Racism in the Ozarks

I’m reading an excellent book, Sunddown Towns, by James W. Loewen.  He calls the Ozarks a “sundown region” because of the prevalence of sundown towns in the area and its overwhelmingly white population.  During the sad period between the late 19th century and the early 20th, the white citizens in dozens of Ozark towns (like hundreds all over the country) forced African-American citizens to through largely violent methods.

This was the era when the racist film “Birth of a Nation” sparked a  membership boom for the Klu Klux Klan all over the United States, which spawned years of racially motivated violence.  In some ways, though, “Birth of a Nation” was only a symptom of a problem already deeply seeded into American life.

The white citizens of Harrison, Arkansas forced out its African-American citizens during a 1909 race riot.  Thereafter, the citizen’s major reputation has been for its ignorance and extreme racism.  A leading member of the modern incarnation of the Klan currently lives near this hamlet in Newton County, Arkansas.

The local Klan chapter famously “adopted” a stretch of highway outside Harrison several years ago.  The state “highway beautification project”  displayed a sign that read “This Highway Adopted by the Klu Klux Klan, Next 1 mile,”  for years.  The sign has been gone now for some time, but the group seems to have taken up their efforts in Missouri, where they sued to be included in the Adopt-A-Highway program.

Harrison is one of the most racist towns in the United States, there is no doubt about this.  Its reputation is long and sordid, so I wasn’t surprised to see Harrison in Loewen’s listing.  However, as I continued to read, I realized something that I’m ashamed I didn’t really consider before.  My beloved hometown of Dover, Arkansas is, according to Loewen’s definition, a sundown town.

According to Loewen, one of the most important aspects of sundown towns is their invisibility to whites.  Most whites simply don’t notice anything is wrong when they move into, or grow up in, a sundown town.  The hegemony of white faces becomes the norm and so most whites simply don’t see anything abnormal about living in an all-white town. This is compounded by whites’ tendency to keep a town’s sundown status as a kind of open secret.

Loewen does an excellent job documenting his sources when he sets out to label a place “sundown.”  His interviews and research are weighty and well verified.  At one point, Loewen can’t pin down any documentation for a city’s reputation, but he manages to college nearly twenty verbal assertions that the place fit his definition.

If that’s a decent standard to go by, Dover is already halfway to complete verification. I heard some variation of the sentence, “Blacks shouldn’t go to Dover and definitely not after dark” more times than I can when I was growing up.  There’s been at one lynching in the town, according to oral history.

That’s two for two:  a reputation as a place that is unwelcoming to African-Americans and a history of racial violence.

It’s amazing to me exactly how prone I am (was?) to the very ignorance that Loewen points out.  It never seemed odd to me that there were no African-Americans in town, even though I moved to Dover after years of being one of two white students in an elementary school in Little Rock.  I, like many people from my hometown, just thought the area wasn’t attractive to African-Americans. Or, I believed on some level that African-Americans didn’t historically live in the area.  I was completely wrong, of course. 

 As Loewen points out, our progress toward racial equality in this country may have come a long way.  Many former sundown towns have now shifted attitudes and many African-Americans have moved into them.  However, what I didn’t know was that towns like mine probably have a history of violently pushing “others” out of town.  Its a history that has been ignored.  I’ll never look at the demographics of the Ozarks the same way again. 


5 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Allie said,

    My great grandparents were light skinned Native Americans living in Newton Co since the 20’s. They adopted the last name “White” and passed for Caucasians.

    This is the same branch of the family that asked me to leave after I asked them to refrain from referring to a friend (and classmate) of mine with a racial slur.

    They had become a little too adept at blending in, in Newton County. “The lady doth protest too much.”

  2. 2

    hillbillymfa said,

    I’m not sure what caused the major strained relationships between whites and African-Americans in Newton County, or why its stayed so adamant there when it’s clearly a different story in other parts of the state. It’s especially curious to me because Newton county was never a major slave-holding area of the state and thus never had a very large African-American population, even when it had one at all. Also, if you read the history of the county during the Civil War, most of the population was pretty well split right down the middle in terms of loyalties. There were as many Unionists as Confederates (although I realize that loyalities don’t necessairly equate to racism on either side. Loewen points out that there are more Sundown towns in the north than in the south, overall). But it does give us a clue as to how people felt about slavery and can give some indications that the place wasn’t somehow especially racist in comparison to the rest of the state or the country, for that matter.

    Some historians say that competition for railroad jobs in the “late reconstruction” area of 1909 caused whites to expell the African-Americans. A direct economic cause might make more “sense” in terms of the actual situation in Newton County and might explain why a place that had no special reason to be that racist became so. It’s never been a wealthy place–as you well know being from the area–and jobs have almost always been as scarce as they are now.

  3. 3

    James Hamilton said,

    Why would any so called anti-racist believer in diversity want to live in the Harrison area? I mean if someone truly believes in diversity should they not practice it? America is changing very drastically and becoming exponentially more multicultural. Meanwhile white-flight refugees are pouring in from all over the country. In this drastically changing nation fewer and fewer locations are even majority white. Yet somehow you diversity mongers seems to locate these few places with hopes of bringing in diversity. Why not just relocate to say Houston Texas, Detroit Michigan, or New York yourself? If you truly believe in diversity then stop preaching and go practice it yourself…go now, leave now and end your personal hypocrisy.

  4. 4

    hillbillymfa said,

    Mr. Hamilton,

    Actually you are completely wrong. I grew up near Harrison and I have family land there — but I do not live there. In fact, I live in Little Rock which is 50% African American and I teach at a Historically Black College. So take your vitriol and impose it on someone who isn’t actually living their beliefs, because I sure as hell am.

  5. 5

    Eric Johnson said,

    Hi, found your blog while doing some online research for my dissertation, which deals with race and music and the 60s-70s counterculture in Fayetteville specifically, but also touches on race in the Ozarks and ozark identity in general. Jacqueline Froelich ahs a couple of articles (i think available thru J-Stor) about the purges of African Americans form Harrison and Eureka springs in the years between 1900 and 1920, and Brooks Blevins excellent book Hill Folks also addresses race in the Ozarks to some degree.

    I think that economic factors defintiely play a part, maybe the largest part in all of this. Not just competition for jobs, but also competition for limited farming land. Although there were never very many blacks in the Ozarks, many of those that did live there historically were more tied to the towns than to farms outside of town due to a lower level of land ownership among the group, something that probably made them both visible and vulnerable to aggreived local whites who were hurting economically. I think that there was also a kind of consolidation of white identity and Southern identity in the region during this time, something that was probalby an expression of the competition but which took a direct form in the establishment of particular towns as “white.” In Eureka Springs for instance it was the move towards a certain style of resort economy (the “little Switzerland of the Ozarks”) that brought on the purge.

    To Mr. Hamilton who writes above: I don’t expect to change your mind really, but I wish you understood that the vast majority of people in this country haven’t had the freedom to live just anywhere they wish, that their decisions have been shaped by economics and legalities,a nd that this is particulalry true of black Americans who, as they left the south throughout the 20th Century, were shunted into what became overcrowded urban centers by violence, housing covenants, redlining, and other practices intended to enforce segregation. We don’t want to make you live next to anyone you don’t want to, but we (“diversity mongers” do want everybody to feel equally welcome, legally and socially to any particular town or region.

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