Harrison, home of the KKK
I grew up in a pretty insular part of the UK, where BAME people were present, but in a minority. I was aware of racism and racial discrimination in a vague, detatched sort of way, but mostly thought of it as something relegated to the past.
And then I moved to America – more specifically, the South. Before I go any further, I want to point out that this is not a blanket condemnation of a geographical area or the people who live there.
I met many wonderful, amazing people that I am proud to know, and there were a lot of kind and generous hearts.
I have also spoken to many friends – white and BAME alike, who are well aware of the history and ongoing problem of racism in their area, and who hate it with a passion and are seeking change.
But on the flip side, I ran into levels of prejudice and hatred that were hard to comprehend still existed.
It is interesting to stop here and note that in six years of living in Northwest Arkansas, I can count on one hand the number of black people I met.
There was a fairly large Hispanic community – a community living, in the more rural areas, pretty separated from the rest of society. The term “Mexicans” was used freely, and it was a known and accepted fact that Hispanic workers, many of whom lived in extreme poverty, took the majority of low-paid jobs with horrendous working conditions – because an employee who knows you can not only sack them, but have them deported to boot, isn’t likely to complain.
The men were known for their work ethic and willingness to take on menial jobs and filled the majority of posts at the local chicken processing plant (infamous for horrendous hours and poor working conditions) and construction crews.
Many white locals looked down – right down – on their Hispanic and Guatemalan neighbours (there was a growing Guatemalan community that lived an even more excluded existence, crossing paths with the whites only in the grocery stores and, in my case, in the local centre providing assistance to families living on the breadline).
It was accepted that if you were middle to upper class and Hispanic, you would be kind of allowed to fit in. But if you were working class? No chance. Poor AND minority ethnic? Stealing our jobs?! And thus the cycle of division continued.
But going back to my previous point – in six years of living between a rural town and a relatively thriving college city, I can look back and count four – four! – black people I knew. Why? If you start probing into the history of the surrounding areas, there is not much to be surprised at.
I remember having a man come into my place of work who, in no uncertain terms, carried a presence of hatred and evil with him. The tattoos on his face and hands referenced a prison gang, and a little research uncovered that he was a member of a white supremacist group rooted in violence and hatred. In all my naivety, I struggled to believe that you could be part of such a group and not be arrested on principle! And then I found out about Harrison.
When I first heard talk about Harrison, Arkansas, it was in context of the many car sales businesses and the pick-your-own orchard favoured by locals.
Then I started to hear rumours of billboards that lined the highway into town, stating in large letters “Blacks, keep on going”. I only drove through Harrison once, and I never personally spotted one of these billboards. But what I do know is that the research I have done since defied belief and opened my eyes to the ugly reality that the very worst forms of racism are still very much alive.
Today, two billboards stand at the entrance to the quiet, rural town with a population of just over 13,000. One proudly proclaims “Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white!”. I’ll leave you to process that one.
The board below it, against the backdrop of a smiling and idyllic family, reads; “Welcome to Harrison! Beautiful town. Beautiful people. No wrong exits. No bad neighbourhoods.”
In April of 1900, the census taken in Harrison shows 1,501 residents, 115 of whom were identified as “African or mixed-race”. Just a decade later, despite the growth of the overall population, there was only one African American individual listed.
When you try to probe into the history of those ten years, there is a chilling silence. Archives of the Harrison newspaper have two gaps – in 1905, and in 1909. Local accounts are reported to converge into uncertainty and confusion, with one sentence being repeated…”they hung a n***** from the bridge”.
It is only through accounts from outside sources, and very few eyewitnesses, that the history has been pieced together. It seems that prior to 1900, Harrison was a peaceful and fairly integrated town, with black and white residents living and working alongside each other in relative ease, although black residents clearly had their own ‘assigned’ neighbourhoods and social circles, with accounts of funds being raised (at events attended by black and white locals alike) to build a “school for black children”.
In the 1880’s, a railway line was constructed to run to the nearby town of Eureka Springs, and the residents of Harrison saw the potential for growth and prosperity with the coming of the railroad. Residents of Harrison contributed huge amounts of money to prepare for the railroad to run through their town, and it’s arrival was hailed with great excitement.
And then on July 1st, 1905, the railroad went bankrupt, leaving a trail of financial deprivation and loss in it’s wake. The railroad had brought in many workers from outside the community, a large number of whom were young black males, and who were now unemployed and homeless.
These were not the quiet, accepted black residents of the Harrison community, but strangers, rough men from a hardworking life, and resentment among the white population quickly grew into a flame.
There are snippets of reports regarding a local white woman giving birth to black twins, of black men being accused of “speaking disrespectfully to white women”.
The tone of the whole South was shifting towards stringent racial divides, and hatred and distrust grew close to home as well as abroad. White violence to suppress and subjugate black communities was gaining favour.
A state-wide movement in 1906 prevented black citizens from voting, and ensured the white monopolisation of politics. Senator Benjamin Tillman gave a speech in the State capitol which ended with these chilling words; “My policy would be to drive all the Negroes to the north. Those people up there have been teaching the negroe [sic] equality and have been breeding all this unrest.”
On the night of September 30th, 1905, a black man was arrested and jailed in Harrison. Two days later, a white mob broke into the jail, seizing ‘Dan’ (the only identity we are given) and his fellow-prisoner, another black man identified as ‘Rabbit’. They were taken out into the country, whipped, and ordered to leave the area.
In the wake of this, white rioters stormed the black neighbourhoods of Harrison. Reports speak of black residents “tied to trees, and whipped…thrown into a 3-4ft deep hole in the creek…their homes burned” and state that all were ordered to leave town. Many fled immediately, and over the next few days almost the entire black community left Harrison.
In the following weeks, black residents were subjected to gang violence, and while official reports list no deaths, rumours suggest otherwise.
The next few years are littered with reports of violence, public punishments, lynchings, and the driving out of black residents from communities across Northwest Arkansas. It would take a book, and not a blog, to cover them all, so in the interests of time we return to the present day.
The race riots of historical Harrison are little talked about now, and have faded into obscurity. And yet, their legacy lives on. Today, I can speak to friends who grew up in towns near Harrison, and they will tell me that it was a known fact that Harrison was “the KKK town”, and a place they avoided.
It is an acknowledged truth that if you are black, you should stay away from Harrison.
And yet, local residents are angry at the inference that something is amiss. One reporter records them as saying “If you just leave it alone, it would go away”. (source: A Tale of Two Billboards, NPR)
Harrison has been described as the “most racist town in America”. And no wonder, when in a small community named Zinc, just outside of town, there lives, today, in a private “compound”, a man named Thomas Robb, who is the National Director of the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK’s own website lists Harrison as it’s national headquarters.
After the riots following the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, individuals from across Arkansas and neighbouring states came together with remarkable bravery and marched in Harrison.
In a protest organised by Bridge the Gap NWA, men and women, black and white alike, met at the Harrison police department and marched through town to stand outside the road to Robb’s compound.
There, they threw barbecues in a statement of solidarity, of community, and of fearlessness, and some local residents opened up enough to engage in discussions about the racism still rampant in this small town. They were watched by men with guns, protecting the road to the compound. (source: The Daily Mail)
Credit must also be given to residents who are standing up and speaking out for equality. Several churches have prominent signs outside their buildings that speak of “loving thy neighbour” and reference diversity.
The Harrison Community Task Force on Race Relations has hung a billboard of their own, with “Love thy Neighbour” in large letters above a simple quote from Martin Luther King Jr; “Hate cannot drive out hat; only love can do that.”.
One can only hope that seeds have been planted that will grow in the minds of local residents previously unexposed to ethnic diversity, accustomed to living in a town where ‘otherness’ is unknown.
Children growing up unexposed to ethnic diversity, and exposed, however overtly or subtly, to racist thinking and attitudes, are likely to grow up tolerating racism and hatred.
It’s easy to look at an account like this and think that things are so much better in the UK. Perhaps we don’t see scenes with the kind of “wild west” shock value that exist in communities like Harrison, Arkansas. But the principles are the same. Generations of inexposure to other cultures or ethnicities can breed distrust, misunderstanding, and division.
Our own South Wales Valleys are wonderful areas in many ways, but they are so very white, and ethinic diversity can still be a confusing or unfamiliar sight for many young people growing up here.
That is why we at AriSEE are working to promote education that gently exposes young people to ethnic diversity, and enables them to gain an understanding of the challenges others may face, in the hope of working towards a more inclusive society, where BAME children will not have to face isolation or prejudice – overt, or systemic.