Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Violence and the Decline of Black Politics in St. Francis County

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Violence and the Decline of Black Politics in St. Francis County

Article excerpt

IN THE TWENTY YEARS FOLLOWING the end of Reconstruction, black and white men of voting age faced few restrictions on their right to vote. Though Democrats had regained their former dominance, blacks encountered no real legal obstacle to political activity and held city and county offices and seats in the legislature. In the gubernatorial election of 1888, disgruntled Arkansas farmers, organized as the Agricultural Wheel and allied with the Republican party, mounted a powerful challenge to Democratic rule. Well aware that blacks constituted a large part of the movement's support, white Democrats responded to this insurgency by launching an effort to remove black Arkansans from politics.1 St. Francis County, in the eastern part of the state, partook of this movement. But the reaction to the perceived threat of the Wheel/Republican alliance and black political influence may have been particularly sharp there because of a distinct set of circumstances-St. Francis was becoming a black-majority county.

St. Francis County had been created by Arkansas's territorial legislature in 1827. White settlers from Tennessee and Kentucky migrated to the area by way of the "Old Military Road" which ran east and west through the county.2 They quickly realized the agricultural potential of the fertile, loamy soils of the Mississippi River delta between the St. Francis River and the county's eastern border. Between 1830 and 1840, the county population grew from 1,505 people, made up of 1,368 whites, 136 slaves, and I free black, to 2,499, including 2,132 whites, 365 slaves, and 2 free blacks.3 In 1840, St. Francis County farmers produced 53,338 pounds of cotton and 128,470 bushels of corn.4 Over the next two decades, cotton production and, thus, slave population increased considerably.5 St. Francis County produced 1,540 bales of cotton in 1850 and 9,275 bales in 1860.6 In 1850, there were 707 slaves and 2 free blacks in the county.7 By 1860, all 2,621 blacks in the county were slaves, and the white population had increased from 3,770 in 1850 to 6,051.8 In the years between the county's founding and the outbreak of the Civil War, whites always outnumbered blacks, but the percentage of the total population that was black rose steadily from 9 percent in 1830 to 15 percent in 1840, 16 percent in 1850, and 30 percent in 1860.9

Decimated by war, the county's white population fell sharply to 4,268 in 1870. Because black numbers dropped less precipitously to 2,446, the percentage of the total population that was black increased to 36 percent.10 Cotton and corn production fell to 3,757 bales and 141,911 bushels respectively, but the lumber industry grew.11 Forests of walnut, poplar, hickory, and maple on Crowley's Ridge supported the growth of this industry and of towns like Forrest City. First surveyed in 1869, the town took its name from Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, who brought the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad through Crowley's Ridge. In 1874, the county seat was moved from Madison to Forrest City.12

Even as the county began to revive after the war, St. Francis County farmers soon found themselves caught in the middle of a statewide, and, indeed, national agricultural crisis. The opening of new agricultural lands in the western United States and around the world forced down the market price of most agricultural commodities in the 1870s. The federal government contributed to this deflation by removing wartime greenbacks from circulation and demonetizing silver. Farmers watched cotton prices drop 47.7 percent between 1874-77 and 1894-97. The crop lien system made matters worse. Already indebted, more and more farmers bought their supplies on high-interest credit from the local merchant, who sold goods at a price 30 to 70 percent higher than the usual cash price.13 To insure payment, the storekeeper required farmers to grow cotton and usually obtained a lien or mortgage on the next year's crop. Often, if the farmer's debt became large enough, the lender demanded a mortgage on the farmer's land before extending more loans. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.