Among local historians in Lawrence County, Arkansas, the generation encompassing the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is remembered as a golden age. During the 1870s and 1880s, railroads snaked their way through parts of the county for the very first time, bringing about massive and abrupt transformations within the county. New towns sprang up along these railways, and new industries and businesses brought new wealth and prosperity to many of the county’s citizens and attracted folks from other parts of the state and country for the next several decades. Of course those places that were missed by the railroads continued their rural and agriculturally-based existence, but the county as a whole experienced rapid population and economic growth. In short, it appears to have been high times for all.
Amidst the booming excitement of this period’s history, it is easy to forget about the darker-skinned people who inhabited certain parts of the county during those times. Yet this seems to be what most of the county’s written histories have done. Though there are a few scanty references to some of the county’s black residents sparsely scattered throughout the county’s history books, articles, and quarterly publications, the history of African Americans in Lawrence County is largely neglected. A lot of this undoubtedly has to do with the fact that there are very few blacks in Lawrence County today and almost none at all in the western part of the county. However, this has not always been the case. In fact, in the latter half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, the foothills region west of Black River in Lawrence County was home to two thriving black communities―one in the Black River town of Black Rock and one less than thirty miles to its southwest in the Strawberry River area near Strawberry and Lynn.
Though Black Rock and the Strawberry-Lynn area are both small and quiet communities that have much in common today, they were practically polar opposites during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Black Rock was a large, bustling railroad town, and the Strawberry-Lynn area, which was not in the railroad’s path, was a small, rural area in which residents’ livelihoods depended mostly upon small-scale agriculture.
So, given the long-standing paucity of information regarding the area’s nonwhite population, what was life like for blacks in these two communities during this great period of Lawrence County history? After all, this was that dark and gruesome time frame in Southern history in which rampant racism, Judge Lynch, and Jim Crow all reared their ugly heads. So how did race relations in these two communities compare to other parts of the South? How did race relations compare to other parts of Arkansas? And how did these two black communities in western Lawrence County, with completely different surroundings and experiences, compare to one another?
According to those few historical accounts that mention blacks in western Lawrence County, white-black relations were quite friendly and pleasant. For instance, in her article on the history of Black Rock in the Lawrence County Historical Society’s county history compilation, Mother of Counties: Lawrence County, Arkansas—History and Families, 1815–2001, local historian Glynda Hill Stuart briefly mentioned the town’s black community and wrote, “Many of these [black] people worked in white homes and were often treated as part of the family.”1 In an article published in theLawrence County Historical Quarterly in the summer of 1978, local historian George Campbell wrote about the black community near Strawberry and Lynn, and claimed that “[t]heir lives were little or no different from their white neighbors who lived around them.”2 While these brief statements give the impression that western Lawrence County was a sort of race-relations utopia, deeper investigation proves that this is an overly simplistic, if not altogether false, assumption.
By 1883, the construction crews of the Kansas City, Fort Scott, and Memphis Railroad had traversed Lawrence County. Dr. J.W. Coffman persuaded the railroad company to erect a depot on a piece of his undeveloped land on the western bank of Black River, a mile upriver from the county seat of Powhatan. Almost immediately, people from the county’s surrounding areas, the state, and the country began hurrying to set up shop around this new depot, hoping to capitalize on the “boom” that was sure to come. A year later, the depot town was incorporated and named Black Rock.3 The areas surrounding the town were full of fine timber, and the new railroad provided access to markets. Consequently, sawmills, factories that assembled lumber products, and other timber industries sprang up, enticing droves of people to flock to Black Rock to obtain the jobs that these businesses and industries created. According to Glynda Hill Stuart, who derived her figures from old newspaper clippings and oral history, Black Rock boasted a population of about 1,000 people by 1889.4
Of course black folks were attracted to these jobs and undoubtedly made up a significant percentage of the population. Unfortunately, population records are scarce for the last several years of the nineteenth century, so it is difficult to assess the number of blacks that were living in Black Rock in the 1880s and 1890s. There were forty-two blacks living in the entire Black River Township, which included Powhatan and the tract of land that later became Black Rock, in 1870.5 A decade later in 1880, Black River Township listed seventy-three blacks in the census records.6 However, since Black Rock was not incorporated until 1884, these statistics do not mean much. An 1894 Arkansas Gazette article claims blacks in Black Rock “number[ed] about 300” in the early 1890s, and this is the only known statistic that offers any insight into the size of the black population in the first sixteen years of the city’s existence.7
It is known that blacks in Black Rock grouped together and took up residency south of town on a hill that whites began calling “Nigger Hill.” The black community was said to have had two churches, a school, and an entertainment center.8 According to Inez Penn, who recalled briefly living in Black Rock as a child later on in the second decade of the twentieth century, blacks on “Nigger Hill” would “come down and do things . . . and trade . . . and everything.”9 However, though whites in Black Rock may have welcomed the blacks’ money and trade in their stores and labor in their businesses and homes, it seems that most whites were quite suspicious of the black folks in town. Former president of the Lawrence County Historical Society and local historian Evelyn Flippo, in reminiscing about her childhood days in and around Black Rock in the 1920s and 1930s, recalled how her father constantly warned his children about the “problems with the black[s]” and how “he forbid [them] from going there. . . .” She also remembered that blacks “could not [be] seen in town in daytime.”10 This seems to contradict Penn’s recollections of blacks trading in town; but whatever the case may have been, it is quite obvious that whites distrusted the town’s blacks and viewed them as inferior people.
As if this segregation and black inferiority in Black Rock were not enough to prove that race relations in the town were less than ideal, a report on a racial disturbance in the town in the January 17, 1894, edition of the Arkansas Gazette is sure confirmation. The article stated, “A labor race war is imminent at Black Rock . . . in which whitecaps have given notice to the negro population to leave the town and that all negro mill and factory hands be discharged at once at the peril of property of the mill and factory owners.” It went on to say, “From the character of the situation at Black Rock immediate and determined action seems necessary to avert serious trouble.” These “whitecaps” were “lawless characters out of employment” who sought to drive black workers from their jobs and the town using intimidation and terror if necessary.11
Apparently, the concerned manager of the St. Joseph Folding Bed Company sent word to Governor William Fishback in Little Rock, asking for government assistance, and the governor was awaiting more information on the matter before he acted. The Gazette report stated that several business owners had already fired their black workers to avoid the wrath of the vigilantes and claimed that about one hundred terrified blacks had already fled the town. However, the “better element of the community” was taking a bold stance against this horrible lawlessness. The editor of the Lawrence County Democrat, T.D. Compton, was among them and published a strong statement condemning the whitecaps in his paper. The business owners who had yet to comply with the demands of the vigilantes arranged for the streets of Black Rock to be patrolled by armed citizens to protect their homes and businesses.12
Three days later, the Gazette printed a follow-up on the Black Rock affair. Under a heading that read “Indignant Citizens,” the paper reported that the emergency had been dealt with by the “good citizens of the town” and that “all further trouble was prevented.” The Folding Bed Company that had previously telegraphed the governor about the matter forwarded word to Little Rock that affairs in Black Rock were no longer urgent. The bed company’s statement also cleared things up by stating that only one mill owner, in fact, had discharged his black workers. The statement also said that “[t]he negroes are not preparing to make a stand. They will not be allowed to have any hand in the matter, but all that are law abiding will be protected.” In addition, the Gazette reprinted an article that appeared in the Lawrence County Democrat on January 19, which noted that a special town meeting had been held to discuss the “whitecap question,” in which the mayor and prominent citizens, including the town’s founder Dr. J.W. Coffman and prosperous sawmill and furniture-factory owner N.F. Coffey, gave speeches and appointed a committee to “draft resolutions expressing the feeling of the people in regard to the matter.”13
The affair in Black Rock was mentioned in the Gazette for the last time the following day. A brief article read: “TheGazette is pleased to state that whitecapism does not prevail at Black Rock to the extent as first reported.” Once again, theGazette reprinted an article from a Lawrence County newspaper, though this time it was one that had been printed in theBlack Rock Blade. The Blade editors were furious that such a big deal had been made of the affair and claimed that the press had blown things way out of proportion. The Blade stated, “Our citizens in general are good, law-abiding citizens, and such reports is a travesty on their citizenship.” The Gazette followed the reprinted Blade article with apologetic comments, assuring Black Rock and Lawrence County citizens that coverage of the Black Rock disturbance was never intended to tarnish the reputation of their great town and county.14
These three Gazette articles are the only known records that exist of this racial disturbance in Black Rock. Unfortunately, none of the Lawrence County newspapers from this time period have survived, and there appears to be no documentation or references to the matter in the county’s historical records. Nothing of this racial disturbance seems to have been passed on through oral tradition either. So how can one assess the meaning of this poorly documented incident for race relations in the area? It does not seem that the incident in Black Rock escalated into brutal lynchings such as those that took place in the cosmopolitan towns of southwestern Virginia in the early 1900s, which were, according to historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage, “transportation, financial, and administrative centers for the surrounding countryside.”15 Nor does the affair in Black Rock appear to have resulted in the kinds of brutal murders that occurred in Birmingham, Kentucky, in February of 1908, when blacks there refused to leave their jobs and homes after being demanded to do so and warned by the Night Riders.16 If indeed anyone was lynched or murdered in the Black Rock affair, available sources do not mention it.
On a more regional and local note, the racial disturbance in Black Rock did not explode into mass rioting such as that which occurred in the town of Harrison (Boone County) in northwestern Arkansas, where whites eventually cleansed the town of its black population.17 Neither was Black Rock’s black population driven from the town, never to return, like Evening Shade’s (Sharp County) black community was around Christmastime in 1906.18 In fact, if indeed there were around 300 blacks in Black Rock in 1894, the black population seems to have stayed pretty consistent over the next 6 years, since the 1900 population census lists 277 blacks living in Black Rock Township.19
So why did the racial conflict in Black Rock not get any nastier than it did? According to Roberta Senechal de la Roche in her essay “The Sociogenesis of Lynching,” the conditions for mass rioting, lynchings, and other violence were just right in Black Rock in 1894. The 1890s were a period of economic recession, and “a minority group presence in [the] community . . . [had] increase[ed] through in-migration. . . .” Furthermore, she claimed that rioting and lynching tended to occur morefrequently in “[n]ewer, faster growing” towns and cities where residential segregation was more strict and “paternalistic tradition” was lacking in white-black relations.20 So Black Rock seems to have had all of the symptoms. However, it seems that Black Rock was fortunate to have “indignant citizens” who stood firm to protect “the laws of our land, which guarantee equal protection to the rights of life and property to all citizens, regardless of color. . . .”21
Granted, these prominent Black Rock citizens should be given much credit for staving off serious racial trouble. But was sympathy for the town’s blacks their top motive in doing so? It is likely that protecting their property and labor force was the chief reason these prominent whites took such a firm stand against the whitecaps. Sure, these business owners could have just given in to the vigilantes’ demands and fired their black workers, and their mills and factories would have been completely safe. But doing so would have meant losing their cheap labor force—black workers.
One of the strongest opponents of the whitecaps, as mentioned, was N.F. Coffey. According to Ceburn Christopher, whose Cherokee parents lived on “Nigger Hill” with a black family in Black Rock around the turn of the century, N.F. Coffey and Company paid its workers—a large percentage of these were black—with “chips” that could only be spent at Coffey’s general store in Black Rock.22 This was industrial peonage, even a sort of informal system of slavery, and it is doubtful that Coffey was the only business owner using this wage system in Black Rock at that time. So it is clear that Coffey and other business owners had their labor force right where they wanted it. The situation in Black Rock certainly seems to have fit the model of the modernizing South revealed in the study of Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck, in which “[t]he primary concern for white planters and employers was to hire workers as cheaply as possible to guarantee larger profits.”23 The town leaders also realized that if such lawlessness continued, the town’s and county’s reputation would have been tarnished, as the last Gazette article clearly showed.
Regardless of intentions, the ending results were the same; blacks got to keep their jobs and continue living in their separate community in town. But just because nothing ever transpired in all of this “whitecapism” does not mean that blacks and the Black Rock elites had a rosy relationship. The truth is that residential segregation, whites’ suspicion of strange blacks, “whitecapism,” and exploitation of black labor (though poor white labor was certainly exploited as well) all provide evidence that Black Rock’s race relations were not unlike other parts of the South. Rather, according to a descendant of one of Lawrence County’s black families who had relatives that once lived on “Nigger Hill,” “Black Rock was a pretty rough old town” when it came to race relations.24
Less than thirty miles or so southwest of Black Rock was another sizeable black community near the confluence of the Strawberry and Black Rivers in the vicinity of Strawberry and Lynn, once known as “Little Africa.” According to George Campbell, many ex-slaves migrated into the area shortly after the Civil War and were given land there by federal government officials. As time went on, this poor farming community of blacks accumulated a cotton gin, a sawmill, a sorghum mill, two grocery stores, and a post office within their settlement. These blacks also had a small building that served as a school and church house, which was said to have been the “center of activity” for the community. Though these blacks resided within relative proximity to one another, the fact that this was a farming community meant they did not live in cramped quarters like the blacks in Black Rock.25 In 1870, there were exactly 100 blacks living in the area, and the black community had gained 17 more residents by 1880.26 By 1900, the black population had reached its apex with 146 black folks, who made up over 20 percent of Morgan Township’s total population.27 The black community’s numbers dropped to 101 by 1910 and 92 by 1920.28 By 1930, only 59 blacks remained in the area.29
Local whites have fond memories of the black community that once lived in the area, and for the most part almost all speak of friendly and pleasant relations between whites and blacks. Inez Penn, who has lived her entire adult life in and near Lynn, remembered the black families that lived nearby and claimed that whites “treated them nice” and said “they weren’t looked down on too much.” When asked if she had ever heard of any racial altercations or disturbances in the area, she responded by saying, “I don’t much believe there was. They [the whites] were just used to them [the blacks], you know, and never thought much about it.”30 Nina Richey, who grew up in Lynn and roamed around her parents’ grocery store in the late 1930s and early 1940s, remembered that “everyone got along well with all of them [the blacks].” She also told of frequently accompanying her aunt to visit one of the black families near Lynn. She continued, “These [black] families were well liked in the community.” Her husband, Gerald Richey, who was raised on a farm across the Strawberry River from a few of the black families and their farms, recalled the yearly picnic that the blacks hosted near their church and schoolhouse, where “there would be a crowd, and lots of people [whites and blacks] attended.”31
While all of this suggests that the Strawberry-Lynn area may have been exceptionally harmonious when it came to race relations, a closer look reveals a more complex picture. Though no sources or local recollections tell of any racial violence in the area, there still appears to have been a well-defined color line between whites and blacks. “They knew they were black people,” said lnez Penn, and “[t]hey just knew they were thought of as workers and helpers and things like that—not equals. . . . They just had that black difference.”32
Author Montgomery, whose family was part of the area’s black community for several generations, even recalled a tale that his father Savoy told him that could have certainly escalated into violence. In storyteller fashion, Montgomery explained that a young white woman who lived near Strawberry gave birth to a mulatto baby, probably sometime in the 1930s or early 1940s. Several of the town’s whites suspected that one of the Montgomery boys, Author’s father Savoy, was the father and decided to run him out of town. One day, Savoy and his brother Yancey were sitting on their porch when a white friend of theirs rode up to their house on horseback to inform Savoy of the plan that several of the white men in Strawberry were concocting. According to Author, Yancey was known as the best rifleman around, and he happened to have his .22 rifle with him on the porch that day. After the white friend warned the brothers of the danger, Yancey’s rifle fired off, shooting a hole in the porch ceiling and alarming the white man. Yancey then proceeded to issue his own warning, so the story goes, advising the man to ride back into town and tell the white boys in Strawberry that they had better bring more men than he had bullets when they came to run his brother off. And, according to Author, nothing was ever said about the issue again.33
There is no evidence of this incident in the available sources, and it is quite clear that if it did indeed occur, it has been dramatized into an exciting tale. But whether or not the event actually occurred—and if it did, whether or not the facts are accurate—is largely irrelevant. The point is that this is what was remembered by the black community and passed on to future generations, which shows that the blacks were aware of their “place” in society and knew the whites in the area did not consider them equals.
However, even though race relations in the Strawberry-Lynn area may not have been perfect, things were certainly more peaceful and harmonious than they were in other parts of the South during this time. It also appears that race relations were quite a bit better in this area than they were less than thirty miles to the northeast in Black Rock. So why were race relations so peaceful and, though imperfect, at least moderate in this area in comparison to all of the violence and racial strife that plagued other parts of the South?
The black community in the Strawberry-Lynn area, in many respects, seems to have been almost identical to the black community in LaCrosse (Izard County), Arkansas, that historian Brooks Blevins analyzed in his essay “Revisiting Race Relations in an Upland South Community.” The rural, agriculture community of blacks in LaCrosse also lived in “racial harmony and [a] relatively relaxed atmosphere in which blacks and whites commingled daily. . . .” Blevins attributed LaCrosse’s peaceful race relations to “the community’s isolation-induced stability, the black population’s rigid adherence to racial-sexual mores, and the crucial economic interdependence of prominent white farmers and blacks in the area.”34
All of these reasons, with the exception of Author Montgomery’s family lore, can be applied to the black community in the Strawberry-Lynn area to explain its elusion of racial violence. Unlike Black Rock, for instance, which had the railroad and industries bringing unfamiliar blacks into the town, the black community in the rural Strawberry-Lynn area did not attract black newcomers, except maybe for those who occasionally married into the area’s black families. And those who did move in and marry into the black community tended to come from places relatively nearby. In 1900—the heyday of the area’s black population—only 11 of the area’s 146 blacks were born outside the state of Arkansas.35 And the names of most of the black families of the community appear relatively consistently throughout the census records—names such as Cravens, Oaks, Rainey, Sims, Steadman, Dickson, Montgomery, Barnett, Peebles, and Simpson.36 Furthermore, Montgomery’s tale is the only surviving account of any sexual relations between black men and white women. These sexual violations which, according to Tolnay and Beck, accounted for 33.6 percent of justifications for black lynchings by white mobs in the Border South, do not seem to have been a problem in the Strawberry-Lynn area.37 And there was clearly a mutual economic dependency between blacks and whites in the area; whites certainly needed black labor on their farms, in their stores, and in their homes, and blacks often needed these meager-paying jobs to survive and support their families.
Interestingly, western Lawrence County was home to two textbook case studies for Southern race relations. The blacks in Black Rock were like so many of those who migrated into railroad “boom” towns throughout the South, and lived and worked in cramped urban industrial quarters. The black community in the Strawberry-Lynn area, on the other hand, was a quiet, rural, and agriculturally oriented settlement, where blacks and whites commingled regularly. Both of these black communities drastically declined after the 1930s, as many African Americans headed to large cities to find work during the Depression years, and had mostly vanished by the mid-twentieth century. But these two black communities certainly left an interesting history behind, despite their poor documentation.
It is pretty evident that neither of these black communities in western Lawrence County experienced the horrible violence and rioting that many other black communities did in other parts of the South during the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries. In fact, the only mention of a black ever having been lynched in Lawrence County can be found in The Goodspeed Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Northeastern Arkansas. It briefly states that around 1887, “a mob composed of individuals outside the county, forcibly took from the jail at Powhatan, a negro, incarcerated therein on a charge of committing rape, and hanged him.”38 However, the facts here seem to have been confused, since diligent research has unearthed only one lynching that ever occurred in Lawrence County, and the victim was a “white tramp” who was lynched in Portia for raping a Sharp County white woman in May of 1887.39
Just because widespread racial violence and rioting never broke out in these places does not mean that western Lawrence County has a spotless and untarnished history of race relations. Black Rock was obviously very segregated, and whites distrusted the strange blacks that lived on “Nigger Hill” and worked in the mills and factories in town. And it is very clear that racial tensions were broiling in January of 1894, when a “labor race war” seemed inevitable. Though the town’s “indignant citizens” put down the lawless vigilantism, it is quite obvious that their own capitalist interests were their motives for doing so. Things were not necessarily ideal on the Strawberry-Lynn area’s racial scene either. Though the good and positive memories tend to have drowned out the racism, segregation, and white perception of blacks as inferior humans in the area, these latter things were definitely there—no matter how moderate they may have been. The simple fact is, despite the absence of much intimidation, any major violence, and any mass rioting, race relations were not exceptionally pure as many of the county’s citizens would like to imagine. In fact, shedding light on the county’s race relations may suggest that the late 1800s and early 1900s were not so much a golden age but more of a gilded age in Lawrence County’s history, when everything was not nearly as grand as previously assumed.
© Blake Perkins