Fifth Monday: Some Seek to Preserve LR's Historic Pankey Community

(Editor's Note: This is the latest in a series of business history feature stories. Suggestions for future "Fifth Monday" articles are welcome. Please contact Gwen Moritz at (501) 372-1443 or by e-mail at

Little Rock's historically black Pankey community, now almost swallowed by the city's relentless westward expansion, has inspired a number of Arkansans to step forward to preserve what they see as an invaluable part of Arkansas history.

"Our mission is to keep the memory of Miss Pankey and her ideals," said Nancy Lott, president and one of the founding members of the Friends of Josephine Pankey, a 2-year-old nonprofit organization. "Our organization is working to create a history about Pankey and Mrs. Pankey's influence on the city."

"If you had a heart and mind to work, she would help you," Lott said of the pioneering, but little-documented, black businesswoman. (See sidebar.)

The development of Pankey, formally known as Josephine Pankey's third addition to Little Rock, began when Pankey and her husband, Samuel, purchased 80 acres outside the city of Little Rock about 1907. Those 80 acres, now flanking U.S. Highway 10, evolved into the Pankey community.

The Pankeys chose to live on the land in about 1927 and sold small lots to other black families for homebuilding. They sought to form a quiet suburb away from racial violence in Little Rock after the brutal murder of a black man near where they lived in the city.

The 1927 lynching of John Carter "caused quite a bit of terror in the West Ninth Street district," said Jajuan Johnson, director of research at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, West Ninth Street was the center of Little Rock's black community.

Josephine Pankey "wanted to create her own suburb away from this fear," Johnson said.

Pankey, which was once an unincorporated suburb in the countryside outside Little Rock, is now hemmed in by Little Rock's westward commercial development. Some of the modest one-story houses sit across from an Arvest Bank, and the community's cemetery, overgrown with wildflowers, is now neighbor to a Starbucks and IberiaBank Mortgage.

Pankey historically has been a lower-income community. The Pankeys were able to buy the land cheaply and make a profit off the lots, even though they sold them for low prices and occasionally accepted goods as payments to make it possible for poorer people to own their own land. A 1969 Arkansas Gazette article called the community "a poverty pocket" that was then home to about 400 residents.

George Dyer, 87, who has lived in Pankey since the 1950s, said Josephine Pankey "would buy land, develop it up and get rid of it. She was a person that believed in investing."

Dyer said Pankey sold lots for $10 or $15 apiece.

Pankey Dwindles in Size
The community is still zoned residential and is still composed of small one-story homes.  Little Rock has grown up around Pankey, but its residents have opposed commercial development within their community. Pankey has three churches and a few family-owned businesses and once had a school, but the New Balance store and large banks have stayed on the community's fringes.

The Pankey community, which is still home to black families related to early residents of Pankey's addition, has shrunk in size during the years as the homeowners have died or aged and their children have moved to work in other cities.

Samella Miller, 76, who has lived in Pankey for more than 40 years and still has cousins living in the community, said she has girlhood memories of seeing Josephine Pankey in the area. 

Miller said the changes to Pankey's addition during the years were evident. The community that was once home to at least 400 people has shrunk to "maybe 30 families," Miller said.

"It's almost like a ghost town now," Miller said. "Pankey's still on the map, but there's not much going on."

Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola said that the city respected Pankey residents' desire to avoid commercial growth in their community.

However, that side of Little Rock is "one of the most sought-after areas for development in the city," Stodola said. "The people who live there are sitting on gold mines."

Planning commissioner Bill Rector was more cautious in discussing the land's value. Rector said Pankey's addition was divided up into very small lots, making it difficult to develop commercially.

In Pankey, each lot is about 2,500 SF. The average size of lots in downtown Little Rock is 7,000 SF, Rector said.

Also, part of the community is up against a hillside and part of it is in a floodplain. 

"There are a lot of thorny kinds of problems to deal with, from a developer's perspective," Rector said. "It's hard, from a development point of view, to deal with."  

George Dyer, who owns 10 lots in Pankey, said that someday his land would sell for a good price because the community was an ideal spot for a shopping center. He is saving his property as an investment for his grandson.

Dyer's attachment to the land is not stronger than his idea of good investing.

"It's just a decent place to live," Dyer said. "I built my own house here. It's just something I'd like to keep until I'm gone. I'll sell if they get the money right."

Unfinished Project
Dyer is a member of the Pankey Community Improvement Association, a group that holds a public meeting monthly to deal with community issues and to attempt to work out the future of a bit of Josephine Pankey's philanthropy. Josephine Pankey left a piece of property to the people of Pankey to develop for educational purposes.

The Pankey Community Improvement Association had begun building the Josephine Pankey Community Center on the land in 1999, but the project has sat unfinished for more than five years because problems with funding.

The state Legislature appropriated $750,000 toward the building of the community center, but ended up giving only $475,000.

Kim Williams from the Arkansas Division of Legislative Audit, who helped with an investigation of the association's use of the state grants, said the Pankey Community Improvement Association began building the community center prematurely.

The association's members mistakenly believed that an appropriation of funds was the same thing as having funds promised, Williams said.

"The funds were just appropriated, not provided," Williams said. "Pankey went ahead and entered a contract [with a builder] and didn't have the funds available."

Brandon Sharp, state budget manager, said that if the state doesn't have funding to back an appropriation, the appropriation means little.

"Appropriation is no more than the state agency's authority to spend," Sharp said.

Fredrick Love, Little Rock resident and current president of the Pankey Community Improvement Association, said that many Pankey residents lost hope because they had struggled to find support outside the community for the building project and the community center has sat unfinished for so long.

"I think there's a misperception that Pankey just wants to use the center for itself," Love said. "I keep hearing [from Pankey residents]: 'I wish other people would get involved, because it could benefit everybody, not just the residents of Pankey.'"

In addition to gathering information to create a history of the Pankeys, the Friends of Josephine Pankey hold fundraisers to help the Pankey Community Improvement Association pay for maintenance of the unfinished community center. They are also looking for grants to finish the building. 

"The center has a lot of potential for west Little Rock," Regina Norwood said. "Meeting space, after-school things, education."

As for the community, its future is ambiguous.

Norwood said that part of the problem was that younger generations did not care as much about the land as their parents and grandparents did.

"It grows less and less important, unless you know the history," Norwood said.

Johnson, from the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, is also researching and making efforts to preserve the memory of an unusual woman and the community she created.

The community itself is "a historic jewel," Johnson said. "It tells the story of a time in our history that was very unpleasant."

Norwood and others who care about the community's future believe preserving the history is an important part of maintaining Josephine Pankey's legacy.

"It gives you a sense of perspective," Norwood said. "You don't know where you're going until you know where you've been."