As May begins, some random notes on historians mingling, and a pair of “becoming” museums, located on the opposite edges of the state.
On April 13-15, I had the pleasure of attending the annual conference of the Arkansas Historical Association, held in person for the first time since 2019. During the pandemic, meetings were held virtually; last year, after a virtual conference an in-person awards banquet was held at Ferncliff Camp, west of Little Rock. It was a good evening but it reminded me, as it did many others, how much pleasure and stimulation are foregone when historians cannot spend time in one another’s company.
This year, many of us made up for lost time. Session papers were good, conversations around the lunch and dinner tables were warm and animated and the setting was fine, verging on sublime: DeGray Lake Resort State Park, a recreational jewel located just north of Arkadelphia in Clark County.
The Archives was well-represented at the conference. Even though there was limited space available for vendors and institutions, Local Arrangements Chair Dr. Lisa Speer offered a table to the manager of the Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives, Melissa Nesbitt. Melissa made the most of it, with backup from ASA staff. Curator Julienne Crawford created a new tabletop display highlighting SARA’s collections, new online resources and the upgrades made to this facility over the past year or so. ASA staff alternated with Melissa at the table, distributing promotional materials, talking with friends old and new and generally doing “missionary work” for SARA and the ASA system.
Two ASA staff members presented well-received papers at the conference. On Friday the 14th, Brian Irby outlined the checkered past of prizefighting in Arkansas, describing the energetic and sometimes hapless efforts made by law enforcers to prevent public exhibitions of “the sweet science” in early Twentieth-century Arkansas resorts. On the following day, Darren Bell of our microfilm department delivered a (mostly) deadpan look at a 1973 attempt to create touristic attractions in Clark County, including “Fort Clark,” a resort made to resemble a frontier fort, an ambitious “shooterama” shooting sports playground, a night club/entertainment venue dubbed “Clark’s Ark” and a distinctive glass-and-wood office and restaurant tower rising from the pines near Gurdon, none of which, alas, came to pass.
At the Association’s award banquet, the ASA was honored with the prestigious Diamond Award, acknowledging our participation in the National Digital Newspaper Project. Project manager Katherine Adkins and Assistant Chelsea Cinotto accepted on behalf of the Archives. This program, administered through the National Endowment for the Humanities, makes it possible for state-level partners (such as the ASA) to select and digitize historic journalism, which is then included in the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America site.
The ASA’s participation in this program began during the tenure of our former Director, Dr. Lisa Speer; to date, nearly 300,000 pages of Arkansas newspapers have been or are in the process of being uploaded to the site. The Diamond Award is a Big Deal but then, so is the NDNP; we, along with archives and libraries across the nation, are amassing a rich and inclusive curated trove of journalism which documents the stories of this nation and the world as reported to audiences across the continent; this resource is free to all and it continues to grow. Our project team, in addition to Adkins and Cinotto, includes Darren Bell, Terra Titsworth, Julienne Crawford, Brian Irby and, in a very minor role, yrs. truly. We are currently finishing our third two-year cycle of production and have applied for funding for a fourth one. We will find out if our application has been approved in August; until then, we have work to do, fine-tuning the digitized product and spreading the word about this highly accessible and rich resource.
Another denizen of the ASA office was also honored at the AHA. Dr. Revis Edmonds, our department Historian-with-roving-commission, was part of a group of scholars who were awarded the Violet B. Gingles Award, presented to the person (or, in this case persons) who writes the best manuscript article on any Arkansas history topic. The article can deal with any phase of the history of the state or with any individual connected with its past; such articles are then submitted to the Arkansas Historical Quarterly for consideration. Dr. Edmonds and his classmate colleagues won for “From Lynching to Legal Lynching, Mob Justice to Courtroom Justice: The Arkansas “Scottsboro” Cases of James X. Caruthers and Clear “Bubbles” Clayton, 1935-1939.” Revis is not part of our Archives staff but he hangs his hat in the ASA office; he knows more good stories, particularly about Arkansas politics, than anyone should, and tells them well. He’s welcome at our potlucks and I can’t say fairer than that. Also sharing the Gingles ward were two former ASA interns: Harrison Mitchell and Emily Housdan. Harrison is on the staff of Historic Arkansas Museum, while Emily was recently named Graduate Student of the Year by the Arkansas Museums Association. Congratulations to all of you!
On September 30 of last year, I took a trip east, my destination the small Phillips County town of Elaine. I headed out of town on I-40, turning off south at the exit for Biscoe, before jogging a little to the East on Highway 70 before heading south to reach Elaine. I was headed there to attend “Taking Care of Bones: The Legacy of the Elaine 12,” a program marking the dedication of the Richard Wright Civil Rights Center and promoting the evolving Elaine Museum. I drove along, passing churches (mostly Baptist), duck clubs, outfitters, cemeteries and intersections with county roads, leading to farms, even more hunting clubs and tiny rural communities, clusters of houses without stores but maybe, just maybe, a post office to provide a core for the community. After a couple of detours and quick fix of a soft tire I reached Elaine in time for the program; the welcome I found made me glad that I’d come.
Afterward, I stopped in downtown Elaine to take a look at a vital work in progress: the rehabilitation of a more-than-century-old former drugstore and grocery, which would be the home of the Elaine Museum. I walked through the shell of the old commercial building and wondered, imagined, what manner of museum this would prove to be. After all, the town is best known as the epicenter of a vast inhumane outrage, long dubbed the 1919 Elaine “Race Riot” until more modern scholarship and, maybe, a shift in public willingness to call a thing by its true name, allowed us to know it for what it was: a massacre. Disputes linger over the numbers of people killed—two hundred is a conservative estimate-- but there is no mistaking the pattern of who died: all save at five were African Americans. Memories, too, linger. The late Grif Stockley wrote, in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, that “Race relations in this area of Arkansas are currently quite strained for a number of reasons, including the events of 1919.”
Will the Elaine Museum ease that strain? It is hard to tell, and a conversation with individuals connected with its construction suggested that some in Elaine, Black and White alike, are not comfortable with the project, possibly because the museum may serve to dredge up and preserve old stories, unhappy stories.
Nevertheless, the museum’s boosters have persisted. A few weeks ago I received an email from Ms. Mary Olson, one of its organizers. It contained a link to the museum web site (https:/www.elainemuseum.org) and its handsome virtual exhibit, “These Walls Can Talk,” which suggests the potential power of this museum a-building to tell out the painful story of the Massacre and its aftermath, in the context of the history of the longer story of the Elaine community. The Elaine Museum is not open yet, but keep an eye open for further developments; this will be less a museum of “stuff” than one of narratives and images, mixed with creativity and a determination to keep a small Delta town and its crucial story alive.
The museum, when it opens, will stand across the street from a trailhead of the northern segment of the Delta Heritage Trail, a biking-and-hiking route built atop the onetime roadbed of the Iron Mountain/Missouri Pacific. Those who walk or roll along the trail will be on the same route by which some 500 federal soldiers arrived in Elaine on the morning of October 2, 1919, having been requested by Governor Charles Hillman Brough to “restore order.” One of their officers reported that “…about twenty negroes were killed by soldiers for refusing to halt when so ordered or for resisting arrest.” Other accounts of the massacre rendered a far grimmer picture, asserting that the soldiers were responsible for the majority of Elaine deaths, estimated as totaling between 200 and over 800. One writer later termed the soldiers’ arrival in Elaine as “the blackest day ever written by blood or bayonet in the history of Arkansas.”
Mentioning the Elaine Museum reminds me that museum enthusiasts will have another reason to hit the road this summer, as the long-delayed U.S. Marshals’ Museum opens the doors of its Fort Smith facility. This has been an ambitious project, built on a collection that previously found a home in my old hometown, Laramie, Wyoming. For about a decade, the Marshal Service’s bicentennial traveling exhibit, “America’s Star,” was displayed at the Wyoming Territorial Park, the onetime territorial penitentiary that had once “hosted” famed freelance capitalist Butch Cassidy. Housed in the lower level of the Park’s theater, the exhibit attracted modest crowds but ultimately closed in 2003 and was placed in storage.
In 2007, the Marshal Service announced that Fort Smith had been chosen as the new, permanent home for the collection, which would form the basis for all-new exhibits telling the long story of this arm of the law, which traces its lineage to thirteen marshals’ commissions signed on September 26, 1789, by his Excellency, President George Washington. It continues through (but does not end with) the enforcers associated with the famed U.S. Court for the Western District of Arkansas, the Hon. Isaac Parker, presiding.
The museum has been delayed and even dismissed by some but it is now a done thing—or, rather, “done enough,” since a museum is never really completed, just made ready for the story to evolve. I for one cannot wait to see what this new museum, located at the far west edge of the state, holds, and to hear what stories it—and its “non-identical twin” in Elaine-- will tell.