REX NELSON: Lynching in Arkansas

It's not a pleasant subject. It was swept under the rug for decades in Arkansas. It was the taboo topic that wasn't discussed in polite company. For those reasons, Bullets and Fire: Lynching and Authority in Arkansas, 1840-1950 is one of the most important books ever published by the University of Arkansas Press.

The recently released book was edited by Guy Lancaster, who also edits the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, a division of the Central Arkansas Library System's Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. Lancaster is the author of Racial Cleansing in Arkansas, 1883-1924: Politics, Land, Labor and Criminality. That 2014 book won the John G. Ragsdale Award and the John William Graves Book Award from the Arkansas Historical Association. It also won the Booker Worthen Literary Prize.

Lancaster, who received his bachelor's degree, master's degree and doctorate from Arkansas State University at Jonesboro, has become an expert on this state's sordid history of race-based crimes. Bullets and Fire contains 10 chapters--one by Lancaster and the others by a group of historians.

Lancaster explains his expertise this way: "When I was young and enduring the scourge of braces, I went to an orthodontist whose whole office was decorated with clown paraphernalia. One time, under the influence of some splendid gas, I asked him: 'Why do you like clowns so much?' He leaned in close and said conspiratorially: 'I don't, actually. See, I had a patient once bring me some little clown picture as a gift and, being a nice guy, I put it on the wall. Soon thereafter, another patient saw that and, thinking I was into clowns, brought me a little statuette, which I also put on display. After this, it just exploded. People thought I liked clowns and brought me more and more.' I mention this because, since publishing a few articles and a book relating to racial violence, I too have become the recipient of many gifts of newspaper articles, scans from old volumes and more on the subject."

Lancaster says this has allowed him to "shed light on the darker recesses of Arkansas history."

In his introduction to Bullets and Fire, Lancaster quotes veteran Arkansas journalist Ernie Dumas: "Some years ago, my friend Bob Lancaster and I started to work on a book that would be a collection of articles from the 172 years of the old Arkansas Gazette that would catch the flavor of the Gray Lady and the state's colorful history. The project ended, for my part, in grief over what the book would have to include: the great newspaper's rich accounts of lynchings, vigilantes and posses that people thought kept them safe from the uncivilized minority. The stories sometimes came almost daily and were written with verve and attention to sickening detail."

For instance, one front-page story matter-of-factly described how cuff buttons were made from the cedar stump on which Ed Coy of Texarkana was burned.

"Perhaps more disturbing than the big, bold headlines lustily proclaiming death and dismemberment are those occasions on which a lynching is mentioned in passing among other bits of local news," Lancaster writes in his introduction to the book. "The 1882 lynching of Jim Sanders in Pulaski County, for one, was first reported on page four of the Gazette, deep in the column Local Paragraphs. Lynching could be both the dramatic atrocity gleefully explicated under lurid headlines and the everyday occurrence that needed no further elaboration."

A report from the Equal Justice Initiative of Montgomery, Ala., in 2014 documented the lynchings of 3,959 blacks in the South between 1877 and 1950. There were 503 victims in Arkansas.

"This number, however, is skewed by the inclusion of more than 200 who are alleged to have died during the Elaine Massacre of 1919," Lancaster writes. "Not only does the death count from this event remain debated but, depending upon the definition employed, many scholars would hesitate to call the Elaine Massacre a lynching per se, given that anecdotal evidence holds that U.S. troops from Camp Pike also participated in the slaying of African Americans. The presence of federal authorities would make this less a vigilante action than something akin to a violent, government-sanctioned massacre."

Lancaster, whose doctoral dissertation was on so-called sundown towns in Arkansas, has spent hundreds of hours poring over microfilmed copies of newspapers.

"There were stretches when I just couldn't seem to get away from stories about lynchings," he tells me over lunch in downtown Little Rock. "I kept thinking about it, ran the idea by the University of Arkansas Press, and moved forward. I reached out to historians I know. They aren't necessarily experts on racial violence in the state, but they had researched subjects that touched upon this topic. It was an eye-opening experience for all of us."

I quote regularly from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas in this column. It's the most useful resource out there for those interested in this state's history. Lancaster has made it his mission to see that the encyclopedia includes both the good and the bad. There are almost 100 entries on various lynchings.

"They are among the entries that receive the most comments," he says. "We hear from the descendants of victims. Lynchings have been part of the oral histories of these families. They are events that live on."

There have been other state-level studies on lynchings, but none go into as much detail as the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Now Arkansans can learn even more by reading Bullets and Fire. We must understand and acknowledge our past before we can fully address the racial problems that continue to plague the state.

"If we don't acknowledge, we move backward," Lancaster says. "We live in an era when transparency is viewed as a virtue. So let's be transparent."

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 04/22/2018

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