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.

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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.

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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!