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Author, historian Griffin Stockley dies at 78

Arkansas lawyer wrote about race by Teresa Moss | January 5, 2023 at 8:58 a.m.
Griffin Jasper Stockley is shown in this June 2017 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo)

Griffin Jasper Stockley was remembered Wednesday as a "conscience of Arkansas" through his work as an author, historian and attorney.

He died Wednesday at the age of 78 in Virginia where he had moved to be near his daughter after a diagnosis of dementia, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

"He grew up in a planter class -- a descendant of a confederate colonel. Even though he was raised in a time of white supremacy, it never permeated in him," Brian Mitchell, who considered Stockley a mentor and friend, said Wednesday. "He was always fighting for the underdog and always trying to do the right thing."

Stockley is most recognized as an author, starting in the 1990s with the publishing of five legal mystery novels known as the Gideon Page series. He received a Porter Prize for the work.

He later gained respect for historical nonfiction books that focused on Arkansas events. These works included: "Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919," "Daisy Bates: Civil Rights Crusader from Arkansas," and "Black Boys Burning: The 1959 Fire at the Arkansas Negro Boys Industrial School."

Mitchell helped with the revision of "Blood in Their Eyes," which was released in 2020.

"He was a conscience of Arkansas," Mitchell said Wednesday. "It was trailblazing in the ideas he had."

Stockley worked to assure that Arkansas history wasn't forgotten -- even the parts that some would like to forget.

"For years he was always trying to make sure there was equitable history," Mitchell said. "He was making sure that those could be part of a curriculum."

Kwami Abdul-Bey, a Black Arkansas activist, said Stockley's non-fiction novels taught him about significant events in Arkansas history that were never discussed during his education in the state.

He says he found "Blood in Their Eyes" in a Washington, D.C., airport bookstore in 2002, as he waited for a flight. He read the entire book during his flight to San Francisco and was so moved he decided to fly back to Little Rock, in an attempt to meet Stockley.

"When I arrived at the airport, I looked up his address and literally drove straight there at 9 p.m. on a Sunday in the rain and knocked on his door," Abdul-Bey said.

Abdul-Bey said he introduced himself after Stockley answered the door. Stockley responded with a smile. Abdul-Bey continued by thanking him for writing the novel.

"We hugged each other," Abdul-Bey said.

And a friendship was started.

"That book, it exposed me to a yearning to want to learn about the history of the state of which I was born," Abdul-Bey said. "Since that day, it has been 20 years now. Every single day, I'm learning something new about Arkansas history. It was because of that love for Arkansas history, of wanting to learn the injustices that are embedded in history, that I can be a part of the change in people's hearts and minds."

Abdul-Bey has worked to exonerate dozens of Black men arrested, charged, tried and imprisoned as a result of the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919 because of his exposure to Stockley's novels.

This includes the Arkansas Injustices Act of 2023, a proposed piece of legislation for which he's seeking sponsors in the state Legislature.

Stockley was born in Mississippi, but his family moved to Marianna when he was still young.

"I was the privileged son of white parents and so that meant everything at that time," Stockley said in an interview with the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette in 2010.

Marianna is about 34 miles north of Elaine.

Rodney Slater, former U.S. transportation secretary and senior partner with the Squire Patton Boggs law firm, grew up in Marianna but in a younger generation. The two didn't know each other as children but met after Stockley was already a published author.

"All of his work on Elaine, race and politics were matters of interest to me," Slater said.

Slater said he recognized the events, places and even people mentioned in Stockley's work because he lived in the region.

"The good thing about that is, his work can come into the hands of teenagers who know very little about his home," Slater said. "I think Grif made a tremendous contribution to us all. I think it shows how we can make contributions and we should try to do things that have potential for the lasting effect that can do some good."

Slater said Stockley was remarkable partly because of his success in multiple professions.

Stockley, who received a B.A. in international relations from Southwestern at Memphis, now Rhodes College, joined the Peace Corps in 1965, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

He was drafted during the Vietnam War in 1967, and after serving two years, he began law school at the University of Arkansas, where he received his law degree, the website says.

In 1973, he had a daughter, Erin, with wife Susan Minter. Stockley and his wife divorced 10 years later.

He spent three decades at the Center for Arkansas Legal Services in Little Rock. He also worked for the Disability Rights Center and was the first staff attorney for the Arkansas branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. He resigned from the ACLU to be the first Dee Brown Fellow of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, a division of the Central Arkansas Library System, according to the website.

Guy Lancaster, editor of the library system's Encyclopedia of Arkansas, first met Stockley when Stockley became the Dee Brown Fellow.

"A few years after that, he served as an outside person on my dissertation committee, as he was very excited at my research into sundown towns and racial cleansing," Lancaster said in an emailed statement. "I remember my committee giving me a bit of a hard time, as is their wont, while Grif hanged back a bit, as he often did when among those he called 'real historians.' At last, he asked if he might ask a question of me. I thought I was in for a bit of relief. A few minutes later, I realized that, although Grif had been my friend for a few years, he had been a trained courtroom lawyer for far longer. So it goes. Friends challenge each other and make each other stronger."

CORRECTION: In 1973, Grif Stockley had a daughter, Erin, with hist first wife, Susan Minter. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the last name of Stockley’s first wife.


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