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OPINION | TOM DILLARD: Reflections on Arkansas 100 years ago

by Tom Dillard | January 30, 2022 at 1:46 a.m.


When I was a child the concept of a century--100 years--seemed so long that it was theoretical. I was in junior high school during the centennial of the American Civil War, and it seemed like ancient history to me.

After most of a lifetime studying the past, I now know that a century is a mere moment of time, barely a footstep into the past. Today, as we look at Arkansas on Jan. 30, 1922, we will quickly note that many aspects of our modern lives, many challenges we face daily, were also being played out a century ago.

It is not surprising that Arkansas newspapers of early 1922 were filled with stories about the oil boom then unfolding in and around El Dorado in Union County. Only two years earlier Samuel T. Bussey, a physician turned geologist who claimed descent from frontiersman Daniel Boone, brought in the first successful oil well in Arkansas.

The Arkansas Gazette, which thoroughly covered the oil boom from the beginning, contained a report in the Jan. 30 issue that a group of independent oil drillers had struck oil at 2,143 feet at a well near the town of Stephens in Ouachita County, the first producing well in what is today known as the Smart Oil Field. The same article recorded that the Kansas City Lumbermen's Oil Co. Prutcher Well No. 1 "blew shale 20 feet up the derrick."

While people with access to capital could make fortunes in the south Arkansas oil fields, many Arkansans of modest means turned to illegal distilling of liquor to make ends meet. Hardly a day passed in January 1922 without at least one newspaper account of a still being confiscated or of an arrest for bootlegging.

The Arkansas Democrat reported that on Jan. 30, Crawford County Sheriff C.H. Bledsoe had captured "a giant still and 100 gallons of mash" on the Lathrop farm north of Alma. The bootleggers had a sophisticated operation: "The still was one of the most complete plants ever taken by local authorities. It was made from a water heater five feet in height, connected by a rubber tube."

Arkansas newspaper editors in January 1922 were not known for fair coverage of Black Arkansans. The biased and inaccurate newspaper coverage of the October 1919 Elaine Race Massacre had probably contributed to the hysteria of the mobs.

One hundred years ago, Black Little Rock lawyer Scipio A. Jones and others were fighting in the courts to overturn the death penalties meted out to 12 innocent Black defendants blamed for the "insurrection."

It is, therefore more than ironic that the Arkansas Gazette would publish an article on Jan. 31 touting a U.S. Census report about Black farm ownership in Arkansas. While the headline announced that "Many Negroes own farms in Arkansas," the article reported that 15,369 out of 72,275 Black farmers owned their own farms, meaning the rest--fully 79 percent--were tenants or sharecroppers. Remember, the Elaine Massacre was brought on by efforts to organize a sharecroppers union.

To modern ears, much newspaper coverage 100 years ago is jarringly insensitive if not blatantly racist. The Arkansas Democrat published a review on Jan. 31 of "a high class minstrel show" then playing at the Kempner Theater in Little Rock. The star of the show was Lasses White, the namesake of the "Lasses' All-Star Minstrels."

Like minstrel shows everywhere, much of Lasses' humor involved lampooning Black people as lazy, highly superstitious, and dimwitted. The performers were usually white people with blackened faces.

The Democrat reviewer thought the Lasses show was "high class minstrelay." Special praise was given to Lasses himself, with "his mastery of the negro dialect and the high-pitched tone of his voice, [which] together with his shuffling darktown strut wins instant admiration."

I suspect many Black Arkansans agreed with Frederick Douglass who thought blackface performers were "the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens."

While death notices had been published from the beginning of the Gazette and other newspapers in Arkansas, by 1922 they were publishing formal obituaries. For example, the same issue of the Arkansas Democrat which reported on the minstrel show also included an obituary for prominent Little Rock Jewish merchant Louis Katzenberg as well as Fayetteville resident George S. Albright.

The burial of the 81-year-old Albright, who had come to Fayetteville during the Civil War as a Union army telegrapher, was conducted by a local post of the Grand Army of the Republic.

It is likely the Katzenberg family had to pay for a small "burial permit" issued by the city of Little Rock. We know this because the same page of the Democrat containing the obituaries included an article showing that the city collected $13,066 in taxes and fees in December 1921, including $44 for burial permits.

The city also collected $595 in automobile license fees, testimony to the growing importance of motor vehicles in post-World War I Arkansas.

By 1922, Arkansas newspapers were full of grocery advertisements. For example, on Jan. 30, the Metge Grocery and Meat Market in Hot Springs ran a large ad in the New Era promising "prices cheaper than wholesale ..." Shoppers could buy a gallon of "cane cyrup" for 60 cents. A 24-pound sack of flour was priced at 90 cents, and three 14-ounce cans of sardines were offered at a special price of 45 cents.

Among the entertainment advertisements published a century ago was one in the Gazette for an Apollo Expression Player, known today as a player piano. Hollenberg Music Co. of Little Rock, already an old company, spared no colorful prose in promising that the Apollo player "brings the world's master pianists from the concert stage to your home."

Another music-related advertisement appeared in the Pine Bluff Daily Graphic in January 1922. The Musical Coterie of Pine Bluff announced three coming performances, including Mozart's opera "Cosi Fan Tutte" on Jan 30. The Coterie explained its goal was "to make Pine Bluff the 'Musical Center of Arkansas.'"

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Malvern. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.


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