Black migration to Arkansas topic of Preservation Society lecture

By Joan Hershberger


In December 1881, some 5,000 black South Carolinians from Edgefield County packed up and headed for Augusta, Ga., where they began a journey to Arkansas. Within 10 days, a fifth of the county’s black residents had left. Local plantations immediately felt the impact: with no workers their land values fell. Newspapers compared it to the exodus from Egypt in Biblical times. From that startling event, historian Story Matkin-Rawn opened her lecture Thursday evening at the SouthArk Library Auditorium for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society.

For Matkin-Rawn, familiar with the African-American migration north and west from 1910 to 1970, this event was a revelation. Between 1900 and 1970, the population of black America tripled, but blacks in Arkansas declined during that time as roughly 20 percent of the black population left every decade. From 1900, the Arkansas African American population declined from 28 percent to 18 percent.

But first, Arkansas was the place to go after the Civil War, a fact known to black historians such as Carter G. Woodson, who in 1918 wrote that African Americans went in search of economic opportunities in the western South: Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. In 1991, Emmett J. Scott reported on the great migration, in which Arkansas led the nation, in attracting black migrants until World War I.

“Demographer William Vickery calculated that between the Civil War and WWI, three quarters of a million African Americans moved to Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta,” reported Matkin-Rawn. By the 1900s, two out of every three black households were headed by persons born outside the state, she said.

This migration conflicts with the usual emphasis on the North as the point of greater freedom for African Americans. It is forgotten because subsequent history conflicts with it as the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution were under minded in all these states. They each “passed segregation laws and used racial terrorism … to enforce white supremacy.”

Matkin-Rawn then explored why the migrants came and what happened once they reached the state.

Economic opportunity brought the migrants to the state. Due to wartime displacements, Arkansas’s population had declined. There was a labor shortage and a surge in wages. “Black Arkansan farm laborers initially made twice the average wage east of the Mississippi. Earnings dropped in the 1880s but still ran 30 to 50 percent higher than in the southeast,” she said. Black supporters of the southwestern migration promoted the wages.

The wages meant that the blacks could achieve land ownership. In 1869, the Arkansas Colored Baptist Convention issued a resolution recommending that “our people … secure for themselves independent homesteads.” Black Arkansans had more opportunities to own land than other freed men and women. In the old southern state, the white landowners would not sell to an African American.That was not an issue in Arkansas, where the land for sale came from the federal government, the state and the railroad companies, she noted.

Add to that the Federal Southern Homestead Act with nine million acres of public land needing to be settled, and many of the obstacles in the old South were avoided. Georgia and Alabama saw many blacks move to Arkansas for this very reason.

The most attractive land was owned by the railroads. Newspapers throughout the South and Midwest ran ads about Arkansas’s cheap land, perfect climate and inexhaustible soil.

Another reason for the migration to Arkansas was the state policy of promoting African American migration. Then Governor Powell Clayton appointed black Republican William Henry Grey to urge blacks to come to Arkansas. His one year in office firmly established the migration. 1873 saw 6,000 African Americans move from Macon, Ga., to Arkansas.

Migration followed the tension of Post-Civil War Reconstruction. In Georgia, the large faction of white Republicans allied with the Democratic minority in the state legislature in 1868 expelled all 28 African American legislators as ineligible for office on the basis of color. They were readmitted, but “political terrorism had forced all of Georgia’s black public servants out of office by 1872.”

In 1872, former Georgia Congressman Jefferson Long encouraged 10,000 black men to leave Georgia and move to Arkansas, according to Matkin-Rawn. Arkansas was safer from the Klan violence and offered a better chance for political participation. Black Arkansans continued to vote with relative freedom for another 15 years, allowing the migrants from Georgia to play a prominent role in Arkansas politics.

The exodus sent a powerful message of protest and caught the attention of abolitionist Frederick Douglass who wrote, “By emigration the colored man has everything to gain and nothing to lose. The losers will be those who deserve whatever deprivations may follow the flight of the laboring portion of Georgia.”

So for wages, land, safety, civil rights and political influences, the migration happened. The best reason, according to Matkin-Rawn was the fencing laws.

New laws passed in Georgia in 1872 restricted the fishing and hunting in Georgia’s majority-black counties, undercutting the freed people’s ability to supplement their diets and income. Fences changed the custom of allowing livestock to graze on unfenced land, even privately owned land. Without this freedom, poor white and black farmers could not allow their hogs to feed in the ‘bottoms.’ The laws shifted the responsibility and cost of enclosure from the landholders, to the animal owners. This meant that in order to keep livestock, one had to own land, she reported.

By 1883, 30 Georgia counties had restricted free range practices while Arkansas had only two small districts prohibiting free range grazing – which remained true until the 1930s. “Likewise, restrictions on hunting and fishing were far fewer in Arkansas,” she said.

Even the religious press encouraged movement away from Georgia to the cheap land in Arkansas before the price increased. The urgency of the migration included reports that the “emigrant would be held and guarded in certain towns till the buyers came.”

When black North Carolinians organized a mass departure to Arkansas in 1889, the Rev. Isaiah Aldredge pled for them to reconsider. He compared it to the days of slavery when families were torn apart. The difference was that prior to the voluntary migration, scouts went ahead to assess the land and report back to those interested in migrating. In the late 1880s, Arkansas began to catch up with the rest of the country with its political terrorism. The elections of 1888 and 1890 exploded in violence, Rawn reported. They targeted black voters, the first segregation laws were passed and yet the migrants continued to arrive.

Then as the Jim Crow laws took effect, blacks began emigrating away from Arkansas.

Matkin-Rawn concluded her lecture with questions that included audience members offering her names of other, local possible black communities in southern Arkansas which had been formed during the influx of migrants. She said that many communities formed around the schools and teacher training units.

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