You hear the jeers and shouts. The blare of police sirens. The tilt and lift of stern voices giving stern speeches. You hear and begin to see it all when you walk into the visitor center of the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. The incident in 1957, when National Guard troops were sent to protect nine African-American students who originally were barred from enrolling at the previously all-white school, enshrined Arkansas in the racial injustice hall of shame.
But it did not have to be that way. “In Arkansas there is a lot of navel gazing — asking, ‘What are we like?’ And the real scar was Central High and becoming the poster child of resistance to racial integration in schools, which is such a terrible irony,” says Janine Parry, a University of Arkansas-Fayetteville political scientist. Comparing Arkansas to the rest of the South in the 19th century, she says, “There wasn’t as much of a history of lynching. Everyone was so poor. There weren’t [as many] plantations. We had this racial tolerance and indifference.” For a short time less than a century before Central High, the state that calls itself the Land of Opportunity really appeared to be one — for all people, regardless of race or creed.
Part of that sentiment is embedded in the geography of Arkansas. While called Southern, it is not the Deep South. The northern part of the state, today as in earlier eras, is marked by Midwestern manufacturing, and its west taps into the cowboy mind-set of neighboring Oklahoma and Texas. Most important, it shares the Mississippi Delta — a fertile region familiar to Black farmers but with less racial tension than in the Magnolia State on the east bank of the river. Despite trying to enslave free Blacks on the eve of the Civil War, writes Fon Gordon in Caste and Class:The Black Experience in Arkansas, 1880–1920, “many Blacks in the Deep South came to regard Arkansas as a ‘promised land.’ ”
The state had plenty of motivation to encourage that image … whether or not it held up to scrutiny. While plantations had never quite taken root here, after the Civil War, planters started developing the Arkansas side of the Delta for cotton and rice production. Scores of labor agents made their way throughout adjacent Southern states, trying to lure farmhands who would toil in the fields. As Gordon recalls in her book, a former South Carolinian remembers his parents moving to Arkansas in 1888 after an agent described the state as “a tropical country of soft and balmy air, where coconuts, oranges, lemons and bananas grew. Ordinary things like corn and cotton, with little cultivation, grew an enormous yield.”
Prominent African-American leaders joined the recruitment effort, convinced that they had at last found a land to call their own. “Arkansas is destined to be the great Negro state of the country,” said Bishop Henry M. Turner of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in January 1889. “The meagre prejudice compared to some states, and opportunity to acquire wealth, all conspire to make it inviting to the colored man.” The Georgia-based leader of the United States’ prominent Black denomination continued, “This is the state for colored men who wish to live by their merits.”
Black Americans began to heed the call. The population of the state tripled from 1870 to 1890. Blacks formed a majority in two towns, Helena and Pine Bluff, where they developed a “small but successful” middle class, Gordon writes. From 1868 to 1893, every state general assembly had at least one Black legislator, helped in part by the Republican Party’s decision to strategically elevate minority voices. Ironically, considering the later desegregation fight in Arkansas, this era saw the creation of the first state public schools and the passage of an 1873 civil-rights law that made it illegal to bar Blacks from public institutions.
In Arkansas, attorneys, dentists and other Black professionals emerged at a time when in some states, such as Florida, doctors still had a whites-only entrance on Main Street and Black patients had to enter in the back. “In Arkansas, at least, one would not have to endure that kind of humiliation and degradation,” Gordon tells OZY. “You went to see a physician, and he had only one waiting room for everybody.”
In time the state’s promise of opportunity proved illusory. If Arkansas had seemed different from its Southern neighbors, it was because the Black population was significantly smaller — a quarter of the population, compared to majorities and near majorities in Mississippi and Louisiana. “The Black demographic was considered less of a threat,” Gordon says. But as the population grew, so did the turmoil. From 1889 to 1918, there were 214 cases of racial violence in Arkansas. Nevertheless, leaders like Bishop Turner continued to call for Black settlement, partly out of wishful thinking. “African-Americans certainly wanted to believe there was some place in the South they could call home,” Gordon notes. “In a system of oppression, they were trying to make the best of a bad situation.”
In the aftermath of the Roaring Twenties, all-Black or nearly all-Black towns emerged in the South, which led to some economic gains. It was akin to the “lace-curtain Irish,” Gordon says, referring to those who rose from working class to middle class and developed economies in which minorities did business with each other, independent of the dominant white economy. “While there wasn’t a comparable term for African-Americans, [the same types of gains were] achieved in parts of all the Southern states,” Gordon adds. But the advent of Jim Crow laws derailed the journey to equality for decades.
Still, there was a chance that Arkansas could have avoided its wrong turn in history. Born poor in the Ozarks, Orval Faubus grew up as a liberal socialist who appointed the first African-Americans to state boards and commissions in the ’50s and, during his 1954 campaign for governor, promised not to interfere with federal education decisions.
But by 1956 Faubus could not avoid the race issue. Ultimately, his choice became whether to stick to his principles at the risk of losing the biannual gubernatorial contest and being forgotten, or to abandon those principles, win the election and be remembered. When he chose the latter, he indeed was remembered, along with his state and a high school in Little Rock — for being on the wrong side of history.