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OPINION | REX NELSON: Slavery in Arkansas

by Rex Nelson | July 3, 2021 at 3:22 a.m.

It seemed fitting that I was finishing Kelly Houston Jones' book "A Weary Land: Slavery on the Ground in Arkansas" last month when President Joe Biden signed legislation declaring June 19 as a new federal holiday to mark Juneteenth.

June 19, 1865, was the date Union soldiers delivered the news of freedom to enslaved people in Galveston, Texas.

Jones, an assistant professor of history at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, has become the expert on slavery in Arkansas. She received her bachelor's degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, her master's degree from the University of North Texas, and her doctorate from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville before launching a career in teaching, writing and research.

She's a prolific writer and talented speaker, choosing to delve into areas of Arkansas history that haven't been extensively explored. "A Weary Land," which was released earlier this year by the University of Georgia Press, is the first book-length study of Arkansas slavery in more than six decades. It's a fascinating read for those who want to fully understand Arkansas history before the Civil War.

"Like many working-class, first-generation college students, I began as a business major, seeking training that I could leverage into a high-paying job," Jones says. "When I switched to history, my family became understandably nervous about my prospects."

At UALR, gifted history professors such as Carl Moneyhon, C. Fred Williams and Kristin Dutcher Mann convinced Jones that she had made the right choice. In Fayetteville, noted historians Jeannie Whayne and Patrick Williams were among her mentors.

"Arkansas' youth as a state, position on the far side of the Mississippi River, lack of any truly urban centers, border with Indian Territory and exponential growth of slavery in the decade before the Civil War all combine to form a landscape of bondage that cannot be adequately represented in studies that privilege the Southeast," Jones writes. "Particularly unfortunate is the fact that historians' interest in the culture and resistance of enslaved communities has yet only barely touched Arkansas history."

Orville W. Taylor's "Negro Slavery in Arkansas," released in 1958, was the only previously published statewide study of slavery in this state.

"Taylor demonstrated slavery in Arkansas as a powerful and quickly growing force in the state's development--a significant feat at the time--but stopped short of investigating the viewpoint of Arkansans held in its clutches," Jones writes. "While Black writers like W.E.B. DuBois had long emphasized the Black point of view, only to be ignored by the white academy, mainstream historians eventually shifted toward emphasizing the vantage point of the enslaved--beginning just as Taylor wrote 'Negro Slavery in Arkansas.'

"Since then, the keepers of this history have gone on to emphasize bondspeople's resistance to dehumanization, through their culture, families, communities and religion, despite the brutality of their bondage. ... As the scholarship has evolved, historians have continued to explore the complexities of enslaved people's humanity."

In reading the book, I found things to which I could relate as a native Arkansan. For instance, Jones mentioned that "eight miles from Arkadelphia in south Arkansas, enslaved people built the Bullock plantation bit by bit. They began with the construction of a weaving room, which served as whites' quarters while bondspeople's cabins and the main house were being built."

Slaves often took the last names of white slaveowners. When I was growing up in Arkadelphia, my father and I hunted quail on small Black-owned farms. Our favorite spot was owned by a man named Arthur Bullock. He loved to hunt squirrels (I was told he was quite a shot even though he only had one arm), and my father would give him shotgun shells from our family sporting goods store in exchange for letting us hunt.

Bullock would give us sausage each winter after killing the first hog of the season. I have no doubt he descended from slaves on the Bullock plantation.

"Arrival on the fringes of the South meant hard labor for Black men and women forced to do the work of transforming forests and prairies into productive fields of cotton and corn," Jones writes. "Bondspeople who had previously worked on farms needing little improvement or who had experience only with tobacco or rice in the East faced adjustment to the novel demands of the cotton frontier."

Jones uses the term "cotton frontier" to describe Arkansas from the 1820s through the Civil War.

"Historians some time ago ceased to use the term 'frontier' to mean anything like Frederick Jackson Turner's westward-marching line of (white) progress and civilization--a usage that downplays and eliminates the existence and actions of native and African-descended people," she writes. "Scholars instead usually employ 'frontier' to mean the meeting place of different cultures in a zone in which the boundaries of politics and cultures are in flux."

Jones hopes her book will bring enslaved people's lives more prominently into the conversation in Arkansas.

"With every passing anniversary of Arkansas' most notorious outrages--the 1919 Elaine Massacre and the 1957 Central High crisis--the legacy of slavery and racial oppression in Arkansas is recalled anew," she writes. "'A Weary Land' adds to the resources available to those seeking to grasp the long history of the Black struggle in Arkansas."


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Print Headline: Slavery in Arkansas

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