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Memorials to our historians

by Tom Dillard | January 14, 2018 at 1:56 a.m.

The Arkansas history community lost several members in 2017. Preserving our history--and telling its story--falls mostly on the shoulders of a relatively small number of people, so deaths among our ranks can leave major voids. But their contributions do indeed live on.

The new year had hardly gotten underway when Dr. Tom Kennedy of Fayetteville died on Jan. 26. A longtime professor of history at the University of Arkansas, Kennedy's field of research primarily dealt with European history. However, to the great benefit of Arkansas history, Tom developed an interest in a small eastern Arkansas black institution known as Southland College.

Southland began as a Civil War-era orphanage for black children near Helena. Under the leadership of the Quaker church it evolved into the first institution of higher education for black students west of the Mississippi River. In 2009 the University of Arkansas Press published A History of Southland College: The Society of Friends and Black Education in Arkansas, Tom's impressive book on the school.

Carole Cotton Barger, the longtime editor of the Fort Smith Historical Society's award-winning magazine The Journal, died March 23 at age 82. In addition to her editorial duties, Carole was a leader in local efforts to interview surviving local World War II veterans. Carole's colleague at the historical society, Joe Wasson, reported that she worked on local history until the very moment of her death: "Carole spent the afternoon helping a new friend research local African American history. After the lady left, Carole returned to her favorite chair to continue proofreading the next issue of The Journal, and there, peacefully, her life came to an end. She died in the saddle doing what she loved to do."

The Oct. 5 issue of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette brought the surprising news that Walter H. Nunn of Little Rock had died. This was sad for my wife and me, as Walter had introduced us almost 40 years ago. Also, Walter recruited me to write for a little short-lived alternative newspaper he and Wade Rathke started in the early 1970s, the Arkansas Advocate.

Walter made his mark in Arkansas history by founding Rose Publishing Company almost a decade before the University of Arkansas Press. Rose was a lone beacon of enlightenment in a world where our heritage was either taken for granted or ridiculed. Walter published my first book in 1979, a small paperback co-authored by librarian Valerie Thwing on researching and writing Arkansas history. Among the 70-plus volumes of Arkansas history, politics, and culture published by Walter was perhaps the best single-volume history of the state, Arkansas Odyssey, by Michael B. Dougan. It's a 684-page book full of engaging writing, previously unpublished photos, and even scintillating bibliographic essays! Rumor is that a revised edition of Odyssey is in the works.

By the time F. Clark Elkins of Jonesboro died at age 94 on Nov. 25, he was primarily remembered as a longtime administrator at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. However, Elkins got his start as a professional historian by studying the Agricultural Wheel, a farmers union established in 1882 near Des Arc. During the age of the robber barons following the Civil War, American agriculture fell into a long period of recession that left farmers in dire poverty. At its peak in 1888, the Agricultural Wheel had more than 75,000 members in almost 2,000 chapters representing every county. Alas, had the election not been stolen from them that year, the Wheel and its numerous (and racially integrated) allies would have upset the apple cart in Arkansas as never before.

Arkansas is well known for the outstanding journalists who have hailed from our little commonwealth. One of the most widely regarded was Roy Reed of near Fayetteville, who died Dec. 10 at age 87 following a severe stroke. Reed was known as a journalist and professor of journalism at the UA. He was also a biographer and autobiographer of note. Reed earned his place in Arkansas history in 1997 when the UA Press published his biography of Gov. Orval E. Faubus, Faubus, the Life and Times of an American Prodigal.

I always thought Reed was a bit too generous in his biography of Faubus. I never was willing to forgive Faubus for building a political machine that allowed little dissent, for the 1957 Integration Crisis, and for his refusal to recant his actions even after George Wallace had apologized and made certain amends.

Roy Reed understood Orval Faubus at a level I could not grasp: "The real betrayal of Orval Faubus was one that haunted him the last third of his life, all through the untiring revisionism, the endless pleading and explaining to justify the past to the future. It was the betrayal of his talent. He was a natural man of the middle. His gift was for compromise and consensus. When he was not distracted by race and intoxicated by ambition, he wielded that gift with uncommon skill."

Roy also published two other books, a collection of essays on the South titled Looking for Hogeye (UA Press, 1986) and his wonderful memoir Beware of Limbo Dancers (UA Press, 2012). He said the title warning about limbo dancers came from a neatly written message on the inside of a bathroom stall at the old New York Times building on West 43rd Street.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at

Editorial on 01/14/2018

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