Three Weeks in June: Discovering Hot Springs, Arkansas

One of the best things about visiting Hot Springs, Arkansas, is the abundance of green space you find yourself around. With 52 state parks and five national parks, along with several national forests, Arkansas is dubbed The Natural State for a reason. 

Hot Springs, which sits snuggly in the heart of the Ozark Mountains, highlights the natural beauty of Arkansas. The city, which has a population of just a little over 35,000 people, is also slow and steady. There is nothing fast or anything that says hurry up in Hot Springs. That’s a good thing for individuals like me who are used to being on the go all the time. 

The combination of the scenic beauty of Hot Springs and the rest of Arkansas, as well at the tortoise pace of the town, allows for a calm and peace of mind to set in.   

The city gives you that chill place I hadn’t felt in a long time. I must admit I had some trepidation about heading down south to Hot Springs. All I could think of as my wife nudged me into going on this trip was muggy, hot humid nights, the possibility of some wayward predator deciding to jump out of the backwoods somewhere and attacking me and giant mosquitoes taking large chunks out of my skin. And for three weeks mind you. 

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A house in downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas, proudly displays the moniker “Black Lives Matter.” Photo by Dennis J. Freeman

It turns out the three-week getaway was something I needed. In more ways than one. First, it was my first vacation in years. The summer is usually the busiest time of the year for me as a working journalist. I’m either covering one of the two baseball teams in town (Dodgers and Angels), catching WNBA games (Sparks), or running back and forth to NFL minicamps and training camps (Chargers and Rams). 

If that wasn’t enough on my plate, I routinely would hop in my car and drive down to South Los Angeles and grab a handful of pro-am basketball games and make my way down to Manhattan Beach to watch beach volleyball. The effects of the COVID-19 definitely put a hiatus sign on all of those activities.

With Los Angeles in lockdown for a while, my wife made the decision that I would accompany her and our high school daughter Alexis down to Hot Springs to visit with her mother. Our son Daniel would also join us. I applaud my wife on making an executive decision on this one. 

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The historic National Baptist Hotel and Bath House was earmarked as a destination for Negro League players and Black entertainers who visited the city of Hot Springs. Erected in 1923, the National Baptist Hotel and Bath House, formerly known as the Woodmen of the Union Building, was the apex of a thriving Black community in the Pleasant Street Historic District. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman

In our own way, we all needed to get some R&R from the hustle and bustle that comes from living in the country’s most populous state (California). I didn’t think that I would enjoy myself, but the ambiance of checking out a cultural environment where so much history has been embedded with the virtual crawl pace was just what the doctor ordered.         

Hot Springs, like a lot of small southern cities or towns, might be a bit too “country” or slow for some people who are used to running around all the time. It was perfect for me. So what’s the attraction of visiting Hot Springs?

Well, once you are to get past the fact that it is not a major hub and are able to look past some of the city’s shortcomings like decaying infrastructure and diluted buildings and shacks as well as its left behind past like historical markers, you’re able to appreciate the town’s mark on American history. 

I thoroughly enjoyed driving along Central Ave. and searching around historical downtown Hot Springs in search of the several baseball fields where Major League Hall of Famers like Babe Ruth and Dizzy Dean played and where Negro League stars such as Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Hank Aaron, occupied their summers in exhibition games at places like Majestic Park, Sam Guinn Field, Jaycee Park, and Fogel Field. 

Hot Springs
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Hot Springs, Arkansas, is referred to as the “birthplace” of spring training baseball as Major League Baseball clubs, including Negro League players, descended on this tiny city for exhibition games. Majestic Park was one of the playing fields that players and teams used. Among the MLB Hall of Famers to play at Majestic Park were Henry “Hank” Aarron and the great Jackie Robinson. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman

If you’re a sports buff like I am, locating and seeing all the markers along the Hot Springs Arkansas Historic Baseball Trail, is a tremendous enjoyment that can’t be bought or paid for. Stopping by and seeing places like the National Baptist Hotel and Bath House (formerly Woodmen of the Union Building), which housed Negro League players and celebrated Black entertainers such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, when they were in town visiting Hot Springs, is more than pretty cool. It’s an awesome experience!

And when it comes to history, Hot Springs could have easily been the Las Vegas of the South with its infiltration of the many crime bosses making the town their own private rendezvous hideout. Al Capone was a regular at the Arlington Hotel. Other reputed crime lords like Owney Madden and Charles “Lucky” Luciano also holed up in Hot Springs for a slower lifestyle. The city’s Gangsters Museum of America in downtown Hot Springs is a hot spot for visitors. 

That part of the Hot Springs history books was not for me. But going around and checking out the middle school and high school where former President Bill Clinton attended was nice to see. No. 42 was part of the 1964 Hot Springs High School graduating class. The late Bobby Mitchell, the NFL Hall of Fame running back and the first Black player picked by the Washington Redskins, is also a famous alum. 

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The high school in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where former President William “Bill” Clinton graduated from has been turned into a housing complex for individuals with disabilities (Hot Springs High School Lofts). Known as No. 42, Clinton graduated from Hot Springs High School in 1964. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman

The school, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is still holding up, although the building has been turned into a place (Hot Springs High School Lofts) now housing individuals with disabilities. But as I said, Hot Springs is full of historical landmarks. 

And as I made my way around the city during my three-week stay, I somehow managed to keep stumbling into them. One of the biggest kicks I got was discovering the Hot Springs’ Pleasant Street Historic District, a place earmarked on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The 28-acre district is a broken-down shell of its former thriving self when it was the hub of Black life in the city. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the Pleasant Street Historic District, largely assisted by Black developer John Lee Webb, was built by and for African Americans. Another historical jewel I found was the Visitors Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, located in the Pleasant Street Historic District.       

Another building listed in the National Register of Historic Places, I was blown away by the titanic architecture of the church, which was built in 1913. The church itself was erected in 1870, but two subsequent fires destroyed the old buildings. The current edifice is simply magnificent to look at from the outside. I took a couple of photographs one day. Then I decided to get greedy and go back and get some more pictures. 

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The Visitors Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, stands as the cornerstone of the Pleasant Street Historic District in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The current edifice, built in 1913, is a reminder of the vibrancy of Black life of the Pleasant Street Historic District, which was decimated by several fires. Visitors Chapel AME Church, first established in 1870, managed to survive those early fires. Visitors Chapel AME Church has been placed on the list of National Register of Historic Places. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman

As I was standing on the outside across the street trying to get some photos from my cellphone, an elderly gentleman saw me and waved to me to come over. I don’t remember the gentleman’s name (bad on my part), but he asked me if I want to take photos from the inside of the church. Of course, I did. I was really excited. I was given the green light to take whatever photos I wanted to take. And I did.  

You talk about a blessing! I have to say that being able to go inside of the fourth-ever church built by the AME church, a building built by slaves, left me speechless and very appreciative of the moment. Words cannot accurately say how I felt. I get stoked learning about history. More importantly to me is knowing and finding more about Black achievement, something that is sorely lacking in the nation’s education books.      

My Hot Springs history lesson didn’t end at Visitors Chapel AME Church. In wrapping up my rounds of things to see and do in Hot Springs, I was ecstatic when I looked up and found the historic Eureka Missionary Baptist Church, which was founded in 1883. Talk about luck. You learn something new every day. So what’s the big deal about this church? 

Well, Eureka Missionary Baptist Church is a state (Arkansas Register of Historic Places) and national treasure just like Bill Clinton’s old home in Hot Springs. As you can tell there is a lot of history in Hot Springs, and I haven’t even gotten to Bathhouse Row if you’re into that kind of thing. But since I am going through this whole history thing, sometimes history can be ugly, unkind, and unflinching. 

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A Confederate Monument erected and owned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, sits at the forefront of downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas. The monument, built in 1934 at Landmark Plaza, currently stands where two notable and public lynchings of Black men took place. Will Norman (1913) and Gilbert Harris (1922) both fell victim to angry white mobs who lynched them. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman

With that in mind, it wasn’t so wonderful to find out that the giant Confederate Monument sitting in the heart of Hot Springs’ Historic District at the foot of the downtown area of the city is where a couple of public killings and lynchings of Black men took place. 

Now, mind you that the monument sits on private property and was erected and is owned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Erected in 1934, the monument sits in a space where Will Norman (1913) and Gilbert Harris (1922) both had their lives snatched from them by blood-thirsty white lynch mobs.  

Sometimes, history is unforgiving, no matter how it looks or feels. Hot Springs can bear witness to that. For all of its great traditions and history, Hot Springs, as well as the rest of the South, have a dark past it has not had a full reckoning for. That ownership begins with the acknowledgment of the mistreatment of Black Americans, and not celebrating a symbol that represents a past that is reflective of false racial superiority, fear, and intimidation. 

Considering the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan is located in Harrison, Arkansas, which is just over a three-hour drive from Hot Springs, some realities simply cannot be overlooked and disconnected from. It is the South and unfortunately, this part of the country, still has that dark cloud hanging over its head.                         

The murder of Ahmaud Arbery by three white men in a Georgia neighborhood was on the back of my mind each time my son went for a jog in a community he didn’t know. The last time I checked, Georgia is not too far from Arkansas. However, to lump hateful racial ideology between the current residents of Hot Springs and to what happened to Mr. Arbery, would simply be an erroneous narrative.

Southern hospitality in Hot Springs? Yes, they have it. And it’s plenty good to soak it all up. Rain or shine, for three weeks that’s exactly what I decided to do.  

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