Harrison, Arkansas Part 2
When four members of the town’s racial task force welcomed George and me into the meeting room at the Harrison Chamber of Commerce, we new immediately it was going to be okay. We just didn’t know it was going to be wonderful.
Maybe they’d been armed for bear, too, with snooping Northerners requesting this very meeting—only to bring more torment for their town? But their good humor, the warmth of their welcome and the sincerity of their tone made us all relax.
There might be grim comedy to this, the best hearts and minds in the all-white town trying desperately to reconnect to African Americans and getting nowhere because… well, whites had expelled the blacks over a hundred years before. But it wasn’t funny. Later I read some of the postings on articles about the billboard and felt what the task force was up against. In anonymous comments, citizens sparred with citizens over references to white power. Many posts showed deep confusion about white privilege in our country, an unexamined feeling of betrayal, and that whites were superior, yet under attack:
“If white people had a country of our own, none of this would be happening.
Racist white people lost the Civil War. Get over and stop being a whining b*tch!
Racist? You just call them that because they are white, that makes you anti-white. The greatest racists of our time is in power now, and they intend to use their power to make sure the are no white children in the future.”
On our visit, Harrison’s notorious new billboard was just another giant anonymous posting shouting over the town, the exact author or group sponsor unknown. Ironically, the task force measured its success in the wider community’s reaction to the billboard’s message. Phones lit up from random citizens demanding, “What are we going to do about it?” and in came donations from random folks, with letters objecting to the new billboard. Layne took that as validation of the task force’s place in the town’s consciousness as the go-to people to combat outbreaks of racism that shamed the community, insisting, “that’s the real story of Harrison.”
Of course, many people in Harrison suspected the Klan was behind the billboard. Nate explained that stirring up conflict was “the mating call of white supremacists” and wondered if global white power fanatics might be behind it, hiding racism behind accepted values. Such was the racists’ success at rebranding that a local Latina picked up a Klan flyer at a local event just to be polite.
All four task force members sighed in mutual exasperation. “We had to tell her,” Layne said, “that’s it’s okay to be rude to terrorists.”
Their candor pushed the meeting beyond small-town boosterism. I swear, it was something almost spiritual, which is hard for a non-spiritual, non-religious guy like me to admit. (In fact, for Patty, who was also the Chamber president, racial reconciliation was “almost a calling.”) To me, long-fallen Catholic, their work on the task force to improve racial relations had led them to embrace concepts similar to (gulp) Christian redemption. Not your usual Chamber of Commerce project.
It had been a long project, too, going back ten years, and without advisors or mentors. The task force found its way alone in the dark to overcome Harrison’s reputation. Their approach, after some stumbles, was simply to seek, then share, the light. “It’s just us, trying things out, nothing more,” explained Carolyn, who touched me with her quiet pride in the themes they’d gathered and settled on through the years—“Prepare our Community, Proceed with Civility and Respect, Reach Out in Reconciliation.”
George, ever the community activist, gently challenged the group to explain exactly they’d done to Reach Out. A lot, it turned out—prodding the community to celebrate MLK day, inviting speakers, encouraging links between Harrison students and diverse counterparts out there in the “real world.” But even Love Your Neighbor activities and peace forums didn’t guarantee success. They couldn’t engage the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a brainstorm about connecting black pastors hit a wall because Harrison had no black pastors. “I don’t know what do then,” Carolyn said of her failed outreach, repeating, “It’s just us, trying things out, nothing more.”
After our conversation and a whirlwind tour of Harrison’s town center, George and I found the scenic route to Little Rock, our next stop. Arkansas Highway 7 lived up to its promise as one of the most mind-blowing drives in the state, “if not the world.” As we crested over Ozark ridges exploding into autumn, I felt again the South’s seductive pull. It wasn’t just the scenery, though, but these encounters with Southerners doing their best to make the world a better place. They confronted the wrongs of their history, I thought, with more honesty and positive action than most Northerners.
It would be easy for any writer to play up stereotypes, whether those mired in Southern racism and its real hardships, or those of Southern hospitality and gracious living. That’s all just red meat to throw at Northerners, reassuring us in our smugness that the South is “special,” and “different,” like some brain-damaged stepchild. Even in these blogs I go for the catchy titles and clichéd lures about grits and the Klan. But everywhere in the real South there were people who really were special, moving forward, brave and persistent enough “to try things out, nothing more.”
Nothing more than the best we all can do.
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.