Day 3: The Dark History of the Ozarks

Seeing White Man’s Heaven pop up yesterday, a book I haven’t seen since I was an undergrad taking a course on race in the Ozarks, made me debate whether or not I wanted to do a full post on the subject. But then I thought about how great a disservice I was doing to my ancestors of color, who had struggles and stories of their own, by not sharing this dark part of Ozark history.

This is not a subject I grew up learning about in school. People have done a great job of completely burying this part of our history, they’ve had years and years to do it. It became a joke growing up, that Harrison, AR wasn’t a safe town, that the KKK still had their headquarters there, but we never knew the full extent of the horror that was the Southern Ozarks in the late 19th early 20th century for people of color. I only knew about that when I was in college, and even then I had to take the class. It wasn’t taught in American History, it wasn’t even taught in Arkansas History. I had to reach out with an interest in the subject in order to find out that where I’d been born, grew up, where most of my ancestors have come from, had such a dark past.

I could easily say that that’s all in the past and join in with those that would say the Ozarks are nothing like they were back then. But I can’t say that because I live here and I know that there are places that are still not safe for people of color. I wish better for my home, and to be honest it is changing around here as more and more of the older folks still stuck in that generation die off. But it’s still not great, and may not be for a long time. It’s important that this information is shared, is put out there for the world to see. Covering it up does us all a great disservice.

I’m not going to attempt a well-formed essay on the subject, I’m not a historian. But I am going to provide in full an excellent article by James Loewen on the “Sundown Towns” in the Ozarks. This article appears in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, an excellent resource for those interested. They have a great section on Race and Ethnicity in Arkansas that can be found here.

“Sundown Towns”
aka: Racial Cleansing

Between 1890 and 1968, thousands of towns across the United States drove out their black populations or took steps to forbid African Americans from living in them. Thus were created “sundown towns,” so named because many marked their city limits with signs typically reading, “Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On You In Alix”—an Arkansas town in Franklin County that had such a sign around 1970. By 1970, when sundown towns were at their peak, more than half of all incorporated communities outside the traditional South probably excluded African Americans, including probably more than a hundred towns in the northwestern two-thirds of Arkansas. White residents of the traditional South rarely engaged in the practice; they kept African Americans down but hardly drove them out. Accordingly, no sundown town has yet been confirmed in the southeastern third of Arkansas that lies east of a line from Brightstar (Miller County) to Blytheville (Mississippi County), and only three likely suspects have emerged.

Sundown towns in Arkansas range from hamlets like Alix to larger towns like Paragould (Greene County) and Springdale (Washington County). Entire counties went sundown, such as Boone, Clay, and Polk. Some multi-county areas also kept out African Americans. In Mississippi County, for example, according to historian Michael Dougan, a red line that was originally a road surveyor’s mark defined a “dead line” beyond which African Americans might not trespass to the west. That line apparently continued northeast into the Missouri Bootheel and southwest to Lepanto (Poinsett County), delineating more than 2,000 square miles.

Although there were not towns like these prior to the Civil War, precedents existed for the exclusion of free African Americans. As early as 1843, Arkansas denied free blacks entry into the state, and in 1859, Arkansas required such persons to leave the state by January 1, 1860, or be sold into slavery. Moreover, in 1864, the loyalist Arkansas faction passed a new state constitution that abolished slavery but excluded African Americans from moving into the state. However, that constitution never went into effect, and during Reconstruction, African Americans participated politically across the state. In 1890, every county had at least six African Americans, and only one had fewer than ten.

Then, between 1890 and 1940, white residents forced African Americans to make a “Great Retreat” in Arkansas and across the North. During this “Nadir of Race Relations,” lynchings peaked, and unions drove African Americans from such occupations as railroad fireman and meat cutter. Democrat Jeff Davis ran for Arkansas governor in 1900, 1902, and 1904, and then for the U. S. Senate in 1906; his language grew more Negrophobic with each campaign. “We have come to a parting of the way with the Negro,” he shouted. “If the brutal criminals of that race…. lay unholy hands upon our fair daughters, nature is so riven and shocked that the dire compact produces a social cataclysm.” White people responded with violence. By 1930, three Arkansas counties had no African Americans at all, and another eight had fewer than ten, all in the Arkansas Ozarks. By 1960, six counties had no African Americans (Baxter, Fulton, Polk, Searcy, Sharp, and Stone), seven more had one to three, and yet another county had six. All fourteen were probably sundown counties; eight have been confirmed.

Much of this area had been Unionist during the Civil War. Until 1890, white residents had maintained fairly good relations with their small African-American populations, partly because African Americans and white non-Democrats were political allies. Then, election law changes and Democratic violence made interracial coalitions impractical. Now, it would not pay to be anything but a Democrat. Allied with this Democratic resurgence, a wave of neo-Confederate nationalism swept Arkansas: most Ozark county histories written after 1890 tell of the war exclusively from the Confederate point of view. More than ever, it was in the interest of white populations to distance themselves from African Americans. Precisely in counties where residents had been Unionists, white residents now often seemed impelled to prove themselves ultra-Confederate and manifested the most robust anti-black fervor.

Often, the expulsion of African Americans was forced. Harrison (Boone County), for example, had been a reasonably peaceful biracial town in the early 1890s.”There was never a large Negro population,” according to Boone County historian Ralph Rea, “probably never more than three or four hundred, but they had their church, their social life, and in the main there was little friction between them and the whites.” Then, in late September of 1905, a white mob stormed the jail, carried several black prisoners outside the town, whipped them, and ordered them to leave. The rioters then swept through Harrison’s black neighborhood, tying men to trees and whipping them, burning several homes, and warning all African Americans to leave that night. Most fled without any belongings. Three or four wealthy white families sheltered servants who stayed on, but in 1909, another mob tried to lynch a black prisoner. Fearing for their lives, most remaining African Americans left. Harrison remained a sundown town at least until 2002. Similarly, Mena (Polk County) had a small black population until February 20, 1901, when a mentally impaired African American badly injured a twelve-year-old white girl. A white mob then took him from jail, fractured his skull, shot him, and cut his throat. In the aftermath, Polk County’s black residents fled.

Some of these riots, in turn, spurred whites in nearby smaller towns to hold their own, thus provoking little waves of expulsions. The Boone County events probably led to ejections from neighboring counties. In the early 1920s, William Pickens saw sundown signs across the Ozarks. By 1930, the region’s total black population had shrunk to half its pre-Civil War total.

Sundown towns often allowed one or two African Americans to remain, even while posting signs warning others not to stay the night. In Harrison, for example, James Wilson met the 1909 mob at his door with a shotgun and protected his house servant, Alecta Smith. Later, she insisted that her name was Alecta Caledonia Melvina Smith, but she also let white people call her “Aunt Vine,” which played along with the inferior status connoted by “uncle” and “auntie” as applied to older African Americans and helped her survive in an otherwise all-white community. Several Arkansas counties and towns show a slowly diminishing number of African Americans between 1890 and 1940 because they did not allow new black people in, and those who remained gradually died or left.

Sundown towns have shown astonishing tenacity. In the early 1900s, for example, pioneering archaeologist Clarence Moore “dared not proceed beyond Lepanto” on the Little River, for fear of endangering his black crew members. Dan and Phyllis Morse note that “race relations remain strained in that region,” a polite way of saying that African Americans still do not and perhaps cannot live safely in that area a century later. Sundown towns have achieved this stability by a variety of means. Some townspeople painted black mules on barns or rock outcrops, signaling to all that no “black ass” was allowed to spend the night. In Mena, African Americans did not even have to stop to get in trouble. Shirley Manning, a high school student there in 1960–61, describes the scene: “The local boys would threaten with words and knives Negroes who would come through town, and follow them to the outskirts of town shouting ‘better not let the sun set on your black ass in Mena, Arkansas,’ and they often ‘bumped’ the car with their bumper from behind. I was along in a car which did this, once, and saw it done more than once.”

An undated newspaper clipping from Rogers (Benton County), probably between 1910 and 1920, tells of the terror that African Americans might encounter in sundown towns even during the day. A Bentonville (Benton County) contractor was building a brick building in Rogers and brought with him a black hod carrier: “A group of young men were gathered in the Blue saloon when the Negro entered, probably looking for his employer. The group seized the Negro and began telling what they were going to do with him.” They threatened to drop him in an old well in the rear of the construction site after they had hanged him, “but others objected on the ground that the odor from the ones already planted there was becoming objectionable to the neighborhood.” Eventually, they let “the trembling Negro” slip, “and in a matter of seconds, he was just a blur on the horizon.” The incident was meant to be funny, for had the men been serious, they could easily have apprehended the runaway, yet was not entirely in jest, for it accomplished the man’s unemployment, surely one of its aims.

Economic boycott has kept many African Americans out of sundown towns. As motel owner Nick Khan said about Paragould in 2002, “If black people come in, they will find that they’re not welcome here. No one will hire them.” Whites who might defy the ban face reprisals. In 1969, a choir from Southern Baptist College performed in Harrison. One choir member was black, and a couple put her up for the night, “but we worried lest our house get blown up,” remembered the wife. Despite being warned not to, Khan hired an African American to work at his motel in 1982; his transient clientele gave him a form of economic independence.

Sundown towns continued to form in Arkansas as late as 1954, when white residents of Sheridan (Grant County) rid themselves of their black neighbors in response to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The owner of the local sawmill and the sawmill workers’ homes was principally responsible. He made his African-American employees an extraordinary offer: he would give them their homes and move them to Malvern (Hot Spring County), twenty-five miles west, at no cost to them. If a family refused to move, he would evict them and burn down their home. Unsurprisingly, African Americans “chose” to leave. The few other African Americans in Sheridan—preachers, independent business operators—suddenly found themselves without a clientele. They left, too. Afterward, Sheridan developed a reputation for aggressively anti-black behavior. Some smaller communities in Arkansas may also have gotten rid of their African Americans after Brown.

Hate groups have long been drawn to sundown towns. Harrison developed a large Ku Klux Klan (KKK) chapter that targeted striking railroad workers in the 1920s, hanging one from a railroad bridge in 1923 and escorting the rest to the Missouri line. KKK leaders still live in the Harrison area. Gerald L. K. Smith, a radio evangelist and leading anti-Semite in the 1930s and 1940s, moved his headquarters to Eureka Springs (Carroll County) partly because it was an all-white town.

Historian Patrick Huber calls the expulsions by which Ozark communities became sundown towns “defining events in the history of their communities.” Nevertheless, despite that importance, or rather because of it, most sundown towns have kept hidden the means by which they became and stayed white. Sociologist Gordon Morgan, trying in 1973 to uncover the history of African Americans in the Ozarks, wrote, “Some white towns have deliberately destroyed reminders of the blacks who lived there years ago.” To this day, other than by oral history, sundown towns are hard to research, because communities took pains to ensure that nothing about their policy was written. The Rogers Historical Museum has done an exemplary job of preserving an example of this suppression. In 1962, the Rogers Daily News upset the local Chamber of Commerce by using the following language in a front-page editorial lauding a successful Fats Domino concert: “The city which once had signs posted at the city limits and at the bus and rail terminals boasting ‘Nigger, You Better Not Let the Sun Set On You in Rogers,’ was hosting its first top name entertainer—a Negro—at night!” The chamber called the newspaper editor to task and asked its public relations committee to “keep a close watch on future news reporting and take any appropriate action should further detriment to the City of Rogers be detected.”

Some Arkansas towns have long used their racial composition as a selling point to entice new residents. Mena advertised what it had—“Cool Summers, Mild Winters”—and did not have —“No Blizzards, No Negroes.” In its 1907 Guide and Directory, Rogers competed by bragging about its “seven churches, two public schools, one Academy, one sanitorium” and noted, “Rogers has no Negroes or saloons.” Not to be outdone, nearby Siloam Springs (Benton County) claimed “Healing Waters, Beautiful Parks, Many Springs, Public Library,” alongside “No Malaria, No Mosquitoes, and No Negroes.” The pitch worked: a 1972 survey of Mountain Home (Baxter County) residents found many retirees from Northern cities who chose Mountain Home partly because it was all-white. A reporter in Mena wrote in 1980, “It is not an uncommon experience in Polk County to hear a newcomer remark that he chose to move here because of ‘low taxes and no niggers.’”

For fifteen years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, motels and restaurants in some sundown towns continued to exclude African Americans. Today, public accommodations are generally open. More than half of all Arkansas sundown towns have given up their exclusionary residential policies, mostly after 1990. Of fourteen suspected sundown counties in 1960, eight showed at least three African American households in the 2000 census. Additional “white” households now include “black” children, especially interracial offspring of white mothers from the community and black partners from elsewhere. The public schools of Sheridan desegregated around 1992, when students from two small nearby biracial communities were included in the new consolidated high school. In about 1995, a black family moved into Sheridan, and before the decade ended, it was joined by three more—slow progress, but progress nevertheless.

Some towns still merit the term, however. Smokey Crabtree, longtime resident of Fouke (Miller County), wrote in 2001:

As far back as the late twenties colored people weren’t welcome in Fouke, Arkansas to live, or to work in town. The city put up an almost life sized chalk statue of a colored man at the city limit line, he had an iron bar in one hand and was pointing out of town with the other hand. The city kept the statue painted and dressed, really taking good care of it. Back in those days colored people were run out of Fouke, one was even hung from a large oak tree…. As of this date there are no colored people living within miles of Fouke, so the attention getter, the means to shake the little town up isn’t “the Russians are coming,” it’s someone is importing colored people into town.

Sundown reputations persist. “Never walk in Greenwood or you will die,” a black Arkansas college student said in 2002. The 2000 census showed two African-American households in Greenwood (Sebastian County), however, so his information may be out of date. But such reputations can be self-maintaining.

For more information, go here.

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