Arkansas mystery

Marker dedicated to Puerto Rican immigrants sparks a historical rediscovery.

By Evin Demirel

Sculptor Shep Miers likes riding his Vespa around Little Rock. He easily zips from his home, to the Arkansas Arts Center, where he teaches furniture design, to his warehouse off Asher Street. Hard-to-reach places don’t present a problem to his motor scooter, and the field of vision it allows can’t be beat.

Which means, on four wheels, he might have never seen it.

A month ago, Miers had just turned off Asher and was heading north on Woodrow Street when he glimpsed something to his left. There, in the official cemetery of the Diocese of Little Rock, he noticed a small granite marker, by itself under a cedar tree.

Miers entered Calvary Cemetery to inspect the marker. On the tombstone, he read, “In Memoriam of the Porto Ricans who died at Picron, Ark. 1917-18.” A mass grave.

“Well, that’s a story,” he recalled thinking. “I wonder what that’s about.”

He told his wife, Kaye, who told a historian friend. From there, the mystery was forwarded to historians all around the state, but only scant details were found to fill the gaps. A long-forgotten corner of Arkansas’ past, it seemed, had been illuminated. Guy Lancaster, editor of the Arkansas Encyclopedia of History & Culture, agrees: “This is one of those things that has somehow evaded historical consciousness for quite some time, so it’s gonna take some rediscovering.”

The path begins almost 2,000 miles to the southeast, in Puerto Rico, in 1917.

It was a watershed year for the 100-mile-long Caribbean island, which 19 years before had come under United States control following the Spanish-American War [the U.S. renamed it “Porto Rico,” a spelling lasting 34 years]. On March 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed an act granting U.S. citizenship to all Puerto Ricans. The islanders didn’t assume all U.S. citizenship rights, such as the right to vote in presidential elections, but they did inherit most citizenship obligations, such as serving in the military if drafted.

That same spring, the United States officially entered World War I. Around 18,000 Puerto Ricans were drafted to serve its military. This helped alleviate some of the surging unemployment afflicting the island’s rural economy, as corporate-financed sugar plantations had emerged in the preceding years, displacing thousands of subsistence farmers from their own land.

During the next year, the United States ratcheted up its involvement in the war’s European theater. The government and private businesses entered into numerous agreements to fortify American forces, as well as aid allied nations like France. The U.S., for instance, often paid the French for artillery and ammunition not in cash but picric acid, which was used in making explosives, and the war gas chlorpicrin. Demand was high; monthly U.S.-based picric-acid production soared from 53,000 pounds in May 1917 to nearly a million pounds by November 1918. U.S. officials, expecting even more to be needed, had contracted in spring 1918 with chemical companies in Georgia, Michigan and Arkansas to build three plants, each of which was projected to monthly produce 14.5 million pounds of picric acid.

Of these three projects, manufacturing only got off the ground at the one located by what’s now the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport.

There’s not much left of the pop-up community formed around the Little Rock area’s picric acid plant. It’s not clear where the roughly 400-acre site was, although we have a few clues: a Picron Street by the airport, a Picron Hill behind the Holiday Inn off Bankhead Drive, government documents stating the site was two miles from the Arkansas River. We do know in the summer of 1917 the New York-based Everly M. Davis Chemical Company cleared off an area full of cotton, corn, sorghum and sweet potato patches, and $7 million was spent on the plant, 25 dwelling homes, a clubhouse and a bunkhouse for 500 workmen. About 1,500 unskilled laborers were needed. Without enough available local workers, some Texans and Oklahomans were brought in. But the turnover rate was extremely high, and demand persisted. Help was sought from Washington, D.C., and soon it arrived.

That summer, the U.S. Department of Labor released numbers estimating 75,000 unemployed Puerto Ricans were available for work in the United States — an untapped resource expected to provide good, cheap labor. Pay for some islanders on the East Coast was set at 35 cents an hour, with time and a half for overtime. Housing was free, and meals cost 25 cents each, according to a 1918 U.S. Employment Service Bulletin. The War Department agreed to import islanders who had signed up for factory work via the home trips of transport ships carrying supplies to a San Juan base.

This, apparently, is how the Department of Labor secured 1,436 Puerto Ricans to work at Picron. According to a 1918-19 document from the U.S. Ordnance Department, though, the experiment proved “unfortunate.”

These island workmen were barefoot, thinly clad, poorly fed, unable to speak or understand English; they reached the scene in the early fall, just ahead of the influenza epidemic. At first they were housed in tents with wooden floors, but later they were barracked at Liberty Hall, a temporary auditorium in Little Rock. The contractors bought them winter outfits, and their organizer testified that they were considerately treated. But they were unable to work effectively, homesickness seized them, and influenza, following, reaped a harvest of death among them. It was two months before a vessel could be had to return them to their native land, and when they embarked, they left 176 of their number in the graveyards of Little Rock.”

On Dec. 3, 1918, less than a month after Armistice Day, the government suspended Picron’s picric-acid production. Less than a year and a half later, it sold the plant, along with the water and gas supply systems, to H.C. Couch, president of the Arkansas Light & Power Co., who represented a group of local businessmen.

For the most part, the Picron site disappears from the pages of public history after this, until one of Couch’s descendants stumbled upon a mass grave in the southwestern corner of Calvary Cemetery. Maybe it’s divine fate that Shep Miers, Couch’s great-nephew, brought this story — which he’d never heard within his own family — to the public. Or maybe it’s simply a reflection of how small and interwoven Arkansas still is, despite tens of thousands of immigrants arriving in recent decades.

As in past eras, many came for work. Many stayed.

The author digs on obscure corners of Arkansas society (and sports). More at