Pine Bluff, Arkansas
Pine Bluff has been one of the Arkansas Delta’s most culturally rich areas since its inception in 1829. Serving as a haven for runaway slaves during the late years of the Civil War, the area attracted droves of Black people throughout the Delta and south Arkansas. Brimming with talent and expectations, they and their descendants traveled a road full of extremes. Although they endured what appears to have been the largest mass lynching in US history in 1866, they also attained one of the largest per-capita concentrations of Black wealth in the entire South by 1900. As the hands that labored in the area’s boundless cotton fields and sawmills joined with the hands that held books at the state’s only historically black public college, astonishing accomplishments were churned out in every imaginable field. Naturally, Pine Bluff/Jefferson County’s Delta roots made its blues, jazz, and gospel contributions a source of pride, with native or area-affiliated artists receiving multiple Grammy awards and nominations, as well as other distinctions.
In the late 1800’s, the city claimed the attention of national newsmakers and birthed entrepreneurs who moved around the nation igniting change. For example, O.W. Gurley, the man credited with starting Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, graduated from Branch Normal College in Pine Bluff , which is now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
While called Southern, it is not the Deep South. The northern part of the state, today as in earlier eras, is marked by Midwestern manufacturing, and its west taps into the cowboy mind-set of neighboring Oklahoma and Texas. Most important, it shares the Mississippi Delta — a fertile region familiar to Black farmers but with less racial tension than in the Magnolia State on the east bank of the river. Despite trying to enslave free Blacks on the eve of the Civil War, writes Fon Gordon in Caste and Class: The Black Experience in Arkansas, 1880–1920, “many Blacks in the Deep South came to regard Arkansas as a ‘promised land.’”
The state had plenty of motivation to encourage that image … whether or not it held up to scrutiny. While plantations had never quite taken root here, after the Civil War, planters started developing the Arkansas side of the Delta for cotton and rice production. Scores of labor agents made their way throughout adjacent Southern states, trying to lure farmhands who would toil in the fields. As Gordon recalls in her book, a former South Carolinian remembers his parents moving to Arkansas in 1888 after an agent described the state as “a tropical country of soft and balmy air, where coconuts, oranges, lemons and bananas grew. Ordinary things like corn and cotton, with little cultivation, grew an enormous yield.”
Prominent African-American leaders joined the recruitment effort, convinced that they had at last found a land to call their own. “Arkansas is destined to be the great Negro state of the country,” said Bishop Henry M. Turner of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in January 1889. “The meagre prejudice compared to some states, and opportunity to acquire wealth, all conspire to make it inviting to the colored man.” The Georgia-based leader of the United States’ prominent Black denomination continued, “This is the state for colored men who wish to live by their merits.”
Black Americans began to heed the call. The population of the state tripled from 1870 to 1890. Blacks formed a majority in two towns, Helena and Pine Bluff, where they developed a “small but successful” middle class, Gordon writes. From 1868 to 1893, every state general assembly had at least one Black legislator, helped in part by the Republican Party’s decision to strategically elevate minority voices. Ironically, considering the later desegregation fight in Arkansas, this era saw the creation of the first state public schools and the passage of an 1873 civil-rights law that made it illegal to bar Blacks from public institutions.
In Arkansas, attorneys, dentists and other Black professionals emerged at a time when in some states, such as Florida, doctors still had a whites-only entrance on Main Street and Black patients had to enter in the back. “In Arkansas, at least, one would not have to endure that kind of humiliation and degradation,” Gordon tells OZY. “You went to see a physician, and he had only one waiting room for everybody.”
In time the state’s promise of opportunity proved illusory. If Arkansas had seemed different from its Southern neighbors, it was because the Black population was significantly smaller — a quarter of the population, compared to majorities and near majorities in Mississippi and Louisiana. “The Black demographic was considered less of a threat,” Gordon says. But as the population grew, so did the turmoil. From 1889 to 1918, there were 214 cases of racial violence in Arkansas. Nevertheless, leaders like Bishop Turner continued to call for Black settlement, partly out of wishful thinking. “African-Americans certainly wanted to believe there was some place in the South they could call home,” Gordon notes. “In a system of oppression, they were trying to make the best of a bad situation.”
Pine Bluff has all these entertainers and artists, from gospel, blues, country, film and television who got their start here”, says Jimmy “Catfish” Cunningham. For instance, the man who brought sound to motion pictures, Freeman Harrison Owens came from Pine Bluff. Uncle Billy Anderson invented the traditional film motif that was recreated in every western movie across the decades. Big Bill Broonsy brought blues music to Britain and set the stage in the 1950′s for the English blues explosion of the 60′s. And Chester Hines was the first African-American mystery writer. They all came from right here.”
With growing enthusiasm, he added, “Miles Davis’ grandfather had a farm on Noble Lake in Jefferson County that Davis came to visit every summer. Miles said his earliest musical influence came from the gospel music he heard wafting out of the dirt road country church at Noble Lake. He based his L.P., ‘Kind of Blue,’ which is the most popular selling Jazz record in history, on music inspired by his Jefferson County experience. We are a cultural Mecca that remains largely unknown to the public.”