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White residents of Cotter expel nearly all Blacks in 1906

June 4, 2023 at 2:49 a.m.
A newspaper article (from the Arkansas Gazette; Aug. 25, 1906) illustrates the genesis of Cotter (Baxter County) as a sundown town. (Courtesy of Guy Lancaster)

In 1906, white residents of Cotter (Baxter County) expelled all of the town's Black population, save for a single family of three people. Although the catalyst for this expulsion was a fight between two Black men, local newspapers had been predicting, and even advocating for, such an expulsion long before that fracas occurred.

The area that is now Baxter County had Black residents before the Civil War. Orrin L. Dodd, located in what is now Mountain Home, owned 30 slaves by the 1860 census. Too, there was a small free Black population nearby in Marion County. In 1880, the first census conducted after Baxter County's creation showed 45 Black residents, including Jacob Dillard, who had bought 160 acres of land five years previous. (The Arkansas Gazette reported in 1885 that the average farm in the county was 136 acres in size.)

Cotter was established in 1902 along the White River Railway, which was being constructed through the county. According to reports, the town had a population of 600 by the time it incorporated two years later, and the establishment of the railroad's division headquarters there made Cotter a boom town. Railroad work and emerging industries attracted a number of outside laborers, including Black men; as a June 24, 1904, article in the Cotter Courier observed: "Negro labor was employed to a large extent in the building of the road[,] and the completion of the enterprise as far as Cotter left many of them in our county, where they remain."

However, local sentiment against Black people apparently existed from the earliest days of the community and found open expression in the town's newspaper; on Aug. 25, 1905, the Courier ran an article containing the lines: "There is a strong feeling against the negro in Cotter and the county, and the feeling is growing. It is quite likely there will not be a colored people in Baxter county within a year. They are not wanted."

Gov. Jeff Davis had visited Cotter on Aug. 13, 1904, and his speech there was described by the local paper as being "unalterably opposed to negro equality." He was a featured speaker in Cotter again on Nov. 23, 1905, less than one month after he had defended the practice of lynching in front of President Theodore Roosevelt in Little Rock. On April 6, 1906, the Courier ran an editorial titled, "Too Many Negroes," which expressed a "feeling ... that the negroes should move on" and spoke of "rumors of resorting to drastic measures to keep the colored men out of town."

On Aug. 24, 1906, white residents served notice that all Black people were to leave town immediately. This followed a fight between two Black men, John Wilson and Reuben Johnson, and after this altercation, it was reported that "the people decided to make a clean sweep and notified the rest of the darkeys that it would be best if they left also." The Arkansas Gazette also reported that a group of seven Blacks had been run out of town a few weeks prior to the fight between Wilson and Johnson, at which time, according to newspaper reports, the Black population of the town numbered only 10.

Although the warning to depart covered all Black residents, one family was allowed to remain: the Mason family, consisting of Sam and Alice and their son, Charley. The Masons were described in local newspapers as "good negroes" and "law-abiding citizens," but as James W. Loewen observed in his 2005 book -- "Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism" -- "publicizing the African American as an exception reminds the community that this is the only African American allowed in the area," thus reinforcing the banishment and exclusion of Black people. However, when Alice Mason died in 1908, the newspaper reported that local white women prepared her body for burial, exhibiting "no hesitancy" in "doing all they could to render assistance."

Sam Mason was one of only four Black residents in the entire county by the time of the 1920 census. By 1940, the census listed no Black residents. A pamphlet promoting Cotter to the wider world, likely published in the 1950s, contains the line: "Cotter's population is 100 per cent white, and the community offers ideal living conditions which make for efficiency and contentment of workmen."

-- CALS staff

This story is adapted by Guy Lancaster from the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas, a project of the Central Arkansas Library System. Visit the site at

  photo  A page from a pamphlet published, circa 1950s, for the promotion of Cotter emphasizes the fact that the city is exclusively white. (Courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Central Arkansas Library System)

Print Headline: White residents of Cotter expel nearly all Blacks in 1906


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