OPINION | JESSE TURNER: A plea to voters in Pine Bluff

Pine Bluff needs a mayor who looks within before looking outside for talent -- someone who appreciates this city's Black history and institutions. Why would the city of Pine Bluff go to Little Rock to get UALR and snub the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, with academic departments more than capable of doing whatever task was before Pine Bluff by GVI? Did the city approach UAPB to gain expertise?

The city needs a mayor with local roots who is sensitive and concerned about the history of the Black community. I point to the fact that many of us did all we could to save the Southeast Panthers High School Gym. The city led us to believe there was a possibility the gym could have been saved provided certain tasks given would be completed. Based on the mayor's statement, collaborations were developed with the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, the Mosaic Templars, and others to save our iconic and historic gym.

This gym holds memories for thousands of Blacks who attended Southeast. The issue of transparency should be very concerning to every Southeast alumni in Pine Bluff. As we worked to save our Black history, the city was working to sell pieces of the gym, e.g., the gym's arched beams, among other things, to someone out of town. Of course, we were all shocked!

The gym was razed for new housing even when no funds were available to complete a $4 million flooding mitigation plan. A letter was sent to the mayor on March 5, 2023, inquiring if the information to sell parts of the gym was true. The letter requested a pause in the razing of Southeast gym. There was never a reply to the letter, and days later, the city started the demolition of the historic gym.

I write this letter as a proud product of Southeast Jr./Sr. High School, where I fared well within its halls made of bricks, and I was privileged to attend a proud school with great classmates and no-nonsense academic-focused teachers from the seventh to 12th grade. Southeast Jr./Sr. High School had a 100% Black student population; teachers, staff and administrators reflected that. In high school, my Black classmates were encouraged to be their best. I recall our commencement speaker saying these words: Shoot for the stars, and you are sure to land on high ground. I have always remembered those words, even until today.

Viewing the brick piles ground up in heaps to me was a gut punch. I felt so sad, as the worker prepared them for a dump truck to haul them off. I'm sure thousands of classmates in Pine Bluff feel the same as I do. What they were hauling off was the history of our Black community in favor of gentrification.

These bricks comprise the rooms and cafeteria where we sat, studied and ate lunch. Southeast Jr./Sr. High School symbolized Black pride, strength, academic and athletic champions. Alumni in Pine Bluff and across the country lost a symbol of history in the Black community because the mayor couldn't see the value or care enough to save a part of Black History in Pine Bluff.

Had she or her parents attended Southeast, the history of this school would still be standing. We need a mayor who cares about the legacy of Black people. It appears to me that the city of Pine Bluff purchased the historic Southeast High School (1958) and the Indiana Street Elementary School (1948) properties not for restoration but for gentrification.

Rev. Jesse C. Turner is a Pine Bluff resident, local pastor, and executive director of Pine Bluff Interested Citizens for Voter Registration Inc.

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