- hard work, dedication, love. This is what you do; this is how you survive," Charles said.
Curator Darrin Riley said the Preservation Society hopes to continue interviewing local and former residents who can speak to Black history in El Dorado.
Anyone who is interested in participating in the African American context may call Historic District Commission Chair Elizabeth Eggleston at 870-315-2308 or send an email to [email protected] or [email protected]