The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center opens Sept. 20 on the site of the Mosaic Templars of America, a fraternal organization founded by John Edward Bush and Chester W. Keatts to offer insurance to blacks to cover sickness, death and burial.

An insurance business incorporated in 1883 by two former slaves when segregation laws and white businesses considered blacks nearly invisible opens with fanfare this fall as a new state museum to honor African-American heritage.
The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center opens Sept. 20 on the site of the Mosaic Templars of America, a fraternal organization founded by John Edward Bush and Chester W. Keatts to offer insurance to blacks to cover sickness, death and burial.
The organization's headquarters, in the heart of what was then the black business district on Little Rock's Ninth Street, became much more than an insurance office. It provided other black-owned businesses retail space, opened a nursing school, and had a ballroom for dances musical performances.
Although the Mosaic Templars is dedicated to African-American history, "it's everyone's history. It's everyone's center," said director Constance Sarto at a news conference Tuesday to express appreciation to center donors.
The public opening will be preceded by a gala Sept. 19, including a ticketed reception and dinner. Organizers are hoping to book the Count Basie Orchestra. On opening day, the public can tour the four-story building after a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony and enjoy live music while viewing the exhibits. Admission is free year-round.
The center, the first state-funded museum dedicated to African-American heritage, will include exhibits on the history of blacks in Arkansas, the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, the Mosaic Templars, the life of sculptor Isaac Scott Hathaway, and Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Little Rock.
When the headquarters was built in 1913, Booker T. Washington delivered the dedication speech to an audience of 2,100 black and white people, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
"The impressive four-story building was designed to hold retail businesses on the first floor," the encyclopedia entry says. "One of the most notable establishments was Foster's Drug Store .... The second floor was dedicated to the MTA offices and other professionals such as dentists, lawyers, real estate agents, and an office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"The third-floor auditorium and fourth-floor balcony, with its ornate neoclassical design and pressed tin ceiling, hosted a variety of community activities such as dances, political gatherings, fraternal meetings of other organizations, high school proms and graduations, and musical performances."
At its peak in the 1920s, the Mosaic Templars had more than 100,000 members and had chapters in twenty-six states, the Caribbean, and South and Central America. Before its decline in the 1930s, it also had a building and loan association, a publishing company, a business college, and a hospital.
A Mosaic Templars preservation group began efforts to save the building before the city of Little Rock purchased the headquarters then turned it over to the state in 2003. The Department of Arkansas Heritage had embarked on renovation when a fire March 16, 2005, destroyed the original building.
An $8.3 million grant from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council allowed for construction of a new building on the same site. A cornerstone and an entranceway pediment, on display inside the center, are remnants of the original headquarters. Grants of $25,000 each from the National Dunbar Alumni Association of Arkansas and businessman Gene Cauley will help cover the grand-opening costs.
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On the Net:
Mosaic Templars Cultural Center http://www.mosaictemplarscenter.com
Encyclopedia of Arkansas http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.org