Ruled by Race: Black/White Relations in Arkansas from Slavery to the Present

Article excerpt

Ruled by Race: Black/White Relations in Arkansas from Slavery to the Present. By Grif Stockley. (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2008. Pp. xxiii, 530. Illustrations, acknowledgments, notes, bibliography, index. $34.95.)

The twin themes of Grif Stockley's carefully researched and clearly written study are that Arkansans have been and continue to be "ruled by race" and that, even before the civil rights movement, African Americans were not passive in the face of discrimination. A civil liberties attorney, Stockley is manifestly committed to equality and justice, but as an historian he carefully weighs conflicting evidence and interpretations to produce an informed, nuanced account. Largely a synthesis, the book incorporates generous quotations from other historians but also includes primary material and makes use of the author's own research on the civil rights era. Although slavery existed in the territory and state of Arkansas for only forty-six years, Stockley argues it established a pattern of white supremacy based on economic exploitation that also produced "a racial pecking order based on white ancestry, skin color, and class . . . that would profoundly affect not only race relations between whites and blacks but those among blacks themselves," including "black racism and black selfhatred" (p. xviii).

The book begins by discussing slaves' perspectives on their lives. While cognizant of their limitations, Stockley uses extensive quotations from interviews with former slaves conducted by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s that give them a voice. These accounts are often harrowing, revealing the brutality and inhumanity of slavery, but Stockley also notes diversity, including former slaves who expressed affection for their one-time owners. After briefly assessing historiographical treatments, he judiciously concludes, "As much as slaves tried and sometimes were successful in influencing their treatment through their own behavior, slavery was ultimately in the hands of whites" (p. 23).

Delta slaveholders, Stockley observes, treated slavery as an economic enterprise. Slavery and the pursuit of wealth through cotton cultivation lay at the heart of white Arkansan support for secession in 1861. Slaves ran away to Union lines, but emancipation left the freedmen largely at the mercy of planters who continued to exploit and punish them despite Reconstruction reforms that accorded blacks voting rights and some political officeholding. Little Rock saw residential integration, and interracial mixing in business continued until the 1890s, by which time segregation and disfranchisement of African Americans took hold in the state. As conditions worsened, some rural blacks migrated to Liberia, and in the early twentieth century African Americans mounted shortlived boycotts against new segregation laws in Hot Springs, Little Rock, and Pine Bluff. …