Updated: Sep 5
When I first told people that I was going to Arkansas, one of the comments I would hear over and over again is, "But there aren't any Black people there!" Such comments are not only wildly inaccurate, but also incredibly dismissive of the enduring contributions of Black people in the state. In reality, Arkansas is home to almost half a million Black folks, and has a rich history of Black excellence, perseverance, creativity, and ingenuity.
As part of my commitment to exploring that history for myself, I set out on a 2-day road trip in January with a friend to explore Black food, history and culture in Arkansas' capital, Little Rock, and two predominantly Black towns in the Delta region, Marianna and Helena.
Based on our trip, the below itinerary is an excellent place to start exploring Black excellence and food in Arkansas. It's by no means an exhaustive outline of everything the region has to offer. Instead, it is a peek into what we saw, ate, and learned - and hopefully will pique your interest in exploring Arkansas' rich Black culture and history for yourself!
Explore Black Arkansas: A Mini Itinerary
Video Description: Scenes from Anela's 2-day road trip across Arkansas to Little Rock, Marianna, and Helena with text on the screen saying, “Exploring Black Excellence and Food in Little Rock, Arkansas & beyond. James Beard Award-winning bites from historic Black-owned businesses. Explore Black legacy in the Delta. The history of the Little Rock Nine that you didn’t learn in school.”
DAY ONE: LITTLE ROCK
Have a quaint breakfast/lunch at The Root Cafe
With the mission to "build community through local food", The Root Cafe is a farm-to-table restaurant and cafe committed to building a just and sustainable food system in central Arkansas. They do this not only by sourcing the majority of their ingredients from local farms and producers in Arkansas - including 100% of their meat, eggs, and bread - but also by hosting a ton of diverse community events and workshops. I ordered the Spicy Banh Mi sandwich and it was truly everything I had hoped for and more. Indoor and outdoor seating is available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Note that The Root Cafe is NOT open on Mondays - we found this out the hard way, so plan accordingly!
Take a free tour of Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Little Rock Central High was the first stop of our two-day road trip. Because the site is now part of the National Park Service, we were able to schedule a FREE Ranger-led tour on the park's website focusing on the history of the Little Rock Nine and desegregation. It was so worth it! The 2-hour tour will make you question everything you thought you knew about the story of the Little Rock Nine. You must schedule this tour in advance and I would plan for three hours total to give time to explore the exhibits in the visitors center.
Stop by the Testament Statue in tribute to the Little Rock Nine
After the tour of Little Rock Central High, I recommend visiting Testament Statue, a collection of 9 bronze statues depicting each of the Little Rock Nine. According to the sculptor, John Deering, the work is, “intended for observers to become virtual witnesses, imagining themselves amid the blur of protestors, reporters and troops who surrounded the Little Rock Nine.” Located on the North Lawn of the Arkansas Capitol Grounds and facing the office of the governor, the statues serve as a constant reminder to elected officials of the events at Little Rock Central High in 1957-58, and the courage and perseverance of the real heroes of the story - the Little Rock Nine.
As part of the greater movement for the desegregation of bus terminals across the South, the contingent of five Freedom Riders from the Congress of Racial Equality arrived in Arkansas in July 1961 at the Mid-West Trailways bus station in Little Rock. Today, a plaque at 201 West Markham Street commemorates their arrival and tells the story of the Little Rock Freedom Rides - which culminated in the integration of all bus terminals in the city on November 1, 1961.
**NOTE**: If you have more time, consider visiting other stops on the Civil Rights Trail in Little Rock, such as the house of Arkansas civil rights activist Daisy Bates. We, unfortunately, didn't have time on this trip, but it is on the itinerary for my next visit!
Eat the best fried catfish and buffalo fish ribs you've ever had at the Black-owned Lassis Inn
Founded in 1905, the James Beard Award-winning Lassis Inn is one of Arkansas' oldest restaurants and is still serving up fresh fried fish from the same historic location in a little blue building on the side of the highway. I got a medium order of fried catfish, and pretty much inhaled it immediately (pro tip: order a large!) Beyond the delicious food, Lassis Inn played an essential role in the struggle for Civil Rights and provided a safe place for Black leaders such as Daisy Bates to talk about community, racism, and freedom.
DAY TWO, STOP 1: MARIANNA
(Drive time from Little Rock to Marianna: 1 hour 45 minutes)
Located in Arkansas’ Delta Region 100 miles east of Little Rock, Marianna is a small river town surrounded by hardwood forests and fertile farmland. Previously a trading post established along the L’Anguille River, the town’s economy has historically relied on timber and agriculture, particularly cotton harvested by enslaved people. Today, Marianna remains a predominately Black town, with an estimated 80% Black population as of 2020.
Have a bbq breakfast at the legendary Jones Bar-B-Q Diner
Food lovers trek from far and wide to try the famous pork barbecue at Jones Bar-B-Q and I promise you that it does not disappoint. Jones is more than just phenomenal bbq, though - the humble establishment is thought to be the oldest Black-owned restaurant in the South, and possibly the entire nation, and was the first restaurant in Arkansas to be awarded a James Beard Award. Note that there is no menu - Jones only serves pork barbecue on two slices of white bread, with or without slaw (I recommend getting the slaw - and also a jug of their sauce for later!) While this may not be your typical choice for breakfast, Jones Bar-B-Q Diner is open from 7 am until they sell out, which could happen within a few hours on summer days. Get there early or risk missing out!
Take a stroll through Marianna's Historic Downtown Court Square and learn more about the complex history of the town and Lee County
As you walk past the unavoidable monument to Robert E. Lee and tributes confederate soldiers, make sure you don't miss the bust of William Hines Furbush, erected just last year. A key figure in Arkansas' political history, Furbush was a Union soldier and Black state representative who successfully passed legislation to create Lee County in 1873, and subsequently became the county's first sheriff.
Check out the exhibits on cotton farming, the Civil War, World War II and more at the Marianna/Lee County Museum
The museum is located in the Elks Club building, a former fraternal society clubhouse that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to make it to the museum on this trip, but based on reviews it is worth a visit!
DAY 2, STOP 2: HELENA
(Drive time from Marianna to Helena: 45 minutes)
The port town of Helena has been a hub for economic, cultural, and artistic exchange in the Delta region. Nestled in the valley with the Mississippi River to the east, Helena was a Union stronghold in the Civil War and served as a safe haven for enslaved people seeking freedom, as well as a training ground for Black regiments. Helena has also played an enormous role in blues history, heritage, and popularity, earning the nickname of the “blues capital of the Delta.”
Visit the Elaine Massacre Memorial
In September 1919, angry white mobs and federal troops murdered more than 100 Black people in the town of Elaine, just south of Helena. The violence began at a meeting of Black sharecroppers who were discussing how to get their fair share of crop sales, fueled by anti-Black fear among whites that Black veterans would begin demanding full rights following WWII. No one knows all of the names or the exact number of those who were murdered. Dedicated on the centennial anniversary of the tragedy, the Elaine Massacre Memorial in Helena honors the lives that were taken and offers a communal space for mourning, remembrance, and reflection.
Enjoy the art of the Arkansas Delta at hand-painted murals across Helena
As a center of artistic and cultural exchange in the Delta region, Helena boasts several beautiful and vibrant one-of-a-kind murals located throughout the town. The murals show glimpses into Helena's history, traditions, and community, and are definitely worth the visit.
Learn more about the peoples and history of the Arkansas Delta at the Delta Cultural Center
With exhibits spanning from the Delta's native inhabitants to stories from the Civil War, to the rise of blues music, the Delta Cultural Center offers a good overview of the region's history. Admission is free, and the center is open Tuesday-Saturday, from 9 am-5 pm.
Walk through Freedom Park, the first designated National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site in Arkansas
Technically a part of the Delta Cultural Center, Freedom Park houses a series of exhibits interpreting the experiences of thousands of Black freedom seekers in Helena during the Civil War. The park and its interactive exhibits are open daily from 8 am-5 pm.
Take in a view of the Mississippi River at the river walk in Helena River Park
We ended our 2-day trip taking in a majestic view of the Mississippi thanks to a previously unplanned visit to Helena River Park. Helena is the only downtown located on the Mississippi River in the 300 miles between Memphis, TN, and Vicksburg, MS. In my opinion, it was the perfect end to our whirlwind road trip across Eastern Arkansas!
**NOTE**: If you ordered barbecue to-go from Jones Bar-B-Q Diner, which you definitely should have, this would be a great spot to have a picnic lunch on one of the benches. Take in the water and stretch your legs!
After exploring you can then head back to Little Rock or onward to Memphis, Tennessee, just 1.5 hours away if you'd like!
Have any questions about this itinerary? Drop them in the comments below!
Learn more about Black foodways in the US