George and I cracked stupid, nervous jokes about the likelihood we’d get in bad trouble on our way across the Ozarks in Arkansas. “You won’t be lynched,” George told me. “You have special white-skin immunity.”
“I think it wears off when I’m seen around a black guy,” I said. “Anyway, I might get lynched just for having Yankee license plates.”
We hid our uneasiness by playing up these ignorant Northern stereotypes about Ozark country. Never mind that local folks were cordial. Never mind that the autumn hills were drop-dead gorgeous, rolling through an outdoor-recreation mecca. Ever since I heard that Harrison, our small, isolated destination, had a notorious racial history I wanted to visit and see for myself.
George would later challenge how I dragged him into dubious or even dangerous situations. He was right about my impetuousness. I could always wear my white skin like a calling card while he wore a black one like a target.
That was no joke. Because nearly all of Harrison’s black community was chased out of town during racial turmoil in 1905 and 1909, the town had a terrible reputation in the region. On Halloween, Harrison kids in ghost costumes were accused of wearing Klan sheets. Even for racial reconciliation events, out of town students of color had to be coaxed to visit. Despite assurances and warm welcomes, minority visitors thought they’d need protection to survive their stay.
Inflicting one more gash in the town’s tarnished reputation, a Ku Klux Klan activist rented a Harrison Post Office box. Even though the Klansman lived in another town, he wanted that special Harrison address for his mailings. On our way to meet with town’s racial relations task force, George and I spotted a huge new billboard near our meeting place: Anti-Racism is A Code Word for Anti-White.
Huh? Maybe the weak motel coffee couldn’t wake our brains, but after a glance George and I didn’t really get the message. Then it dawned on us the billboard was accusing racial harmony advocates of attacking white people. Weird in a virtually all-white town.
In fact, the billboard had just recently attracted more unwanted attention to Harrison. Wikipedia had already posted that with the town’s “negative image…racial attitudes remain in question, as attested by a recent billboard sign on the eastern edge of town.” News media from as far away as Europe poised to pounce on Harrison’s need for “attitude” adjustment. The UK’s Guardian was already devoting ink to the town’s agony.
In town for only a day, I didn’t know what the hell to think. We arrived at our morning meeting with the task force unable to guess what would greet us behind the door—defensiveness, bitterness, suspiciousness of our motives for visiting? George looked grim. I figured he was loaded for bear.
But he would soon be disarmed, and so would I.
Free of fake history, but decked out in early 19th Century native Indian costumes, Travis and Jennifer spoke with straight-ahead 21st Century bluntness. In the hallway of Oklahoma’s only antebellum plantation, we had a hurried, intense conversation before a troop of giddy schoolkids arrived on a field trip. I was glad the kids would have these two student interns as guides.
When asked about Southern identity, Travis told us he was Cherokee first, Oklahoman second, and “not really much Southern at all.” From the eastern border with Arkansas, he seemed surprised that anybody would assume otherwise. His fellow docent at the Murrell Plantation, Jennifer, felt Choctaw first, but strongly Southern, too. She’d grown up close to Texas in far south Oklahoma and felt the pull of the heritage.
George and I met them in the rural, 1840’s mansion set in the rolling green pasture and woodland south of Tahlequah. Rumored to be haunted, it sure felt Southern, oozing gracious living with spacious interiors, period furnishings, and rough shacks just outside. This excellent restoration of Oklahoma’s only remaining antebellum plantation told the tale of rich European-American fortunes wed to Indian tragedy, just after the Trail of Tears exiled Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws and other tribes from Carolina and Tennessee. The plantation filled us with questions about the ownership of slaves and their role in the family’s success; Murrell himself had ties to the Confederacy.
Travis and Jennifer both felt their history educations steered them away from such Oklahoma atrocities as the 1921 Tulsa riots (not mentioned at all in their schooling). In their texts, the Trail of Tears “got a paragraph” Travis said, squeezing his thumb and forefinger. We talked about the pressure not to discuss painful episodes from history. The two young Indians felt their elders did not want to disturb the current peace under those old storm clouds.
The wood shacks turned out be early settler cabins moved to the grounds. When George and I walked a short distance into a natural area, a local man warned us about nearby “wild dogs.”
We learned about European-American wild dogs at the nearby Cherokee Heritage Museum. Exhibits told the Trail of Tears narrative, complete with 1830’s documents and re-created sound effects of the terrible conditions, the whiplash of cruelty. Not only did the whites steal the lands of the Southeastern tribes, but a staggering number of Indians died on the long forced march into Oklahoma.
This history is tough to face, but the museum presents it with dramatic clarity and elegance. A grace note is that upon leaving the Trail of Tears rooms, the exit takes the visitor through a gallery of native success stories in contemporary Oklahoma.
We had to hit the road, still freaked out by the cruelty of the Trail of Tears narrative. We were bound for a place that wasn’t necessarily going to make us feel any better: a town in Arkansas bedeviled by a rogue Klansman and notorious for having expelled its entire African-American population.
George, who is black, was not necessarily happy about my plan to stay there after sundown.