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Black power: it's growing for a select group, but is it static for others?

DESPITE THE INCREASing prominence of a small circle of black leaders, minorities in Arkansas do not appear to be making great strides economically.

According to 1990 U.S. Census Bureau figures, the most recent available, black median household income in Arkansas continues to lag far behind that of whites. For blacks, the median income is $12,128, compared to $22,550 for whites.

In Little Rock, where the population is most dense and salaries are higher, black per capita income remains only 39 percent that of whites.

Detailed occupation and earnings information, based on the '90 census and broken down by race, still has not been released by the U.S. Census Bureau.

So, quantitatively, what progress blacks have made in the working world since the 1980 census cannot be measured effectively.

A study resulting from that census showed that although minorities made up 17.3 percent of the state population, they comprised only 5.5 percent of the state's executives, administrators and managers.

Dale Charles, president of the Little Rock chapter of the NAACP, acknowledges there are some shining examples of blacks in visible, executive positions in Arkansas.

In the public sector, people like Bob Nash, president of the Arkansas Development Finance Authority, and state Health Director and Surgeon General-designate Joycelyn Elders come to mind. So do private sector employees such as Charles Stewart, a senior vice president at First Commercial Bank, and Virgil Miller Jr., a senior vice president at Worthen National Bank of Arkansas.

But, overall, Charles doesn't think blacks have made significant strides in the corporate world.

He believes new data will show the occupational and earnings progress of blacks to be mostly static.

"A lot of it, I think, is racial," he says. "Some of it, I think, is just not being given an opportunity."

Professional blacks have to be "exceptionally good" to get into many executive-level jobs, while whites who are merely satisfactory have greater opportunities for promotion, Charles contends.

He says he agrees completely with recent statements made by filmmaker Spike Lee, who urged a group of black college students to push past the glass ceiling in corporate America by starting their own businesses.

"Own your own business, employ people and control some of the economic pie," Charles says in mantra-like fashion. "That's the only way we can make an impact on decision-making at the top level."

Social Inroads

Charles' doubts aside, some prominent blacks are combining economic and social clout in breaking pricey, exclusive barriers.

As '92 drew to a close, black businessmen Walt Patterson and Howard "Curt" Reed integrated two all-white Little Rock country clubs, Pleasant Valley and the Country Club of Little Rock.

Their memberships highlighted the growing influence of affluent blacks who are becoming more involved in social circles once thought to be the exclusive domain of whites.

Reed, who has a doctorate in economics, is the owner of Curt Reed & Co., which specializes in international cash management systems for corporations.

Patterson, a former director of the state Department of Human Services, is president of Health Care Training Corp. of Arkansas, a company that performs competency testing for non-professionals in the medical field.

The Country Club of Little Rock, along with President-elect Bill Clinton, received negative attention last March when Clinton played golf at the all-white club.

At that time, attention also was refocused on the fact that Pleasant Valley had no black members.

Management and members at both clubs had said previously the clubs did not have racially exclusive policies, but blacks had not sought membership. Nonetheless, Clinton now plays at the more politically correct, racially diverse Chenal Country Club.

Reed was accepted for membership in December, but a CCLR member says Reed had been under consideration before the Clinton controversy.

Reed has declined comment on his membership.

But Patterson talks freely on the subject.

"I think this is a signal that the doors are open," he says.

Patterson believes his membership will likely lead to other blacks joining the club.

"If I thought it was a one-shot kind of deal -- that the doors might not be open to others -- I would not have even considered it," he says.

Patterson acknowledges that many blacks have probably been dissuaded from considering membership at either Pleasant Valley or CCLR in the past because of the perception that the all-white membership implied an effort at racial exclusion.

"I'm sure that over the years the reputation has kept some people away because, quite frankly, it's almost like the lunch counters before the sit-ins occurred," he says.

Chenal's Example

Although the memberships of the two clubs before Reed and Patterson joined may have suggested blacks were unwelcome, more obvious stumbling blocks may have been the expensive membership fees (as high as $25,000) and the full membership rolls.

At CCLR, in particular, openings are hard to come by and often only occur with a member's death.

As the third and newest country club in Little Rock, Chenal has been trying to build membership since opening in 1990, making it easier for interested people of any color to join.

The $15,000 membership fee there also makes joining more feasible.

But Ada Hollingsworth, a charter member at Chenal and co-owner of A&A Travel Services and Consultants in Little Rock, the first travel agency in the state owned by black women, says Chenal's black membership did not occur haphazardly.

"I think Chenal's |black~ membership is a direct result of the recruitment they did before they even opened," she says. "My husband and I were approached directly by the owners to be members ... It was a clear message that they were not going to operate their country club without black members."

Unlike CCLR and PVCC, which are member-owned, Chenal is owned by Deltic Farm and Timber Co., a subsidiary of Murphy Oil Co. Hollingsworth says members of the Murphy family extended the invitation to her and her husband, Les Hollingsworth.

Chenal has more than 20 black members, Hollingsworth says, as well as members of other minority groups.

"We're very proud of that," she says.

Reed, the first black at CCLR, is also a member at Chenal, Hollingsworth says.

Charles says he's not convinced that the acceptance of Reed and Patterson at CCLR and PVCC really signals an open gate for other blacks, who have the means but don't "fit the mold."

The message is simply, "We're no longer exclusively white," says Charles.

"I don't see that has broken any barriers, so to speak," he adds.
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Author:Walters, Dixie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jan 18, 1993
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