Arkansas University Libraries Digitize Southland College papers

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. 

Ida B. Wells, Heroic Journalist and Activist, Covers the Elaine Massacre in 1919

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: 

I was at Hoop Spur Church that night to lodge meeting. I do know that four or five automobiles full of white men came about fifty yards from the church and put the lights out, then started shooting in the church with about 200 head of, men, women and children. I was on the outside of the church and saw this for myself. Then I ran after they started firing in on the church. I don’t know if anybody got killed at, all. I went home and stayed home that night, then the white people was sending word that they was going to kill all the black people, then I run back in the woods and hid two days then the soldiers came then, I made it to them. I was carried in Elaine and put in the school house and I was there eight days. Then I was brought to Helena and put in jail and whipped near to death and was put in an electric chair to make me lie on other Negroes. It was not the union that brought this trouble; it was our crops. They took everything I had, twenty-two acres of cotton, three acres of corn. All that was taken from me and my people. Also all my household goods. Clothes and all. All my hogs, chickens and everything my people had. I was whipped twice in jail. These white people know that they started this trouble. This union was only for a blind. We were threatened before this union was there to make us leave our crops.

 

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. 

Rural Education and Public Charters

I want to stress that "rural" does not mean white, a common mistake made by urbanites. One in five rural residents is a person of color. More than four of five new rural residents are people of color. And, since the days of slavery, the Arkansas Delta has been majority black. 

A piece by Terry Ryan and Paul Hill on challenges confronting rural schools notes: "Only one in three eighth-grade rural students were proficient in math or reading, about where urban students scored and well below their suburban peers. While rural students are likely to graduate from high school, they lag far behind on every college indicator—applications, admission, attendance, readiness, grades, persistence, and graduation."

In rural Idaho: "Some communities that had lost their schools via consolidation have been able to regain them via chartering, and poorly staffed schools have been able to join together to provide better-resourced schools than any one could afford."

In Phillips County, Arkansas, one of the poorest areas in America, which ranks dead last in health predictors in Arkansas:  "Local and state leaders worked to recruit KIPP to operate in Helena, and the effort has paid big dividends for the community and its children. According to community leader Chalk Mitchell, 'KIPP has helped to eliminate blight. ... The first new building constructed downtown in the last 30 or 40 years was the KIPP gymnasium.' KIPP is the largest employer in downtown Helena with more than 150 employees, including 70 teachers. The school draws students from farms and towns as far as an hour’s drive each way." 

(This charter is where Patrick's daughter attends school now.) 

Public charters get a bad rap in leftist circles, and as a lefty and former workers' rights lawyer, I totally get it. But I hope we can avoid applying an urban lens, with its range of assumptions, to a rural area. Worried about the absence of union protection for teachers? But unions were long ago decimated in rural areas, thanks to radical depopulation, gaping worker shortages,* and animus towards unions by red states. Worried about taking resources away from the traditional school? But the alternative, in a rural area, is often that the school is simply shut down: often it gets consolidated with another school that is fifteen, thirty miles away. That is the common and devastating reality for rural areas. 

In the context of the Delta, I think it's powerful that African American parents, some who live some 60 miles away in remote towns, choose to bus their kids to the public charter. I view the parents' dedication to education as part of a long historical tradition in the Delta. 

* To have a union, you must first have workers. And there are huge teacher shortages in rural areas like the Delta.

Private Schools Established to Avoid Court-Ordered Integration

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.  

Above and right:  Helena Daily World , April 24th, 1970. 

Above and right: Helena Daily World, April 24th, 1970. 

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.

Nearly all districts that failed to comply with the desegregation order were in the Delta. 

Nearly all districts that failed to comply with the desegregation order were in the Delta. 

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.

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Stars Academy, alternative school

Stars Academy, an alternative school for expelled students, was at once a dumping ground and a valuable experiment. I met Patrick here. After a run of seven years, it was shut down by the Helena Public Schools in 2006 due to lack of funding. Once shuttered, it became a playground for vandals. In 2015, two teenagers from Mississippi lit a car on fire on the property, burning down parts of the walls and roof. The Arkansas Department of Education has no record of Stars existing. 

 

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Photo Credit: Kathy Huang

Photo Credit: Kathy Huang

From the 1950s through the 1970s, Stars was known as "Helena Crossing." Elderly black residents who attended the school remember it fondly, recalling that teachers held high expectations and cared deeply for the children. In 2016, one of these residents bought the property and began work to refurbish it.