Thursday, July 30, 2020

Family finds healing through folk music

By Brian Irby, archival assistant

Music is a form of communication. Human beings living in caves used flutes to convey something about themselves or about their world. They combined melody with poetry, resulting in traditions that would evolve through the centuries, but would remain in its simplest form, music. An example of this tradition can be found in the life and career of Almeda Riddle and how her family preserved painful memories of a storm that destroyed their world on Thanksgiving night in 1926.

On Nov. 23, 1926, in the town of Heber Springs, families were gathered around dinner tables to enjoy each other’s company and to eat delicious meals. At about 5:30 that evening, the clear sky suddenly turned overcast and began to rain. Fifteen minutes later, the emerging storm grew in intensity, spawning a tornado that quickly ripped through town.

The tornado left in its wake heavy winds and a deluge of rain. The wails of those trapped in their houses added to the hellish sounds. Those who were not trapped worked to free their neighbors. People emerging from the storms staggered about the town looking for missing loved ones or searching through the rubble.

In the end, the tornado killed 21 people and wounded more than 55. Every house in the town was damaged in some way, leaving survivors huddled in tents as protection from the cold rain. Among those killed were Price Riddle, a factory worker, and his infant child. The Riddle family had just returned home after enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner given by the factory where Price worked. His wife, Almeda, and surviving children, Clinton and John, were badly injured. They were taken to the hospital where they stayed for four months while they recuperated from their wounds.

Weeks later, Riddle and her two sons were able to leave the hospital. Since their house was destroyed, the family went to live with her father, J.L. James. Riddle and her father shared a similar hobby, collecting folk songs. Music was in their blood, and they often sang together old ballads (or as they called them, “ballets”) that told of life in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains.

Years later, Riddle fondly remembered her father’s love of music, “My father sang every morning when he got up; he sang from a songbook. Every time a new songbook came out, he wanted it. It didn’t matter what company put it out, or what song.”

Riddle inherited her father’s passion. “I knew my notes before I knew my letters,” she recalled.

Additionally, they both were fond of writing their own songs. As she was living with her father, Riddle heard him faintly singing a song to himself that seemed to refer to the devastating storm that had so upended his family in Heber Springs. Whenever she heard him singing this song, she tried to avoid him.  

Unfortunately, the storm destroyed her collection, but Riddle soon began to collect songs again. Her collection of songs came to the attention of John Quincy Wolf, a Batesville-raised folklorist teaching at Southwestern College (today known as Rhodes College) in Memphis, Tennessee. He found that many of the songs that Riddle sang and collected were directly descended from songs sung in the British Isles, providing a direct link between songs that went back centuries and had been preserved in the Ozark Mountains.

Almeda Riddle and Uncle Absie Morrison
at the Ozark Folk Center, 1965.
In the 1950s, folklorist Alan Lomax learned of Riddle and in 1959 traveled to Heber Springs in order to record her and some of the ballads that she had collected. Thanks to these recordings Riddle’s songs became well known and were often sought out by college students inspired by the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s. As a result, she toured colleges across the country, singing the ballads that she had spent her life collecting. Younger folk singers and fans of the art began calling her “Granny” Riddle. At times she shared the stage with rising stars, like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

Around the time that she became famous in folk music circles, Riddle’s mother passed away. When she was going through a box of knickknacks, Riddle found a manuscript, written out in her father’s hand. On it was the song that her father had written about the tornado that killed her husband and baby. The song was titled, “The Storm of Heber Springs, November 25th, 1926.” James had set the lyrics to an old tune. The song began by describing the shock and devastation that wrecked the town:

‘Twas on Thanksgiving Day
The town of Heber Springs
Was visited by a cyclone
And partly swept away.

The song he wrote carried on a very long tradition, one that had been practiced for centuries all around the world. It is a reminder that human beings are compelled by their very nature to reflect the world around them in art. Almeda Riddle and her father, J.L. James, were a part of that tradition.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Accessions for July

The Baring Cross town council ledger contains notes
relating to the founding of the town. Image courtesy
of the Arkansas State Archives.
Our recent accessions include church records from Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Unitarian Universalist Church, magazines from the late 19th century, founding documents for the town of Baring Cross in Pulaski County and other historical records and photographs. The Arkansas State Archives preserves two centuries of Arkansas history and more, ready for you to explore. Visit our digital collections or consult our research services at 

Archival Collections

Cumberland Presbyterian Church records, 1906-1949, were transferred by Carolyn Reno at Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale, Arkansas.

Margaret Ross collection, photographs and photo restorations by Little Rock photographer Edwin Ross Jr., were donated by Jennifer Charlebois of Charles Town, West Virginia. The photographs are not dated.

Unitarian Universalist Church (Little Rock, Ark.) records, 1950-2020, were donated by Nell Matthews and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Little Rock, Arkansas

National Democratic Convention ticket, 1908, and Oliver C. Atchison Civil War discharge papers, containing discharge certificate from 1865 and letter from 1904, were donated by Karen C. Dunlap of Austin, Texas.

Baring Cross (Pulaski County, Arkansas) town council ledger, 1895-1903, containing notes related to the founding of the town and town council meeting minutes, was donated by Lea Ravenel of San Ysidro, California

Harper’s Weekly, Harper’s New Monthly and The Century magazines, 22 bound volumes containing magazines from the late 19th century, various dates, were donated by Jason B. Hendren of Bentonville, Arkansas.

G.B. Hammonds letters, 1862-1864, containing three letters written by a Union soldier during his time in Arkansas, were transferred by Josh Williams at Historic Washington State Park in Washington, Arkansas.

Practice of Spiritualism turns deadly

The Nashville News, Dec. 20, 1913
By Brian Irby, archival assistant

In the 19th and early 20th  centuries, a fever for Spiritualism, a new religion in which adherents would attempt to communicate with the spirits of the dead, swept across the United States.  Spiritualist circles formed across the country, their members holding seances in darkened rooms, hoping to talk to deceased loved ones. Many such Spiritualist circles formed in Arkansas, including one in Pike County where the practice of the religion ended with tragedy.

Like many of their fellow Americans, Thomas and Margaret Turner, Lee County farmers, became adherents to the new religion around the turn of the 20th century. In order to spread the word about Spiritualism, they published a book titled The War of Ages or Two Worlds Blended, Linking the Known with the Unknown that recounted past attempts to communicate with the dead.  About 1903, the couple invited Rhoda Carter, a fellow spiritualist, and her six-year-old son, Robert, to move in with them. Soon after, the Turners formally adopted young Robert.

In addition to the book, the Turners hoped to establish a hotel in Lee County devoted solely to Spiritualist guests. Thomas Turner approached a partially blind farmer originally from Pike County, James Farrell, to invest in the hotel, but Farrell declined, arguing that he did not believe in Spiritualism. The two parted ways amicably, and the Turners never found the capital to build their Spiritualist hotel.

In 1913, Farrell left Lee County and settled in Glenwood in Pike County to work as a farm laborer. Farrell appeared to be an elderly man, although he was only 30 years of age. This discrepancy between his age and his appearance was most likely due to deep scars on his face, the result of an accident that also cost him much of his vision.

Back in Lee County, the Turner family experienced tragedy when young Robert died (records are unclear as to when or how Robert passed). The family decided to move from Lee to Pike County where they became reacquainted with Farrell. Once in Pike County the Turners convinced Farrell to join their Spiritualist circle, which met in their home.

Distraught over the death of their beloved adopted son, Margaret and Thomas Turner set out to communicate with his spirit. As the months dragged on, Margaret Turner started to sense that the messages she was receiving from the great beyond were growing fainter. Part of the problem, the Turners suggested, was that communications were being thwarted by “grounders,” malevolent spirits that attempted to disrupt communication between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead. The most difficult of the “grounders” was a spirit named “Billy Bedamn” who seemed to take a particular interest in preventing the Turners from speaking with Robert. Thomas Turner found that playing the harmonica, especially the tune “Red Wing” was usually enough to calm Billy and allow them to speak with Robert.

As the months passed, however, the Turners were still having difficulty. They decided that the best way to communicate with Robert was to contact a professional medium who would facilitate the communication. The family chose Farrell, whom Thomas Turner had known since he was a child, to join the circle.  

The Turners gathered with Farrell in their living room and attempted to contact Robert’s spirit. First, they brought out a gramophone and put on music to “entertain the spirits.” Unfortunately, they left the lights burning, resulting in no contact with the spirit realm. Next, they turned off the lights. At that moment, sparks of light began floating around the room indicating that the spirits had made their appearance. Unfortunately, along with Robert’s spirit, the “grounders” that had so bedeviled communications in the past, again made their presence known, disrupting attempts to communicate with Robert. Farrell and Carter grabbed brooms in order to shoo away the spirits.

The method of communicating with the spirits involved one of the group asking a question, and the spirits answering with flashes of light. One flash indicated the answer was “no;” two flashes meant “I don’t know;” and three flashes represented “yes.” In some cases, the group needed a more complex method of communicating with Robert. In these instances, the spirit communicated via dots and dashes, like Morse code.  Carter interpreted the messages once they had been copied down on paper. Significantly, only Farrell, who was partially blind, saw these flashes of light. No one else in the room could see them, so this left the family at the mercy of Farrell’s psychic gifts.

According to Farrell, most of the conversations were banal. But, after weeks of conversation, Robert’s communications became prophetic. Farrell announced that Robert was declaring that the world, particularly the United States and Mexico, were soon going to be engulfed in a tragic war that would destroy the United States. Robert warned his adoptive parents of the coming catastrophe and begged them to enter the spirit realm themselves so that they could avoid the coming problems. Additionally, Farrell claimed that Robert’s spirit wished them to sign over their property to Farrell. True believers, they willingly followed Robert’s command.

Turner signed over a deed for all the Turners’ properties, valued at $3,000, to Farrell. Then, on September 18, 1913, Turner sat down and wrote a suicide note, which the rest of the family signed. The note declared, “We are simply tired, and we wish is that all should go together… With malice toward none and good wishes for all mankind, we bid you good-bye.” The three then took a large amount of morphine mixed with strychnine and laid down.

That afternoon, Farrell returned to the Turner home to find Carter dead, and Margaret and Thomas Turner dying. The Turners were rushed to the hospital to be treated. Shortly after arriving at the hospital, Margaret Turner died.

Law enforcement immediately arrested the ailing Thomas Turner and charged him with second-degree murder. When he recovered, Turner accused Farrell of encouraging them to commit suicide. As proof, Turner produced the receipt for signing over the property to Farrell. Glenwood law enforcement immediately swore out a warrant for Farrell’s arrest. Farrell, tipped off that he would be arrested, filed a quit claim on the Turner’s property absolving any interest he may have had in the property with the hope that no one would suspect that he encouraged the suicides for personal financial gain.

Nevertheless, the police arrested Farrell for second-degree murder. When Farrell’s trial began in Murfreesboro in October 1913, it seemed that the evidence was on the prosecution’s side. Prosecuting the case was a young attorney from Sevier County, Thomas Collins. Although a mere 28 years old, he was widely known for his skills in the courtroom.

Turner was the star witness for the Farrell murder trial, but when he took the stand, he seemed to back away from his earlier accusations. For example, Turner told the jury that he could not remember whether “Robert” urged them to deed their property to Farrell. Turner’s recantation of earlier testimony left the prosecution in disarray. Collins, however, brought up the transcripts of the interviews he held during preliminary examination. He told the courtroom that he would bring out the transcripts, “for the purpose of refreshing Mr. Turner’s memory.” The transcripts were the lynchpin of the state’s case against Farrell.

Further, other witnesses strengthened the case. Will Babbitt, an acquaintance of Farrell’s, told the court that he had discussed Spiritualism with Farrell in the past. According to Babbitt’s testimony, “Farrell told me that he didn’t take any stock in the darned dope [the belief in Spiritualism], but that it was to his interest to have the Turners believe in it.”

Dr. J.P. Witt, a pharmacist in Glenwood, then testified that he had sold Farrell the morphine that the family ended up taking. The evidence was overwhelming, and the jury quickly convicted Farrell and sentenced him to five years in prison.

The next day, Thomas Turner’s trial began. His defense attorney convinced the jury that Turner was mentally ill, so the jury sentenced Turner to spend the rest of his life in the State Hospital for Nervous Diseases. On Feb. 10, 1914, Farrell began his sentence. He continued to plead his innocence from behind bars, “I am innocent. They convicted me solely upon circumstantial evidence.”

Nevertheless, he served two years of his sentence before Gov. George Washington Hays pardoned him. In 1916 he returned to Pike County, where he lived out the rest of his days in obscurity. By that time, it may have seemed that Farrell's prophecy had indeed come true: Europe had collapsed into the horrors of the First World War.  The United States soon followed.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Letter from the Director for July 2020

Dr. David Ware, state historian and
director of the Arkansas State Archives
As I write this, the Juneteenth observance - June 19 - has just passed. It is on the state calendar, although it does not enjoy the status of a paid state holiday - at least, not yet. It marks, of course, the date on which, in 1865, enslaved workers in south Texas finally received the word that they were free — and had been, in fact, for some little time … nearly two and one-half years. It took almost as long for many enslaved Arkansans to learn the same thing: the enslaved laborers of the Isaac Jones plantation of Hempstead County did not learn until June 4, 1865 that they were no longer the property of the plantation. One of them, Katie Rowe, later said that she counted that day as the day she began to live - and so it must have seemed.

Legal freedom was one thing; equality - both social and economic - proved to be another.

A few weeks ago, I received a call from a patron preparing materials for an adult education course; one topic was to be Arkansas’s “Jim Crow” era. He asked if I had or knew of a survey of racially discriminatory laws adopted in Arkansas beginning in the last decade of the 19th century and continuing into the early decades of the 20th. He had noticed that many references to such laws in Arkansas cited the Separate Coach Law (Act 17 of 1891), which required separate railway coaches for white and black passengers, and simply alluded to subsequent legislation without specifics; he wondered if there might be others.

The 1921 Digest of Arkansas Statutes, a distillation of the Arkansas legal code, provided some answers. It had appeared 30 years after the adoption of the Separate Coaches Act—three decades that saw the disappearance of African American legislators from Arkansas’s Assembly, the great 1911 Confederate veterans’ reunion in Little Rock and the nationwide resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan (whose female auxiliary was based in Arkansas’s capital city). Its index provided quick access to what the patron sought: Under the headings of “Negroes” and “Color Line” (yes, this was an actual subject heading) were an abundant handful of laws related to race and racial matters. They touched on public places, voting, schools and even incarceration. As of 1903, white and black prisoners in the state pen were no longer forced to share living and eating space. Other measures forbade interracial marriage and declared that the existence of a mixed-race child would be considered evidence of the crime of concubinage (the act or practice of cohabiting as man and woman, in sexual commerce, without the authority of law or a legal marriage).

These statutes begat legal offspring: Cities and towns adopted ordinances that further spelled out the ways and places in which black and white were to be kept apart, such as ones excluding African Americans from parks, pools and other places of public recreation. Such laws and rules both reflected and perpetuated customs and behavior: from these substantial fibers the oppressive fabric of Jim Crow was woven.

v   v   v

Elsewhere in our July newsletter, my colleague Brian Irby contributes an excellent article on the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project “Ex-slave interviews,” a vital source for anyone seeking to understand the lives of enslaved African Americans in the years before emancipation. Survivors of the old plantation system (Katie Rowe was one) were interviewed in the deep autumn of their days; their reminiscences provided powerful testimony about lives enslaved. These narratives may be accessed through several books and articles drawn from them or consulted in their original form in the collections of the Arkansas State Archives. Dip into them and get acquainted with lives that mattered then--and still do.

v   v   v

During our weeks of Covid-related closure, many of you have probably visited the Archives’ website. If you have done so in the last few days, you have certainly noticed a few changes. Beginning on June 24, a new website made its debut: It features a clean, accessible design, more intuitive navigation and links to a new digital collections platform that is itself more easily navigated than its predecessor. The new website is in fact an interim design which we expect will be replaced by a long-term version within a few months, but we are taking advantage of this opportunity to work out how best to present the Archives in its virtual form.

We are particularly excited about our new iteration of the Arkansas Digital Archives, which will include ASA digitized collections, finding aids, indexes and materials for educators including lesson plans and associated source material collections. We’re happy with it now, but like any website, it is a work in progress. We plan to fine tune it over the next few weeks and would like your help. Please, visit it, browse around, and let us know what you like, and what you think can be improved. Thanks!

Recounting Freedom: Writers' Project Records the Stories of Freedmen

This shows a hand-written transcript of a narrative
from an enslaved person in about 1937.
By Brian Irby

At the height of the Great Depression a group of writers and artists, paid by the federal government through the Works Progress Administration, fanned out across the country in search of the few remaining African Americans who had been born into slavery. By this time, many of those freed men and women were elderly. It was important to record their memories as quickly as possible in order to save them for future generations. Their priceless testimonies can be found at the Arkansas State Archives.

Prior to 1916, there had been little effort to record the stories of African Americans who had been born into slavery. In 1916, historian Carter G. Woodson, founder and publisher of The Journal of Negro History, urged his fellow historians to explore the stories of formerly enslaved people. In 1929, Charles S. Johnson of Fisk University and John B. Cade at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, began the process of interviewing formerly enslaved people throughout the country. The scope of their work remained relatively small due to low budgets and meager staff to conduct the field interviews.

As the nation sank further into the Depression, the Federal Writers’ Project (which employed writers and artists otherwise left out of public works programs) undertook an ambitious project: interviewing formerly enslaved people.  This federal relief program would provide support for an ambitious plan of traveling across the nation to record voices and stories that had been long ignored. Beginning in 1936, writers visited every southern state except Louisiana, recording the memories of the formerly enslaved. Arkansas produced more narratives than any other state.

Many of these narratives recount the horrors of slavery. They also provide a glimpse of what it might have felt like to be told that one was free. The narratives people who were enslaved are full of rich descriptions of the moment when slavery officially ended.

Charles Green Dortch was born into slavery in Princeton, Arkansas, in Dallas County. He recalled that in 1865, “there came up a rumor all at once that the Negroes were free.”  He told the interviewer that the Union soldiers that came through Dallas County told all of the slave owners they were taking all of the freed slaves to Little Rock and “[I]t wasn’t no time afterwards before here come the teams and the wagons to take us to Little Rock.”  For some, they remembered the day freedom came as full of celebration. Ellen Brass remembered, “They had us all out in the yard dancing and playing.” 

Sometimes the stories were more dramatic. Annie Grieg of Madison County told a surprising story. She explained that on the day of her emancipation, she had not gotten the news. As a result, she was going about her usual routine of washing the masters’ clothes. Unaware she had been freed, she was preparing to cook for her master’s family, when the master’s wife came into the room to scold her for not starting cooking already. The master’s wife was holding freshly plucked switches with which she planned to use to beat Greig.

Grieg had left chickens in a pot full of boiling water. Grieg picked up the pan to move it, but the master’s wife misinterpreted her actions as a threat. She immediately called upon her husband to return to the house to punish Grieg. However, when her husband heard his wife’s story, he declared, “Mary Agnes, she is free as you are or I am. I’m not going to ever hurt her again, and you better not.”  Grieg concluded her story remarking, “That is the first I ever heard about freedom.”

Some narratives tell of the beginning of the Freedmen’s Bureau, a governmental agency set up to ensure newly freed enslaved people were treated fairly in their employment and to help protect their rights. Elijah Hopkins, being interviewed in Little Rock, told the story of Freedmen’s Bureau agents visiting farms around Arkansas. When an agent approached a farm where African Americans were working, he would ask the laborers, “How are you working?  You are free. What are you getting [in wages]?”  If the agent learned the workers were not being paid, he would bring the case to court.

All these stories can be found in the raw transcripts from the WPA Writers’ Project preserved at the Arkansas State Archives. Additionally, in 2003, Dr. George Lankford published a book of compiled narratives of formerly enslaved people in Arkansas. “Bearing Witness: Memories of Arkansas Slavery: Narratives from the 1930s WPA Collections” is an invaluable collection of some of Arkansas’s African American history.

For more information on Arkansas history, contact the Arkansas State Archives at 501-682-6900 or via email. The Arkansas State Archives is open to the public in a limited capacity and by reservation. Some research services are available by calling the Arkansas State Archives or by visiting

Dedicated Researcher Uses NEARA Records

Jeanette Darris of Black Rock is using NEARA
tools to identify unmarked graves. 
By Fatme Myuhtar-May

At least 50 graves in the Oak Forest Cemetery in Lawrence County, including a section of the cemetery dating back to the Civil War, have no headstones. Jeanette Darris of Black Rock has spent years trying to unravel the cemetery's mysteries.

Darris, 68, has visited the Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives at least three times per week for years. She has scoured through newspapers on microfilm, court records, school census records and, an online genealogical database, to search for information about all those buried in the cemetery.

The cemetery, which still accepts burials, is among the county’s largest and has more than 2,000 graves. The land for the cemetery was donated in 1861 by Dr. J.W. Coffman, who was a noted local physician and landowner. The oldest known grave belongs to the “infant son” of George and Virginia McGhehey, a baby who died in 1861.

Many of the graves, especially the earliest ones, have no headstones and the cemetery books contain only basic information, sometimes missing full names and/or dates of birth. A section of the cemetery contains mysterious unmarked graves that date back to the Civil War and possibly are those of soldiers. Darris discovered this information about the unmarked graves from former cemetery caretaker Richard Spades, who talked with her before his death. There are, however, no records in the cemetery’s books about who might be buried in those graves.

Darris has a personal connection to the cemetery. All her family is buried there: parents, siblings, husband and son, some of whom have died during the last 10 years. Now, Darris is on a personal mission: to supply the 50 to 75 unmarked graves with simple markers that include names and, where known, dates of birth and death. She has enlisted the help of her son-in-law, a skilled craftsman, to create markers out of molded concrete. Darris accepts small donations to purchase concrete to use for the markers. For more information, she can be contacted at

At the same time, Darris is compiling a genealogical cemetery book in which she includes all the information she has discovered through sifting cemetery records, newspaper obituaries, census data, accounts by surviving family members and information from Darris’s book will reproduce any available photographs of those buried in the cemetery and photos of headstones, which she has taken herself, and will include include available personal information about the deceased, such as name, dates of birth and death, parents’ names and children’s names. Most of the information comes from resources available at NEARA.

She wants the book to be ready and available during the annual Foothills Festival, which is held on the first Saturday of November in Black Rock. Darris plans to present her research during the event, exhibited alongside her craftwork that includes clay-pot dolls, candle holders, painted pots and holiday ornaments.

Darris is NEARA’s most faithful patron and continues to use resources and collections available at the branch of the Arkansas State Archives. She is also a member of the Black Rock Cemetery Committee and has gleaned intimate knowledge of the cemetery’s history and many of the people buried there. As a member of the Lawrence County Historical Society (LCHS), she also deeply cares about local history and the people who have lived in the community at large.

For more information on collections at the Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives, contact Archival Manager Fatme Myuhtar-May at or at 870-878-6521. NEARA is currently open Monday through Friday on an appointment-only basis.

Freedmen's Bureau Records Offer Clues to Family Research

Freedmen's Bureau record, 1868. Image courtesy
of Arkansas State Archives.
One of the most commonly overlooked records in family research, especially for African American genealogy, is the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust records. These documents contain more than 480,000 names, making them the largest single collection of lineage information for African Americans.

Commonly referred to as the Freedmen’s Savings Bank, it was established by the United States government in 1865. Its purpose was to serve Black veterans and former enslaved individuals and their families, by ensuring they had a secure place to build their savings. Later, social groups, churches, charities and other private organizations opened accounts with the bank, establishing bonds of trust between the African American community and the institution.  Its headquarters was first established in New York and later was moved to Washington, D.C. Eventually, 37 branch offices opened across 17 states, serving 70,000 clients who over the institution’s lifetime deposited $57 million.

The Freedmen’s Savings Bank only lasted until 1874. Bad investments, rapid expansion of branches and construction of a handsome new headquarters building in Washington, D.C., put an enormous strain on the bank, but the financial Panic of 1873 proved to be the final nail in the coffin. The panic, an outcome of successive economic expansion and contractions, caused a financial crisis in North America and Europe that lasted from 1872 to 1877. The Freedmen’s Bank, which had overextended itself by making real estate loans, collapsed and closed its doors in June 1874. Since the United States government controlled the Freedman’s Savings Bank, Congress established a program to reimburse depositors, up to 62 percent of their savings. Many never received the compensation, because the government simply could not provide it: The economy had failed.

Records from 29 of the bank’s 37 branches survive. These records contain papers that each patron was required complete when opening an account. The information requested, as well as the degree of the forms’ completion, varies between branches and year. The information might include the depositor’s name, date of deposit, current employer, the name of the plantation the depositor lived on before emancipation, age, height, complexion, parents’ names , military unit (if the depositor served in the Civil War), marital status, place of birth, current residence and occupation, as well as the names of children or siblings. 

Guardian Bond for Thomas Bassett, 1835. Image
courtesy of SARA.
This information can help guide pre-Civil War record searches for African Americans in local deed records, slave schedules probate and will records.  The Freedmen’s Bank records have in many cases been the only documents in which the names of individuals’ parents or siblings have been recorded in connection to that individual; this information can assist in confirming or expanding upon data collected from other record sets. These may include Federal military pension records, fertile sources for information on individuals who served in Federal units during the Civil War. The files contain personal accounts of service, affidavits from individuals who may have served with the pension applicant, family history information and medical details. These pension files, some of which are over 100 pages long, are located at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The microfilm version of the pension records index is 544 rolls long, which gives an idea of the volume of records available.

You can access the Freedmen’s Savings Bank records, however, by visiting the Arkansas State Archives. Records for the Little Rock (MG02259) and Memphis (MG02260) branches are available on microfilm in our research room. You can look at the entire collection on of Freedmen’s Bureau material at, available for use in our research room. also offers a limited number of images.

Accessions for June

Army-Navy Hospital architectural drawing,
1883. Image courtesy of the Arkansas State
Our recent accessions include materials transferred from the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion, architectural drawings from the former Army & Navy Hospital in Hot Springs, the Alternative Dispute Resolution Commission’s catalog and more. The Arkansas State Archives preserves two centuries of Arkansas history and more, ready for you to explore. Visit our digital collections or consult our research services at  

Archival Collections
The Arkansas Governor’s Mansion collection includes news clippings, programs for various events, photographs, a questionnaire of other governor’s mansions across the country compiled by Hillary Clinton in the 1980s and various other materials that have been transferred from the Governor’s Mansion.

The Army-Navy Hospital (Hot Springs, Arkansas) architectural drawing collection includes drawings, floor plans and blueprints of the Army-Navy Hospital main building and other buildings on the grounds. The present main building dates from the early 1930s and was built to replace an earlier facility built in 1883.  Most recently, the hospital complex has been operated by the State of Arkansas as a rehabilitation and work skills training center.  The collection was transferred from the Arkansas Career Development Center, an agency of the Division of Workforce Services.

The final report for "Death By Design: The Secret Holocaust of Wrightsville, Arkansas,” a stage production, for the Curtis H. Sykes Memorial Grant, 2020, was completed and submitted by the Meridian (MS) High School Department of Theatre.

The final report for “A Centennial Commemoration: Historical Contributions of African American Psychologists,” supported by the Curtis H. Sykes Memorial Grant, 2020, was completed and submitted by the Arkansas Association of Black Psychology Professionals.

Continuing Mediation Education, Continuing Legal Education and Training Programs Catalog, 2020, was transferred from the Alternative Dispute Resolution Commission.

The Joan Carruthers genealogical collection, containing information on the Logan family of Pope County, Arkansas, who settled in Arkansas around 1815, was donated by Joan Carruthers of Glendale, California.

Printed Materials
Tracing My Bolding Family to Bolding, Arkansas, by Robert B. Nelson, 2020

Early Arkansas Radio

Daily Arkansas Gazette, March 6, 1922. Photo is
courtesy of the Arkansas State Archives.
By Brian Irby

Radio is such a commonplace in the lives of many Arkansans that it is difficult to consider that there was a time, barely 100 years ago, when there were no radio stations to provide listeners with the latest news and musical hits. Radio in Arkansas began as a practical way for a company to communicate with employees across the state. It soon developed into a means to inform and entertain the masses.

The story begins with Harvey Couch, the founder of the Arkansas Light and Power, later called Arkansas Power and Light (AP&L). One evening as he sat in his living room with his family enjoying a concert broadcast from KDKA, a radio station from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he heard several advertisements and messages from Pittsburg businesses at the end of the concert and got an idea. If he established a radio station in his hometown of Pine Bluff, he could use it as a means of communication for all the AL&P plants throughout the state and broadcast news and entertainment.

As of early 1922, other than a small number of broadcasts by amateur radio enthusiasts, no commercial radio stations were located in Arkansas, so most Arkansans who owned a radio tried to listen to stations like KDKA, broadcasting from hundreds of miles away. Coy Cantrell in Lead Hill, Arkansas, found a plethora of radio stations from across the country to listen to on his newly built radio receiver. On Sunday nights, he listened to sermons broadcast from KDKA. When he was interested in listening to the news or market reports, he tuned in to a station airing from Chicago.

Couch set out to give Arkansans their own radio station and to connect AL&P employees across the state. He purchased radio sets for all the plants and then built a broadcasting station in Pine Bluff next to the company headquarters. Couch hired Dr. Lee De Forest, who had been instrumental in the creation of Pittsburg’s KDKA and other early commercial radio stations, to build the station’s transmitter.

Couch then appointed Ralph Pittman to oversee the electrical aspects of the station. Pittman erected two 100-foot poles to serve as the station’s antennas and installed the rest of the equipment on the ground floor of the AL&P office.

After the technical aspects were in place for the station, Couch obtained a broadcasting license from the United States Department of Commerce. He appointed J.C. Longino, vice president of AL&P, to choose the call numbers for the new station. Longino chose WOK as the call letters, saying that WOK stood for “Workers of Kilowatts.”

On the eve of the first broadcast, W.D. Hearn of the Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce remarked, “As this is the only big broadcasting station in the state, Pine Bluff will derive great advertising. It will be very helpful in our work of building a bigger Pine Bluff, as we can tell the country over our own wireless of Pine Bluff’s advantage and events.”

For the first broadcasts, Couch arranged for evening concerts from Pine Bluff’s Kueck’s Orchestra. He also arranged for the Pine Bluff Commercial and Pine Bluff Graphic to take turns reading five-minute snippets of news reports.

After the first broadcast, it became clear that it was not just Arkansas residents who were listening to the new station. C.L. Gerard of Columbus, Nebraska, wrote to WOK, “You come in better and stronger than 9XAB [another radio station] in Kansas City or KYW of Chicago.”

Listeners in Texas also wrote in to praise the broadcast quality. Roy Estes, who was a veteran being treated at a tuberculosis sanitarium in San Angelo, Texas, wrote, “Your radio programs are being greatly enjoyed by myself and other tubercular ex-service men on this sanitarium.”

Listeners in Cairo, Illinois, wrote urging the broadcaster in Pine Bluff to report on the river stages in the Cairo area, “[We are] only about 20 miles from the river, and we are very much interested in the stage at Cairo.”

One of the things that aided the rapid spread of radio was that hobbyists could get radio building plans by mail order. Soon, people across the country were building their own radios based on mail order plans. This widened the audience for WOK and other radio stations that began popping up around the country.

In November 1922, the station broadcast the first play-by-play of a football game over the radio. During the game, the radio announcer stood on the field and described the game as he saw it close-up. The first game was between Pine Bluff and Prescott. The broadcast was considered so successful that WOK decided to broadcast play-by-play for the remaining games in Pine Bluff’s season. The station reported baseball scores and other sports to its listeners as well, which meant baseball fans could get instantaneous results instead of having to wait until the next day.

Despite the popularity of sports, the mainstay for the radio station remained its broadcast concerts. These allowed local talent to gain exposure throughout the country. One fan wrote from Fredericktown, Missouri, to remark, “Some friends here who formerly lived in Pine Bluff are very anxious to hear the Pine Bluff talent in these concerts.”

Another novelty was broadcasting church services over the airwaves. On April 23, 1922, WOK transmitted a service from Pine Bluff First Baptist Church using microphones that WOK engineers installed in the church sanctuary.

Despite the popularity of the broadcasts, both the equipment and power required were expensive. In 1923, Couch announced that the station would close for the summer and reopen in the fall, but fall came and went without any new broadcasts. The stockholders of the AL&P decided that operating the radio station was a money drain – it did not seem to bring in any of the national attention or revenue to Arkansas that Couch had promised. By 1924 it was clear that the power company had no plans to reopen the station, and WOK became history. Other radio stations, inspired by WOK’s formula of news and entertainment, quickly filled the gap left by WOK’s absence. Soon a new media industry was born in Arkansas.

Although short lived, Pine Bluff’s WOK was a pioneering radio station that was listened to across the state and much of the country. WOK helped develop radio in Arkansas by inspiring the founding of other stations, creating their own programming. WOK may have had a short operating life, but it laid the foundations for the modern radio that Arkansans enjoy today.

For more information on Arkansas history, contact the Arkansas State Archives at 501-682-6900 or via  email. The Arkansas State Archives is open to the public in a limited capacity and by reservation. Some research services are available by calling the Arkansas State Archives or by visiting