Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Total Eclipse: The Destruction of the African American Community of Harrison, Arkansas, in 1905 and 1909

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Total Eclipse: The Destruction of the African American Community of Harrison, Arkansas, in 1905 and 1909

Article excerpt

FOR MOST OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, Harrison, Arkansas, was all white. This homogeneity was not always the case, however, nor was it achieved without bloodshed. The census taken in Harrison in April of 1900 lists 1,501 residents. Of that number, 115 were African American or of mixed race. A decade later, census takers in Harrison recorded an African American population of one. Two separate episodes of mob activity, in 1905 and 1909, destroyed Harrison's black community. A dearth of local coverage from the period, combined with uncertain memories that have been conflated into a single and inaccurate, "they hung a nigger from the bridge," have obscured what actually occurred. Files of the Harrison newspaper have gaps that coincide with the events of 1905 and 1909. However, reports in other papers around the state, federal court records, and one eyewitness account make an examination of these events possible. The evidence demonstrates that the ethnic purity of Harrison was the result of intentional violence directed at what had been an established African American community of long standing.'

In 1900 Harrison was a diverse, if rather isolated, Ozarks town. Its square consisted of mixed dwellings and businesses of all classes and kinds. Fine Victorian homes overshadowed shacks and vacant lots. A dusty brickyard, the dominant industry of the day, stood where the city park was eventually built. The Clemisher Hotel, a frame furniture store, the Boone County Bank, Tyson's General Store, Gamble's Book Store, and Hudson's Grocery drew in many a Saturday crowd from fields and woods.2 At the center stood the courthouse. "The fence around it was of boards," former Harrison newspaperman Jessie Russell recalled, "furnishing an ample supply of horse-racks. Streets were rendered very unsightly at times on account of the numerous hog wallows. The pride of the elite was often cramped by the lack of a stock law."3 Prior to locomotive access, traveling in and out of Harrison proved challenging. Muscled teamsters, continually forced to deal with mud and flooding along their Ozark routes, carefully negotiated the daily stages drawn by three relays of horses. A railway was the only real means of keeping pace with progress, but the expense of engineering and constructing mountainous grades proved to be an obstacle for many years.4

This turn-of-the-century town was home to an apparently stable and rooted black community of fifty-three children and sixty-two adults-thirty-one men and thirty-one women-who were hardworking, religious, and family-centered. Some men worked as day laborers, porters, and in saloons. A few were barbers, shoemakers, blacksmiths, and teamsters; one man was both schoolteacher and preacher. Many of the women worked as cooks, housekeepers, laundresses, and servants.5 In some cases these families can be traced back to the census of 1870 and are referred to in a local history as ex-slaves or descendants of slaves who had come into the county with their white owners.6 Eleven of these families owned their own homes, indicating that blacks felt secure enough to settle in, sign mortgages, and pay off their notes.' According to Boone County historian Ralph Rea, "They had their church, their social life, and in the main there was little friction between them and the whites."8

Harrison's black neighborhood was composed of small homes along Rush Avenue and Sycamore Street, running east to Chestnut, then northward up along the Dry Jordan Creek and southeast of Rose Hill Cemetery. A cul-de-sac of black-owned homes was also built at the present location of Woodland Heights School. Typical turn-of-the-century African American settlements were in less than desirable areas of town: Harrison's blacks settled in tracts of bottomland subject to intermittent flooding. Although a few black-owned homes could be found within Harrison's white-;)wned neighborhoods, overall little residential integration existed, as was also typical of early black neighborhood development in the South. …

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