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Tom Dillard: Care of the poor and needy historically poor itself sometimes

by Tom Dillard | April 25, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

Recently I heard from a man whose foray into genealogy resulted in several unexpected discoveries, including ancestors who had lived in poorhouses. The poor have indeed been with us forever, and our societal response to a persistent population of indigents has varied greatly over time. Many of us have ancestors who knew, at least for a time, the indignity of being wards of the county.

Until the New Deal federal government practically forced Arkansas to create a public welfare program during the 1930s, care of the indigent was left up to county governments. This does not mean that no state services were available. Arkansas created a state school for the blind in 1861 -- not in the vanguard, but still impressive for a poor Southern frontier state.

In general, however, a destitute individual or family usually sought help from the county government as mandated by state law.

The earliest record I have located on county care for "paupers" -- as they were usually called during the 19th century -- is a Pulaski County expenditure of $100 in 1821, less than three years after the creation of Arkansas Territory. An 1835 act of the Legislature authorized relief for "the lame, blind, sick and other persons, who from age or infirmity, are unable to support themselves, and who have no sufficient estate of their own ..."

At first, counties usually paid private individuals to look after paupers, based on a bidding process. Sometimes the counties made direct expenditures, such as in February 1909 when Pope County allowed $3 per month for the John Kelley family. Mr. Kelley was blind and his wife had tuberculosis; they had five young children.

The 1851 Legislature authorized county governments to establish poorhouses, sometimes called poor farms.

The Arkansas Archeological Survey and the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program have each worked to document poorhouses, not an easy task since many county records either do not exist or are difficult to access. Evidence on individual poorhouses does exist, however, and shows that while they provided a safety net of sorts, it was far from today's standards in humane treatment.

A report in an 1877 Searcy newspaper painted a spartan but adequate county home for the poor in White County: "The buildings are good, substantial box-houses, two of them, two rooms each. The rooms are not furnished with fine carpets and elegant furniture, neither are there any beautiful and costly pictures hung on the wall, but the floors looked neat and clean and the plain, common furniture ... [is] robed with neat and comfortable looking bedding, etc. The occupants ... are paupers, indeed, of which there are nine."

The same news account provided a description of each of those nine paupers. Every male resident suffered from medical afflictions, ranging from blindness to one 37-year-old man named Henry who "is down with the rheumatics." The remaining inmates were described as "helpless women and children ..."

Jackson County relocated its courthouse in 1892 from Jacksonport to Newport. This left vacant a fine brick building that, after several uses, became a home for paupers in the early 20th century.

If you visit Jacksonport Historic State Park, take a minute to tour the courthouse, now a museum. Be sure to inspect the outhouse that served the courthouse. Reflecting the prosperity of antebellum Jackson County, the privy is of substantial brick construction and finished on the inside with walnut paneling. No doubt the paupers who lived at the old courthouse enjoyed accommodations beyond that of the usual poorhouse.

Residents of poorhouses who were physically able were expected to work. Several county poorhouses had extensive vegetable gardens. Pope County Judge A.D. Shinn reported in 1910 that of the 29 "inmates ... five who are blind, seven who cannot work, these are helpless. And the other inmates are of very little service." Given the lack of inmate labor, Shinn hired "a farm hand" who greatly increased garden production, plus hogs and milk cows were added to the farm.

The Greene County poor farm has been researched, and the results document a mixed record. Established on 85 acres in 1891, the farm was three miles north of Paragould. In 1919, a Greene County grand jury investigated the poor farm and issued a biting report:

"We found six old men ranging in age from 64 to 86 years," the grand jury reported before describing "everything pertaining thereto is in bad sanitary condition." The jury especially deplored the case of one paralyzed 75-year-old who "is compelled to lie in a bed fit for no human being to occupy, while the bedbugs and other vermin literally play hide-and-seek over his person ..."

The same Greene County institution came under public scrutiny again in 1949, when the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the local press published articles critical of the facility. The 12 inmates lived in two small houses. Most were sick, including a 78-year-old widower named Ferguson who had been bedridden for the past three years.

Ferguson was not an alcoholic, an affliction believed to be common among the indigent. Immigrating to Greene County from Tennessee as a young man, Ferguson worked for more than 40 years as a tenant farmer. He and his deceased wife were the parents of four daughters, none of whom could be located. "At 75, worn out and penniless and suffering from a light stroke," Ferguson was taken to the Greene County poor farm. His last words were reported to be "I just want to die and get out of the way."

In 1957, the Greene County poor farm was replaced with the Greene Acres Nursing Home.

As far as I know, all of the services mentioned above, meager though they might have been, were not available to Black Arkansans. Only in a few urban areas were there facilities for poor Black residents, usually through the efforts of churches or fraternal groups.

Prominent Black Little Rock lawyer, banker, politician and diplomat Mifflin W. Gibbs died in 1915, leaving a trust for the M. W. Gibbs Old Ladies Home, which survived until 1968.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com. An earlier version of this column was published April 9, 2006.

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