Oak and Ivy is the title of the first volume of poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar — considered to be the first black poet in the United States to gain national recognition — and fittingly is also the name chosen for a new museum of Arkansas black history.

Oak and Ivy is the title of the first volume of poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar — considered to be the first black poet in the United States to gain national recognition — and fittingly is also the name chosen for a new museum of Arkansas black history.

The official groundbreaking ceremony for the Oak and Ivy African American Museum & Cultural Center was held Saturday afternoon in Pine Bluff.

The brainchild of Bettye J. Williams, the museum will occupy a little more than 13,000 square feet on a four-acre parcel of land just south of Watson Chapel High School on U.S. 79. It is tentatively scheduled for completion by the end of 2014.

“When I went into this venture 15 years ago I didn’t know that 2013 would be the year that construction began,” Williams said during a Saturday morning public program about the new museum held at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Business Support Incubator. “The museum is a symbol of new life and of new opportunities to grow and understand the legacy of pioneering blacks in Jefferson County and Pine Bluff. The mission of Oak and Ivy is to educate the public about African-American history in Pine Bluff.”

Williams said the historical presentation will be done with care and respect and in linkage with other institutions including the home, the church, institutions of learning and the community.

“We will explore African-American history through music, anthropology, economics and in many other ways,” Williams said. “Even though I spent 42 years teaching literature and rhetoric I will still be teaching at Oak and Ivy.”

The morning program had the feel of a family reunion of sorts with several of Williams’ relatives in attendance, including her sister Brenda F. Graham, who acted as the presiding officer.

“It is a blessing that is coming to Pine Bluff and Jefferson County with the Oak and Ivy African American Museum & Cultural Center,” Graham said.

Rev. Ronald Laurent is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Holly Grove.

“I grew up on the west side of Pine Bluff across the highway,” Laurent said. “It’s called Blake Street now but it was the highway to us when we were growing up. We lived on dirt roads and had outside facilities but we had a sense of who we were and where we had come from. Family, school and church was all intertwined when we were growing up. It all came together. We must prepare our children for the future by showing them the past and through the Oak and Ivy museum we will be able to do that.”

Pine Bluff architect Fred Reed of Reed Architectural Firm presented the design plans for the museum.

“The building will have 13,230 square feet and will be divided up between a museum display area, a meeting area and a multipurpose area,” Reed said. “The estimated project cost is $2.5 million. The four-acre property will include parking spaces for 160 cars. The museum will have two entries as well as a covered pick-up and drop-off area.”

State Sen. Stephanie Flowers of Pine Bluff brought an official greeting on the significance of the day from the Arkansas General Assembly and said a few words on the importance of the museum.

“Arkansas has played an important role in American history from the native American tribes who lived here to the expansion of the western frontier to the Civil War,” Flowers said. “Up until now the quilt of Arkansas and American history has been missing an important piece and that is the contributions of African-Americans. The Oak and Ivy museum will go a long way towards addressing this absence.”

Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth read from an official proclamation marking Aug. 10 as Oak and Ivy African American Museum and Cultural Center Day in the city.

State Rep. Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV added his voice of support for the museum.

“I would like to express my thanks for Dr. Williams’ vision,” Wilkins said. “This will be a great addition to the culture and heritage of Pine Bluff.”

Naomi L. Jolaoso provided a bit of living history by giving a brief summary of her family’s deep roots in Jefferson County.

“My family has lived here since before the Civil War,” Jolaoso said. “My great-grandfather was the first African-American justice of the peace for Vaugine Township. We must cherish and keep our history alive for future generations.”

Local artist Markeith Woods, a senior at UAPB, presented an original work commissioned by Williams for the museum.