Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Surviving Against the Odds. Many Rivers To Cross: Episode #4

The first half of the 20th century brought about tremendous changes in the trajectory of the lives of African Americans. For my ancestors living in the early years--some were in the rural south like Horatio Arkansas, while others found their way to larger cities, like Memphis, Nashville and Little Rock. And others made their way on the western frontier and saw Indian Territory enter the Union and become the state of Oklahoma.

But all of my ancestors faced the uncertainties of a future in a land that could bring tragedy at a moment's notice. Events similar to those shown in this fourth episode of Many Rivers, took place in my home town, and some events occurred nearby. Therefore I am looking at history as some of it unfolded in and around Ft. Smith, Arkansas.

A Ft. Smith Lynching:
In the early 20th century, my home town of Ft. Smith took a dramatic turn from the days when Black Marshals worked for Judge Parker. Gone were the days when there was a frontier spirit and the promise of the west was present for black families. Southern Democrats had come into the town and brought a different flavor to the city of southern anti-black hostility. In March of 1912 Sanford Lewis was lynched not far from the First National Bank Building. More can be read here: The Lynching of Sanford Lewis.

A Community Destroyed:
In 1923, not far from my hometown, to the north in nearby Crawford County there was the tragedy of the black settlement of Catcher. What resulted were charges of assualt against three black men, including a 14 year old boy, and the elimination of an entire community 40 families simply removed from their homes, driven off their land and simply wiped off the map of the Crawford County Arkansas landscape where they had lived. The three men accused were doomed to a fateful end, in spite of their innocence, but the horrors did not end there. The small farming community also paid the price for living where they were simply not wanted.

With only minutes to pack---this small farming settlement, of black men, women and children were forced to march out of Catcher into Van Buren and find a new place to live. Property was seized and a church, (St. Paul's Methodist Church) was destroyed and the nearby cemetery was destroyed. Some of the headstones were smashed and some graves were said to have been removed with remains dropped in the Arkansas River. (The few remaining headstones were found several years ago, and were documented by historian Tonia Holleman, and placed on Find A Grave.Some of the residents of Catcher settled in the city of Van Buren. But many were so terrorized that they left the county, and moved to Ft. Smith and formed a large portion of the community that is now Midland Heights. More can be read here: The Catcher Race Riot.

Survival Amid Segregation:
Like Little Rock, my hometown of Ft. Smith Arkansas was one in which the Black community thrived in spite of the racial climate of the day. A business district arose especially on north 9th Street. 

A Place to Stay
In 1940, if one was driving through Arkansas there were a limited number of places where one could stay. In Ft. Smith there were two places, The Ullery Inn, (719 N. 9th Street) and the home of Mrs. Clara Oliver, (906 N. 9th Street). These were recorded in the Green Book, that was mentioned on the PBS program Many Rivers to Cross. In 1949, The Ullery Inn, and the home of Prof. E.O. Trent would provide space for travelers as "tourist homes".

Images from the 1940 Green Book reflecting Arkansas are found in these three images:

(Images above reflect pages describing safe places for African Americans driving through Arkansas.)

This is one of the two homes where one could stay in Ft. Smith Arkansas in 1940, if you were driving through and needed rest.

The Ullery Inn. (Many know this as the home of Mrs. Ullery and Mr. Arthur Lee Kirksey)

A vacant lot now occurpies the spot where the Clara Oliver Tourist Home once stood.

A 1949 issue of the Green Book still included the Ullery Inn as a tourist home and that of Prof. E.O. Trent was now listed. 

Trent Family Home. A "Tourist Home" in 1949

During the years of segregation, my hometown like many southern cities was a divided city. There were the schools for black children and those for white children. There were the restaurants where we could not eat--which was virtually all of them, with exception of the small cafeterias in the Black community (Mingo's, and the Ranch Burger, are the two that I remember.)

Churches were clearly divided by color for every denomination. And socially there were simply those lines that were never crossed.

Times have passed, of course, but this fourth episode of Many Rivers To Cross, did address the times in which our families had to cope during trying times, so many indignities endured by our elders, were superseded by their resilience and decision to survive, so that we are here today in a slightly better world.

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This blog post is part of a collaboration of posts being shared by a group of bloggers who are part of the African American Genealogy Blogging Circle. We are sharing our own personal family stories, as the series air on PBS. 

The Bloggers are:

Kristin Cleage, Finding Eliza
Melvin Collier (Roots Revealed)
George Geder (Wanders, Wonders, Signs)
Terry Ligon, (Black and Red Journal)
Vicky Daviss Mitchell (Mariah's Zepher)
Yvette Porter Moore , (The Ancestors Have Spoken)
Nicka Sewell Smith (Who is Nicka Smith)                               
Drusilla Pair (Find Your Folks)
Angela Walton-Raji (My Ancestor's Name)


Terry LIGON said...

Great story Angela, I wonder if anyone thought to place those homes on a historical register so they can be preserved as part of the history of Arkansas?

Kristin said...

Northern cities were just about as segregated as Southern cities as far as residence and schools. Still, I know that my grandfather and his friends looked to moving north to give them a greater sense of freedom.