I grew up in the Ozarks. For my first ten years, I was in the heart of the Ozarks, in Harrison, Arkansas. There weren’t any black kids at school. There weren’t any black people at church. There weren’t any black people in Boone County. I think it was probably a trip to Springfield, Missouri when I saw my first black person somewhere other than the television, but it could have easily been my first trip outside the Ozarks when I was eight or nine. The Ozarks weren’t exactly the most-diverse place at the time. They still aren’t.
As a kid, I never really thought about why that might be.
Back in 2015 I read a Kameron Hurley blog post that introduced me to the Tulsa Race Riot and Black Wall Street. Tulsa wasn’t far away, but I had no idea about any of it. Like, I knew that black people had a hard time post-1865, but high school history lessons touched on the Civil War and slavery, glossed over Reconstruction, talked a bit about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr, and ended on a note of “but things are great now!”
In case you missed it, the folks who burned down 35 blocks worth of homes in Tulsa were white, and the people they burned out, the 300 people who were killed, the 10,000 people left homeless – were all black. It was not until 1996 that the state even bothered to commission a proper history of the event that would be available to everyone, instead of relying on a spoken oral history maintained by survivors who were now dying.
When I heard about police cars blocking off roads and journalist access in Ferguson, Missouri last year, Tulsa immediately came to my mind, and I thought, “If you think the shit you’re seeing on Twitter is bad right now, can you imagine what they’d be doing to people right now if there wasn’t any Twitter?”Kameron Hurley – Welcome to the Hurleyverse
Reading about Tulsa led me to Springfield’s history. You gotta go back fifteen years before Tulsa to 1906. In 1906 the fine people of Springfield lynched two black men in front of three thousand people. You can read about it here. Or here. Or here. The short version is that a mob of white people broke into the jail in Springfield, abducted two innocent black men, and lynched them on the square. That wasn’t enough blood, so they went back for another black man and lynched him, too. No one was convicted.
Following the lynchings and mob violence, a grand jury was called to indict anyone who had participated in the mob. By April 19, four white men had been arrested and 25 warrants were issued. Only one white man was tried, however, and no one was ever convicted.Equal Justice Initiative
There’s a plaque on the square in Springfield that talks about it. That plaque was installed in 2019, after I moved to London.
Today, in December 2021, I learned why there were no black people in Boone County, Arkansas. It was not an accident. It turns out that we have to backup before the 1906 lynchings in Springfield.
Harrison, in the early 1900s, had about 1500 people, of which about 115 were black. I’m not saying Harrison was diverse, but it was more diverse than the literally zero people of color it had in the 1980s. In 1905 the railroad in the county went bankrupt. People were hurting. The white people of Harrison did what, apparently, white people in the early 1900s did. They formed a mob, stormed the jail, and hauled some black men out for punishment. In this case, they whipped two men, told them to leave town, and then went back to town to finish their business.
The mob then went on a rampage through Harrison’s black community. Numbering about thirty, they burned down homes, shot out windows, and ordered all African Americans to vacate the town that night.Encyclopedia of Arkansas
Not all the black residents in Harrison left. No, it took another riot in 1909 for that to happen.
Now, maybe you’re reading this and thinking that my ignorance is on me. I’d like to think I’m a well-read person. Someone who is knowledgeable about history. Clearly, I have some gaps, but I try. But you know what? That’s wrong. Here’s why:
As Harrison’s white residents tried to erase the black community in their town, they apparently also tried to erase the historical record of the events in question. The files of the local newspaper, the Harrison Daily Times, contain gaps coinciding with the dates of the riots, and though records exist, including transcripts of testimony, for most of the other cases heard by Judge Rogers’s 1905 grand jury, only one handwritten note with the dates of the investigation’s beginning and end remains extant.Encyclopedia of Arkansas
The white people of Harrison, Arkansas willfully and intentionally tried to erase the embarrassing parts of their past. Read that quote again. The files of the local newspaper contain gaps coinciding with the dates of the riots.
Was it my parents that lynched those men in Springfield? No. Was it my grandparents that ran the black community out of Harrison? No. Did my parents or grandparents teach me the history of our cities? They most assuredly did not. Is that their fault? Shoot, they probably didn’t know about it, either.
I talk to folks back home. I read the news. Today folks are upset about critical race theory. Last year it was election fraud. Before that it was migrant caravans. It was super-predators. It was hippies. It was civil rights. It was slavery.
America will chew you up and spit you out. It will use you and discard you. Maybe you’re reading about labor unions at Kellogg or Activision Blizzard. When you read about them, do you think about why we don’t have child labor? Why we have a minimum wage? Why we have a 40 hour work week? Do you think about Blair Mountain? Have you even heard of Blair Mountain?
There’s a lot we don’t teach in school. A lot we should.
So as you’re sitting there watching your Fox News, listening to your Rush Limbaugh and grumbling about those damn Democrats and their critical race theory, take a pause. Think about your history. Think about your lack of history.
It’s a lot easier to blame someone else than it is to put yourself in their shoes. It’s a lot easier to grump and moan than it is to look in the mirror and think about your past. Our past.
I know you’re not racist. I’m not racist. None of us are racist. We don’t see black and white. We just see people.
But if that’s true, why wasn’t there a single black kid in my elementary school class in Harrison in the early 90s? Why were there only two black kids in my high school class in Missouri in the early 2000s? Why did it take until 2019 for Springfield to put up that plaque?
Makes you think, don’t it.
Thank you, Brent. This is important.