HISTORY WAS PRESENT in the basement. It was stacked in boxes, represented by photographs and ephemera, blotted with water damage. For decades, the basement on South Louisiana Street in downtown Little Rock had accumulated history. To borrow a line from E.B. White, it had been a reservoir equipped with a check valve, catching everything and releasing nothing. And then, in 1991, when the building’s longtime tenant—the Arkansas Gazette—was sold off, the inflow was pinched off, left to languish, to crackle, dry out, rot, entombed and forgotten. What remained was a timeline, sometimes exhaustive and stretched taut, other times a tangle of fragments and partial impressions all but forgotten.
Of course, in January 2008, when the space was illuminated for the first time in years, the material history of the storied newspaper’s then-188-year history wasn’t considered in such lofty terms. The door wasn’t opened because an alarm had sounded and the time capsule of sorts had begged to be opened. Rather, it was because the space was needed for something else, (specifically, the eStem charter school, which was set to open later that year).
In short, it was just stuff that needed to go.
And that is how Kate Askew found herself descending the stairs into the basement. As the then-owner of Arkansas Bookseller, a business specializing in the appraisal of antique books, she’d been tasked with sorting what she found there—a job that, as an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette account noted at the time, had originally been scheduled to take just four days. When the article was published on Jan. 27, 2008, she’d already been there about three weeks and counting.
Not surprisingly, Kate found no small amount of clutter in the basement, (“There was a lot of weird stuff, too, left in here … tons of useless stuff,” Kate said at the time. “Interesting items that have no historic value, like tables and motors that ran the presses. There’s a room where computers went to die.”) However, as the Democrat-Gazette article noted, much of what Kate found went beyond the scope of the newspaper’s history:
“Boxes of negatives that include shots of the 1957 Little Rock school desegregation crisis and of a young Bill Clinton at Boys State in 1963.”
“A Civil Defense box of a medical supply kit issued for bomb shelters to supply 300-325 people.”
“Christmas ornaments from the ’40s.”
“A box of paper fans left over from a promotion at Riverfest.”
“Photographs of various Gazette employees, 1908-50, that had been framed and hung in the newspaper’s pressroom.”
In time, the story of those images and the papers seemed to come to an end: The space was cleared out, an estate sale was staged, the building was renovated, the school was opened, and life went on. Many years later, however, history resurfaced.
Just shy of 11 1/2 years later, a key turned in a lock, and a different door opened in a different building, and another light flickered on. It had been raining that day, and the people who filed through the door were more excited than one might have expected to have found themselves in the present surroundings. The space that opened up before them was dimly lit, shadowy in the corners, the fluorescent light struggling to fill the room’s blocky floorplan, a shape that would’ve fit well among the pixelated Space Invaders from the classic arcade game. It was the sort of place that provided no welcome respite from the rain. It smelled musty on a good day.
Yet there was good reason for excitement, the prospect that what had been lost could be found. Earlier that day, there’d been talk about a forgotten cache of historic photographs from the Gazette—and as the group had been tasked with planning the yearlong commemoration of the storied newspaper’s history, they jumped at the opportunity. Among them were a handful of folks from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette—and Kate Askew.
Scattering, they poked through the basement’s filing cabinets, bound books of newspapers from the distant past, photo archives and clip files, navigating the moguls of well-loved but long-forgotten furniture, commenting on the sheer amount of stuff. Finally after about 15-20 minutes, someone had noticed a door off to the side and asked, What’s behind there?
Opening the door and turning on the light, they saw a closet. Small, carpeted, its walls lined with metal shelving, the ceiling lower than the main room where they stood. But modest as it might’ve seemed, it was a treasure trove. A pair of long Tupperware containers, labeled with “Abstracts/Leases/Deeds/Contracts,” were filled with hundreds of documents like the Gazette’s 1893 agreement with The Associated Press (member contract number 76), telegrams from the late 1800s and a master’s deed for the Gazette building from 1937.
Just inside the door, sitting on a middle shelf to the left, was a long blue box, not unlike a pizza box in its shape and size. Its lid bulged with the hundreds of photos in clear plastic sleeves packed inside. As soon as the box was opened, Kate knew: Those were the same photos she’d seen before. These were the photos that the group had been looking for.
It’s important to note, however, that the people whose faces appeared in the frames wouldn’t be especially familiar to the broader public. Instead, these were photos that had fallen under the umbrella of “Photographs of various Gazette employees, 1908-50.” They were candid, intimate moments from decades long since past. The group sifting through the images, however, was fortunate to have among their ranks a few longtime employees—notably, Ernie Dumas, who’d joined the Gazette in 1960. One of the first things he saw was an 8-by-10-inch photograph taken around 1950.
In that photograph, he later recalled via email, was “everyone in the Gazette editorial operations, from Mr. J.N. (Heiskell) on down … the legendary Harry Ashmore, who won the Pulitzer in 1958, Bill Shelton, Larry (Chief) Obsitnik (Who took the picture then?), Matilda (Tillie) Tuohey, Orville Henry, Sam Harris, Leland Duvall, Arla Nelson, Millie Woods, Nell Cotnam, John Fletcher, [Jason Rouby], the city reporter who later became the first director of Metroplan and more than a dozen others.”
There are many ways to tell the stories of the past. And on that day, the photos told a new story—about people who played a part in defining the company, and by extension, the state; who had been to war, who had loved, who had seen parts of this century and parts of this state in a way that will never be seen again, who had stories of their own to tell. Of course, by their nature, the stories these photos tell are incomplete. But revisiting the images lends the stories new life and tells a new story, one that’s now and forever present.
Although this selection represents but an infinitesimal sliver of the Gazette’s history, no shortage of scholarship has been undertaken to preserve the newspaper’s past. Interested parties should start with the oral histories available through the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History (pryorcenter.uark.edu/projects.php), and the Encyclopedia of Arkansas article, (encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/arkansas-gazette).