LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Black art galleries and African clothing boutiques are opening near the future site of Bill Clinton's presidential library in the expectation that lots of black tourists will come to pay homage to the man once called "our first black president."
The library will not open until 2004, but the shops on President Clinton Avenue are already enjoying some success thanks to a temporary exhibit of Clinton memorabilia and expansion of the city's River Market district.
"Moving down here is about being at the right place at the right time," said Deun Shonowo, who sells West African clothing, ceramics and art at her Afrikan de Boutique. "One of the main reasons I moved down here was the library and the tourists."
Clinton announced in 1997 that he would build his presidential library complex on the south bank of the Arkansas River. The site is next to the River Market section of upscale shops, pubs and trendy restaurants.
In December, ground was broken on the complex, which will include a museum and academic center. The next day, a preview exhibit opened nearby, bringing an increase in visitors black and white downtown.
Lenora Taylor of North Little Rock, a black woman who volunteered in Clinton campaigns, toured the exhibit with a senior citizens group recently and said she expects the library to bring black tourists from around the world.
"I have family from California to Michigan who want to know about the library," she said.
Little Rock teacher Joann Williams brought her racially mixed fifth-grade class to the exhibit. She said the exhibit had an important message for her students: "President Clinton had the decency and dignity to let people know that African-Americans are capable."
The exhibit features pictures of Clinton with musicians Stevie Wonder and Lenny Kravitz, a signed guitar given to Clinton by B.B. King and numerous gifts from African heads of state. Williams' students were drawn to a statue of Michael Jordan that the basketball star gave to Clinton.
"This is tight," said Keagan Scribner, a black 11-year-old. "I didn't know President Clinton liked Michael Jordan."
Novelist Toni Morrison once referred to Clinton as the nation's first black president because of what many regard as his understanding of the black condition and because of his upbringing. He grew up poor and was raised for a time by a single mother.
"We love him, we celebrate him, we just believe in him. He has always given African-Americans their just due," said the Rev. Arthur Hughes of West Helena.
Crystal Altenbaumer, director of the Clinton Birthplace Foundation in Hope, said about 40 percent of those who tour the Clinton birthplace are black.
"We have a lot black families that include the Clinton center in their reunions. The last one was a reunion in Pine Bluff with people from five states. They rented a bus to come here," she said.
Skip Rutherford, president of the Clinton Library Foundation, said among the ideas for marketing the library to black tour groups is promoting nearby attractions such as Little Rock's Central High School, where the federal government sent in the National Guard to protect nine black students admitted to the all-white school, and the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Andy Ingraham of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., president of the National Association of Black Hotel Owners Operators and Developers and director of a marketing firm specializing in multicultural tourism, said the library is "big deal in terms of economic impact and an opportunity for African-American vendors to get a piece of the pie."