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February is Black History Month, an observance that allows me to reminisce about my experiences as a student.

Having grown up in an all-white county in rural western Arkansas, I was a junior at the University of Central Arkansas in 1968 when I discovered black history. In the half-century since then, I have avidly studied the black experience in Arkansas.

It started with the late UCA professor Waddy W. Moore, resident scholar in Arkansas history, who opened my eyes to the wonderfully complex and quite under-studied history of our state.

One of his areas of interest was Reconstruction, a time I had been taught since elementary school was a period in which insult was added to the injury of defeat in the Civil War. For almost a century most Southern historians taught that Reconstruction was the product of greedy Yankee Republicans and freed black slaves who joined forces to raise taxes and rob the state.

I found out during Moore's classes that many if not most of the local Reconstruction leaders were longtime residents of the state. I also discovered that black leaders had played a huge role in Reconstruction politics -- and continued to be a political force for a generation after Reconstruction ended.

I found myself going to the Arkansas History Commission and the Little Rock Public Library on Saturdays, straining my eyes reading microfilm copies of newspapers, government records and manuscripts. I learned, for example, that two black Arkansans held statewide office during Reconstruction.

Joseph Carter Corbin of Little Rock was elected state superintendent of public instruction, while Phillips County resident William H. Grey won the post of commissioner of immigration and state lands.

Corbin helped establish Branch Normal College in Pine Bluff, where he later served as principal for two decades. It is now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Grey spoke at the 1872 Republican National Convention, the first black American to give an address at either national party convention.

I recall a late-winter Sunday afternoon more than 50 years ago when I convinced my wife to accompany me to Magnolia Cemetery, a black burial ground in Helena and the final resting place of William H. Grey, the immigration commissioner. The sun was sinking low on the horizon when I saw a tall gravestone in the distance bearing the name Grey. Our quickened pace caused two rabbits to rush from the winter-brittle weeds, startling me -- and my wife even more so.

Grey was one of the great black leaders of 19th-century Arkansas, and it is tragic that he suffered a stroke in 1878 and was bedridden until his death 10 years later.

One of the most fascinating black figures in Arkansas history is Isaac T. Gillam. Gaining his freedom in September 1863 when Union troops captured Little Rock, Gilliam immediately joined the Union Army. Following the war, he served as a member of the Little Rock City Council and the state Legislature, as well as Pulaski County coroner.

Gillam died in 1904, a decade after the Legislature disfranchised black voters. His contributions to society, however, continued through his widow, Cora Gillam, and children. Of the seven Gillam children to reach adulthood, five were teachers.

Many of his children attended Shorter College in North Little Rock, which the devout African Methodist Episcopal family helped create. While sisters Mary, Annie and Leah were elementary teachers, Isaac T. Gillam II was among America's most noted black educators.

Graduating from Howard University, the younger Isaac Gillam later studied at Yale University and a number of other schools. While at the University of Cincinnati, he studied under John Dewey. He retired from the Little Rock Public Schools after a long career that included 50 years as principal at Gibbs High School.

In 1972, while trying to figure out this amazing former slave whose name seemed to crop up regularly in the history of late 19th-century Little Rock, I picked up the city telephone directory and turned to the Gillams. Amazingly, right there in black and white, was the name Isaac Gillam! My heart rate jumped as I noted that the spelling was not Gilliam, the far more common form of the name. I immediately telephoned the number, and when a woman answered, I tried to explain the research nature of my call.

As informed luck would have it, I had found Miss Dorothy Gillam, retired daughter of Isaac II, who was living in the family home on Pulaski Street near Philander Smith College. Miss Gillam informed me that the phone had been in her grandfather's name since the house was constructed in 1906 "and we just left it in his name."

Miss Gillam was a French teacher who had to move to Cincinnati to find a teaching post. The Little Rock public schools had dropped foreign languages from the black schools around 1910 in order to stress manual arts.

Over several Saturday mornings, I interviewed Miss Gillam, with each encounter being more pleasant and productive than the one before. I recall one interview mentioning her grandfather's service in the Brooks militia during the Brooks-Baxter War during which Miss Dorothy excused herself to go to the back of the house.

She returned with a round metal cylinder about 12 inches long. Unscrewing the cap with withered fingers, Miss Dorothy proudly pulled from the case the original commission appointing Isaac T. Gillam to the rank of major in the Brooks militia. It was signed by Brooks; the red wax seal still clung to the document.

Families like the Gillams were able to do remarkable things, perhaps the most amazing being their success in reducing African-American illiteracy from nearly 100 percent at the end of the Civil War to 40 percent in 35 years. Who says history is not inspiring?

Shortly after graduating from college in 1970, I discovered Scipio Africanus Jones, one of the great enduring figures of Arkansas black history. He was born during the Civil War and lived to the age of 80, dying in 1943.

Jones occupied my life for months as I tracked down every scrap of evidence available on him. In 1972 I published a biographical sketch on Jones in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, my first professional historical publication.

Many years later Jones would come into my life again as I had the opportunity to meet his granddaughter Hazel Jones of Chicago. The year was 2003, and Ms. Jones was coming to Arkansas to participate in the annual reunion of the Scipio A. Jones High School in North Little Rock. I found her to be gregarious and lovely, limping from a recent fall, yet bubbling with enthusiasm and warmth.

Jones High School was one of the premier black high schools in the state from its founding in 1928 to its closure during the process of integrating the North Little Rock schools in the 1970s. Each school reunion brings out scores of people from across America. For me, the highlight of the reunion was a general meeting where Ms. Jones visited with her "white" relations.

Scipio A. Jones was the son of his enslaved mother's owner, Dr. Sanford Reamey of Tulip, Ark. I discovered during my earlier research that it was common knowledge who had fathered him. I interviewed one aging descendant of Dr. Reamey who claimed that Reamey helped Scipio further his education after moving to Little Rock.

As the descendants of that long-dead white slave owner held hands and spoke of the pride they have in their shared heritage, I could not help but think of Jemima Jones, Scipio's mother. She undoubtedly had no say in who fathered her child. But she married after the Civil War, and her young son took the name of his stepfather, Horace Jones.

There are more characters like Scipio Jones awaiting discovery. We don't have to restrict our search to the month of February.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com. An earlier version of this column was published Feb. 12, 2006.

NAN Profiles on 02/09/2020

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