Arkansas is in the midst of a tranquil acknowledgment of some of its barbarous history and it is too bad that only a sentimental few, not all of us, are involved. The renewed ardor for the Confederacy, its battle flag and memorial statues and for those who led the revolt against the United States in 1860 seems to offer a chance. Let’s seize it.
The sponsors of all the Confederate celebrations like the ones at Charlottesville, Va., and at Hot Springs last weekend will not mind since they say that they are interested in preserving history, not worshiping traitors. Talk about history — let’s give people the real history. Maybe the Department of Arkansas Heritage could arrange memorial events at the statues in collaboration with the Confederate groups.
Already, we are preparing for a round of celebrations at Little Rock Central High School on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the constitutional crisis created by Gov. Orval Faubus when, fearing defeat at the polls by one of two hotspur racists, sent the state militia to the school to stop nine black kids from going to class with whites. They won’t be erecting an equestrian statue of Faubus but honoring the brave kids who lived through the grim year and set the course for ending educational blight for black kids throughout the land.
Over in Phillips County, a movement called Remembering 2019 wants to quietly recognize the 100th anniversary of the 1919 massacre of hundreds of black field hands and families to stop a revolt against white control that planters and some government officials said was in the offing after a few blacks met with a sharecropper union organizer at a little church near Elaine. Remembering 2019 wants to use the occasion to promote civic responsibility.
Last month, the University of Mississippi Press published a book called “Black Boys Burning” that looks deeply into the 1959 fire at the Arkansas Negro Boys Industrial School at Wrightsville, where 21 boys burned to death in a ramshackle dormitory that had been locked for the night like an animal cage. A catastrophe at a white school would have caused horror, but at Wrightsville not much. Faubus was publicly sore and fired the black man in charge of the crude place that was cruelly called a school.
Grif Stockley, whose books on Arkansas’s race history, including an account of the 1919 massacre, “Blood in Their Eyes,” broke a century of conspiratorial silence, researched the Wrightsville fire and wrote “Black Boys Burning.” Stockley filled in the huge gaps in our sparse reporting of the fire at the time. The tragedy was not a momentary lapse by some derelict employee, but the climax of an enduring tragedy. Reports from such quality-control agents as we had at the time warned of the horrible conditions at the school — putrid water and food, squalor, crowding, safety hazards and horrible working conditions. The kids were not criminals but often truants, runaways and mentally retarded or abandoned kids. They had a singular purpose at Wrightsville: to tend the crops, which like the state prisons at the time were a source of pride because the income meant the state didn’t have to appropriate much money. None of that came to light, which meant Faubus and legislators who presumably had seen the reports and ignored them could feign anger at the poor men who didn’t get there in time to unlock the door or remove the bars from the window to let the boys out.
“Black Boys Burning” won’t be a best-seller or even get a review. WordsWorth Books in the Heights has a few in stock.
Wrightsville was another legacy of Jim Crow, the great era when Arkansas and the rest of the South finally wrested social institutions away from the Reconstructionists and instituted a new form of servitude that would be countenanced or overlooked by federal and state courts — segregation in every institution of society and government, lynching, denial or intimidation of voting rights, denial of jobs and economic advancement — literally everything.
The flowering of Jim Crow in the 1890s, which reached its zenith in the Ku Klux Klan renaissance of the 1920s, accounts for nearly all the Confederate memorials, whether they honor a Confederate hero or simply memorialize the Confederate soldiers. No monuments recall the 180 dead and wounded black union infantrymen who surrendered and were slaughtered at Poison Spring and their bodies mutilated, or the hundreds who died in the 1919 slaughter in Phillips County, the 12 who were sentenced to die although none was proved to have harmed a soul, or the 65 convicted of second-degree murder on the same evidence.
There are glimmerings of recognition. The Pulaski County Historical Society is contemplating a tiny monument at Ninth and Broadway to recall the horror of May 4, 1927, when a mob countenanced by the police and city fathers tortured John Carter, dragged him through the city and burned him on a huge pyre at that corner while people riddled his body with bullets and had their pictures taken with the burning corpse. A white woman claimed Carter hit her when she asked for directions. There are no heroes of that event to memorialize, unless you count J.N. and Fred Heiskell, the editors of the Arkansas Gazette, who printed a front-page editorial condemning the city for letting it happen. Maybe the chamber of commerce, which said it was bad for economic development.
Stories behind all these monuments deserve airing and the Confederacy movement is the chance. The Hot Springs celebration should not only have paid tribute to the soldiers who fought to keep slavery but to the colorful events at exactly that site that the monument was to some extent celebrating. The statue was planned in 1907, when Jim Crow was finally achieved, but not dedicated until 1934. That revered ground was famous for two spectacles that occurred there, the joyful lynching of black men in 1913 and 1922.
There are similar opportunities across the state. When will we get started?