As a student, I was never really interested in school outside of band, art, free fieldtrips with the track team, trading Pokémon cards and socializing with my friends. I had a few teachers that were really engaging, like Mr. Wilson, my 5th grade science teacher who was the only black male teacher I would have until college; Ms. Bennet, my art teacher who allowed us to be ourselves; and Mrs. Stanley, who introduced her senior AP English class to Steven Colbert and political resistance.
It wasn’t until I learned about Civil Rights legends from my home state of Mississippi that I became more interested in not only school, but my own identity. When I first learned about Medgar Evers, James Meredith, Fannie Lou Hamer, literal heroes of justice and civil rights in Mississippi, my attitude toward learning changed. My sense of self changed. My world changed.
Many years later my hunger for my history led me to the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock, which was the only black history museum in the state for many years. During my time working there, I experienced the same feelings from high school.
I wonder how many times this has happened throughout the years: moments and figures that they encounter that change their lives. How many of our students are exposed to people of history who look like them who have done amazing things? I wonder how many of our students know about Arkadelphia-born Eliza Miller, an African-American entrepreneur, educator and first woman to build and operate a movie theater in Arkansas, the Plaza Theatre in Helena, AR. Eliza owned and operated the theater from 1917 until her death in 1938.
Eliza, along with her husband Abraham who was born into slavery in Colt, AR, were the quintessential power couple. Abraham owned and operated his own transportation business, became an Arkansas state legislator, while his wife, along with operating the theater, also worked in education. In the mid-1920s, Eliza bought land in Helena town and in 1926 Eliza Miller High School, the first African-American high school in the area, was established.
Eliza and Abraham both left lasting legacies in Helena and throughout the state. In 1978 Eliza Miller Park was established in Helena. And throughout the years three schools in Helena now bear her name: Eliza Miller Junior High School, Eliza Miller Elementary School, and Eliza Miller Primary School.
The Miller’s descendants have gone on to become successful lawyers and business owners. Her grandson George Miller Jr. opened a movie theater in Memphis in 1974 and founded Miller Memphis, Inc., which had large holdings on Beale Street. Another grandson, Dr. Robert Dan Miller, became the first black board president of the Arkansas Board of Health, the first black doctor at Helena Hospital, and the first black mayor of Helena. Dr. Miller’s son, Brian Miller, was appointed a federal judge.
As a student, my life transformed once I learned of the people who looked like me who changed history and my local community. And I’m sure the same can be true about our students. Encourage your students to learn more about their nation’s history and the history of the state of Arkansas.
To learn more about the Millers and other African-American pioneers like them, visit the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center and the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.