African-American History in White County, Arkansas
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Excerpt from

Searcy, Arkansas
A Frontier Town
Grows Up With America

Raymond Lee Muncey

Published by
Harding Press
Searcy, Arkansas 1976

Destruction and Reconstruction
1860 to 1874
page 33

    Tensions mounted and tempers flared between North and South during the decade of the decade of the 1850's. Northern abolitionists were determined more than ever to rid this nation of the blight of human bondage and the south resisted the interference with that "peculiar institution" which had been tentatively endorsed by the Constitution of the United States. Southern whites quickly contrasted the plight of the Northern wage slaves, which included women and children, toiling in dark, unhealthy factories, to the carefree blacks of the South who benefited from the fresh out-of-doors labor and a welfare system from the cradle to the grave. But the brutal fact remained: one man could own another. Slave auctions where human flesh was bargained for, often with cows and mules, were brutal sights. Families were separated, and runaways increased, as black men traveled by night in vain hope of escaping a system which slashed repeatedly at the human soul.
    John Brown of Osawatomie, Kansas, conceived a scheme to invade the South in secret with his followers and persuade the slaves to revolt against their owners, furnish them with weapons, and establish a free state for the Negroes as a haven of refuge from their oppressors. Brown managed to collect several thousand dollars from Northern abolitionists who sympathized with his plan. taking twenty men, he went to the Federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry in western Virginia, in October, 1859, to seize the arms and ammunitions needed for the uprising. They killed seven innocent people in the process and the plan collapsed. Brown was captured and hanged. The Negroes did not rise en masse as Brown had hoped, but the effect of the raid set on edge the nerves of the entire south. They had heard of the uprising of Nat Turner in Virginia and the slaughter of about sixty white people, mostly women and children. Steps were taken to revive and enforce old laws on slave assemblies and the carrying of arms by Negroes.
    Strangers in the South were looked upon with a great deal of suspicion, and Free Negroes were prohibited from roaming around as more and more white men slept with an arsenal at their headboard. The Little Rock True Democrat reported "abolition emissaries have been prowling along the western line of the State."1 The terror of a slave uprising struck Searcy in May, 1861, when Charles Cavender, a Methodist preacher from Oil Trough, Arkansas, was captured with four unidentified Negroes and charged with inciting slaves to rebellion.
    The plan allegedly involved a wide-scale massacre, the capture of Memphis, and the establishment of a "Middle Confederacy." The Negroes were to move from Austin and Hickory Plains, killing every white person they met until the two forces met at Searcy. Here Cavender was to take charge and direct the black forces to Memphis where they would meet other such groups whose efforts were coordinated with theirs. A Negro who lived near Austin came to Searcy on May 1, 1861, and reported his company was ready and would move the following Saturday night. When the Negroes met with Cavender just west of Austin to begin their march, a vigilante committee came upon them and searched them. All they found was a gourd filled with gunpowder in the pocket of one of the Negroes. Cavender and eight of the Negroes were arrested. Cavender escaped with four of the alleged insurrectionists. All five were found later, but three of them were granted mercy by the lynching mob; Cavender and a black partner in the scheme were hanged in Searcy.2 Other vigilante committees were formed to drive out the "trouble makers," who sometimes posed as peddlers, schoolteachers or preachers. F.N. Chrisman advertised in the local newspaper that "All persons having runaway Negroes can have them caught by calling the undersigned at Searcy, who has the best NEGRO DOGS in the state."3 Charges were made on the basis of the amount of time and trouble consumed in the chase.
    A slave uprising occurred at Dardenelle, Arkansas, in the winter of 1859. The steamboat Leon  put in at Searcy Landing and the captain began to spread the news that some white people were the instigators of the trouble up the Arkansas River. W.A. Briley wrote in the Searcy Eagle that there had been several incidents of insurrection talk in Searcy and "our citizens cannot be too vigilant in looking about them in these troublesome times. Certainly the insurrection movements are not confined to Harper's Ferry or Virginia alone, but the poisonous fang extends through every section of the country."4
    The talk of a slave uprising whetted the appetite of some slaves for freedom, but others were content to stand by their owners and take their chances on survival. Sam Russell was purchased as a lad of six or seven years at Paris, Tennessee, in 1845, by Mrs. Matthew Russell, a widow from Arkansas. Sam later recalled vividly that he and the auctioneer were on a platform high above the crowd when Mrs. Russell's bid of three-hundred-fifty dollars was declared the highest. He was separated from his parents and brothers and sisters and brought to Searcy, never to see them again. He claimed there were only two brick stores in Searcy when he came. He was put to work clearing land and helping to roll back the forests to make room for Searcy's growth. He remembered clearing the land of the virgin timber and undergrowth where Searcy' Junior High School now stands. When the war came, Sam remained loyal to the Widow Russell. At one point during the fighting he was captured along with Jim Robbins by the Federal soldiers and taken to Georgetown. He escaped and hastened back toward Searcy, traveling on a steamboat up the Little Red River to West Point. Federal troops had camped nearby, and Lee Burrows put Sam under a freight wagon, smuggled him through the lines and brought him to Searcy. He was fearful of being caught if he showed up in town, so he hid out in the woods near Searcy while the Yankees roamed the area. White friends, Sam later affirmed, knowing his plight brought him food and cared for him until it was safe for him to reunite with the Widow Russell. Sam lived to be ninety-seven and related his story to many Searcians. He died on August 5, was buried in Oak Grove cemetery in 1935.5
    Aunt Martha, as she was affectionately known, endeared herself to the community as a congenial slave who cooked for travelers who stopped at the Chambliss Inn on  Spring Street. After the war she married Harrison Snipes but continued her role as one of the State's best cooks.6 Although there were no large slave holders in White County, several of the citizens owned from one to ten as indicated in the wills of the property holders. The largest slaveholders, called "mansion folk," lived west of Searcy in the fertile valley region. When W.A. Booth died, he had but one slave, a Negro named George, about twenty-one years old, who was sold to the highest bidder on the court square January 2, 1860. Decius McCreery, Sr., owned several slaves who were "captured" by the Federal troops in 1862 and taken to Helena.

1. Ted Worley, Early History of Des Arc and Its People. Reprinted from the White River Journal, 22 March 1956 - 28 March 1957. Part XXXI.
2. Des Arc (
Arkansas) Citizen, 8 May 1861
3. Searcy (
Arkansas) Eagle, 29 May 1861
4. Ibid.,
17 December 1859
Sam Russell, obituary, White County (Arkansas) Citizen, 7 August 1935. Interview in Searcy Daily Citizen, 4 August 1931.
Martha Snipes, obituary, Searcy Daily Citizen, 1 February 1938.

Bread Lines and Blue Eagles:
1928 to 1939
page 283

    The Amateur Hour was a popular national radio program during the depression years, hosted by Major Bowes. Some of the talent was so poor that the good major would ring the bell on then and make them take a seat. Every community in America had its own amateur contest to try to determine who were their most talented, and Searcy was not excluded. Harry King was the official "gong ringer" for the local amateur shows at the Rialto, but research has not revealed he ever cut a performance short because it was not up to par.104 The most popular amateur night at the Rialto were those put on by Searcy's Negroes in which Virgie Cox and Bill Ethie were always the favorites.105

104 Ibid., 11 March 1936; 18 March 1936; 8 April 1936.
105 Ibid.,
22 April 1936

Peace and War Again:
1945 to 1953

    Education was in a state of transition for several years following World War II. .........

    Veterans were anxious to enroll in classes and sometimes found themselves in classes with students ten years their junior. Classes in adult education were instituted in order to alleviate some of the stresses created by age differentials. The  Adult Education Program was approved by the Arkansas Department of Education, and classes began January 8, 1948, at Searcy High School. General and specific courses in both distributive and trades education classes were held three hours on Monday and Thursday nights. The cost of the course was thirty-nine dollars per quarter, but veterans of World War II had the entire cost of their course paid by the U.S. Government. In addition, a veteran received his books and supplies free and was paid sixteen dollars per month plus a subsistence allowance for each dependent.46  A separate class in adult education was organized for Negro veterans at the White County Training School under the direction of the principal, Mary Wilson. Typing, business arithmetic and business English were offered first and other classes added as interest demanded.47 C. B. Brown, a Negro  veteran was the first to enroll in flight training under the G.I. Bill at the Searcy Flying Service. Within a week of his enrollment he flew his first solo flight.48
    For the first time in Searcy's history a Negro student could take a full twelve year program of work locally in 1949. The White County Training School had six teachers that year, and additional classroom space was made available to meet the growing demands made on the school. A modern Commercial Department was added and a new building for the elementary grades. The State Department of Education gave the school a "C" rating, making it possible for the 1949 graduates to be admitted to college on the basis of their diploma from the Searcy School.49 Douglas Washington, was the first Negro plumber in Searcy.

46 Ibid., 5 January 1948.
47 Ibid., 10 February 1948.
48 Ibid., 28 June 1947.
49 Ibid., 13 July 1949.


Coming Apart and Keeping Our Cool:
1960 to 1970

    Seldom as a decade in American history begun with more hope and optimism that that of the 1960s.....
Race and sex discrimination exhisted in the North as well as the South. The disparity between the haves and the have-nots approximated the situation in feudal Europe before the rise of capitalism....
    The country presented a strange mixture of materialism and idealism, and the latter came to treat the format with contempt, and a variety of protests were heard from Boston to Watts and from Detroit to Miami.......
    Although some parts of the nation appeared to explode in every direction, Searcy, Arkansas, managed to "keep its cool." It was not that the ingredients for civil strife were not present in Searcy. The dichotomy of black and white, young and old, capital and labor, rich and poor, and town and gown existed in Searcy as in many cities in the South.....
    The Searcy school system avoided the trauma of racial riots in the process of integration. The United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare chose Searcy as an exemplary case on how integration could be effected peacefully and adequately. The H.E.W Department published the account of Searcy’s desegragation program in a book entitled, Working Together: Case Studies of Title I. Berkeley, California; Hillsborough County, Florida; and Moore County, North Carolina, were the only other school systems whose cases were presented with Searcy’s in this widely distributed book
    In 1958, there were two hundred-seventy five students enrolled in the all-black White County Training School, about half of whom were from other districts in the county.
7 There were two thousand thirty-one white children enrolled.....
    Open house festivities were held Sunday, April 3, 1960, for all the citizens to inspect a plant which was constructed to meet the needs of black students for several years in the future. Irene Chatman, a student, Evelyn Turner, a teacher, and Edward Turner, a parent, each spoke on the topic "What the White County Training School Means to Me."....

7. The five districts were Bald Knob, Beebe, Judsonia, Kensett and McRae. There was one all black elementary school in Kensett which served several grades one thru eight....

*************** END *************

Two national events displayed a new aggressiveness in sectional strife. The Southern Commercial Convention in Vicksburg, not content to retain the right of slave ownership in the South, sought to open up the foreign slave trade again. Congress had prohibited the foreign slave trade in 1808. In October, John Brown led an attack on the arsenal and armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in an attempt to instigate a slave rebellion. A force of United States Marines, commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee, took Brown and his followers prisoner. Brown was later hanged for treason and criminal conspiracy.

Even before these events, the General Assembly followed Governor Conway's advice and acted to remove all free Negroes from Arkansas. Free persons of color were seen as a potentially disruptive element, and, after 1860, were to be enslaved for a year and their earnings from that period were to be used for their removal.



Cities in White County    White County Government

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