"An Emmett Till marker has been vandalized yet again," writes Jemar Tisby in a powerful op-ed in the Mississippi Clarion Ledger, "and the form of vandalism symbolizes a larger story. While defacing a marker is nothing new, this is the first time a sign has been erased."
Tisby, president of the Reformed African American Network, and former principal and TFA member in the Mississippi Delta, warns against "historical amnesia," discussing the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and C. Vann Woodward to counter incorrect accounts of history. But he remains hopeful that vandalism will help open up a conversation about historical wounds and "offers a chance to reinvigorate efforts to redeem a painful past."
In 1864, during the Civil War, Quakers traveled to Phillips County, Arkansas to build an orphanage for slave children. For the next fifty years, bolstered by donations of black soldiers and the support of former slaves, the orphanage transformed and bloomed. Southland College -- the first institution of higher learning west of the Mississippi River for African Americans -- would graduate hundreds of African Americans with teaching degrees.
Its flourishing testified to the "overwhelming longing for literacy felt by former slaves," writes the University of Arkansas Libraries site, and "addressed the acute need for educated teachers and professionals around the country."
Arkansas university libraries have now digitized a collection of Southland College papers. "It's been a privilege to collaborate in the retelling of Southland College's remarkable history in this format," said the curator Catherine Wallack."The story is both hopeful and heartbreaking, and it belies so many stereotypes about the Arkansas Delta."
For those interested, I would recommend the historian Thomas C. Kennedy's Southland College, A History of Southland College: The Society of Friends and Black Education (University of Arkansas Press, 2009), an absorbing account of the school's origins, growth, and closing.
In 1919, in Elaine, Arkansas, black sharecroppers organized in a church to demand wages. What ensued was the largest racial massacre that occurred in American history. Hundreds of black people, including children and women, were shot down, openly, on the streets. And hundreds more were rounded up in the Phillips County jail. Twelve were convicted and sentenced to death; the convictions that would ultimately be reversed by the Supreme Court.
The heroic journalist Ida B. Wells traveled to the jail, disguising herself as a relative. (They were held in the same jail where I visited Patrick.) She published The Arkansas Race Riot a year later, recording the perspectives of the men who had been falsely accused.
Born a slave in rural Holly Springs, Mississippi, Ida Wells-Barnett grew up during emancipation and Reconstruction. She had raised her five siblings on meager wages as a rural schoolteacher. She became one of the most passionate anti-lynching activists and the first African American woman to own her own newspaper.
Here's an excerpt from her reporting:
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) recently released Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, the culmination of a multi-year investigation into lynching in twelve Southern states. Phillips County, where Elaine is located, had 243 lynchings, the most of any county.
Nearly 17,000 Japanese Americans were sent to the Arkansas Delta and imprisoned. The ACLU called it the single most egregious violation of civil rights in American history. Once arrived, they cleared land, cut down trees, and increased the value of the land, previously worthless, seven to fifteen fold. The Arkansas legislature responded by attempting to ban any person of Japanese descent from owning land.
In honor of the 75th anniversary of the Executive Order 9066 that authorized Japanese American internment, the Arkansas State Archives launched a digital collection on materials relating to the Rohwer and Jerome Relocation Centers in the Arkansas Delta. For more resources, also check out Densho for a powerful collection of oral histories that chronicle the story of Japanese Americans who were imprisoned.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, private schools across the Delta were established to avoid desegregation. In Phillips County, the name of that school is De Soto. To this day, De Soto has not enrolled a black student.
The people who chartered private schools did so because their time was up: 16 years after the Supreme Court mandated integration in Brown, the federal government finally appeared serious about enforcing it. The government threatened to withhold funds and file lawsuit. Helena, along with around fifty school districts across the Delta, were still not in compliance with the federal government's mandate.
After De Soto opened in 1970, some white families chose to send their children to the newly integrated public schools in Helena, which flourished in their early years. But the economy would collapse in a decade, and with the closing of a rubber company, Helena shuttered practically overnight. De Soto became a bastion for the remaining white families. Public schools today are 99 percent black.