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Heading toward Earle

Updated: Jan 10


Levees and drainage districts have played a major role in the development of Crittenden County, where we’re beginning our trip across the state on U.S. Highway 64.

“An act of Congress in 1850 created the first organized efforts toward levee construction as well as the donation of about 8.6 million acres of swampland to Arkansas to be sold to make levee and drainage systems possible,” says well-known Arkansas writer Grif Stockley. “By 1852, a three-foot levee had been developed along the Mississippi River for most of the county’s border. It wasn’t until 1893, however, that major flood-control efforts resulted in the Arkansas Legislature’s creation of the St. Francis Levee District. Bonds were issued, and a levee had been constructed almost from the Missouri state line to Crittenden County in 1897 when spring floods turned the county into what one writer called ‘a perfect Venice.’

“Though there have been no Mississippi River levee breaks since 1927, the floods of 1927 and 1937 rendered hundreds of families in Crittenden County homeless because of backwaters from the St. Francis River. Because natural drains were blocked by the levee, Crittenden County landowners have been forced to rely on the creation of drainage districts. … Completion of the ditches eliminating swamps and brakes have allowed thousands of acres to be used for agricultural purposes.”

Before heading west on U.S. Highway 64, I visit the 1911 Crittenden County Courthouse at Marion.

According to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program: “The present-day courthouse is one of three structures that have been built in Marion to serve as the county’s seat of government. The original courthouse at Marion was a frame building, which was destroyed by a tornado several years after it was built. For many years afterward, court was held in various places, including churches and vacant storehouses. In 1873, a two-story brick courthouse was erected in the same location as the frame building at a cost of more than $100,000. The brick courthouse was destroyed by fire in 1909.

“The current courthouse at 85 Jackson St. is on the site of the previous two buildings. The structure was designed by Chamberlain & Co. of Fort Worth and was built by Falls City Construction Co. of Louisville. The cost to build the courthouse and jail was more than $100,000. … The interior of the courthouse was extensively remodeled in 1945 and 1955, resulting in lowered ceilings, paneled walls, carpeted floors and a remodeled courtroom. The original tile floor in the front entrance hall and the exterior of the building remained unaltered.”

Like most of the Arkansas Delta, Crittenden County has a troubled history of race relations.

“With a county electorate after the Civil War that was 67 percent African-American — because many supporters of the Confederacy had been declared ineligible to vote in 1867 as a result of the Reconstruction Acts — racial difficulties … became the rule rather than the exception,” Stockley writes. “As a terrorist organization that refused to accept the new Republican order, the Ku Klux Klan was extremely active in Crittenden County.

“Throughout parts of Arkansas, the Klan intimidated, threatened and murdered African-Americans as well as whites who supported the Republican Party. The response of the Republican governor, Powell Clayton, was to declare martial law in 14 counties, including Crittenden County. To implement his decision, Clayton prevailed upon the Arkansas Legislature to create a state militia that included African-Americans. A number of fierce skirmishes ensued. Only the intervention of William Monks, who commanded 600 troops from Missouri, saved a detachment of black militiamen from being slaughtered at the county courthouse in Marion.”

Reconstruction in Arkansas had ended by 1874, and Democrats were back in power.

“With its heavily black population now empowered with the right to vote for adult males, the eastern part of the state presented a major problem for powerful whites trying to keep black workers satisfied enough to stay in Arkansas and provide the essential labor force that kept the plantation system going,” Stockley writes. “The political solution in most of these counties, including Crittenden, was known as fusion. White and black residents agreed in advance each election cycle upon a division of county offices and representation in the Legislature. Though whites invariably retained most of the important offices, fusion worked for a while.

“By 1888, African-Americans occupied the following major offices in Crittenden County: county judge, county clerk, county assessor and a representative in the Legislature. Margaret Woolfolk (the author of the 1993 book “A History of Crittenden County”) writes that a group ‘of about 80 whites assembled at Marion about 10 a.m. July 13, 1888, and marched to the courthouse where county clerk David Ferguson was forced to resign at the muzzle of a Winchester rifle. … Other blacks were taken by wagon to the Mississippi River, then by boat to Memphis and released.’ Despite the fact that Crittenden County was overwhelmingly black in 1888, no African-Americans were elected to county office for the next 100 years.”

It’s documented that six black men were lynched in Crittenden County from 1900-36.

“It may well have been more,” Stockley writes. “With the Great Depression, Crittenden County exhibited some of the worst abuses perpetrated in the name of white supremacy. In 1936, a gang of white riding bosses and planters entered the Providence Methodist Church outside Earle, where 450 black sharecroppers were gathered for a meeting of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union. They began beating the sharecroppers with ax handles and pistol butts. That same year, Paul D. Peacher, a deputy sheriff who had a farming operation on the side, was revealed to be engaging in peonage. ‘Slavery in Arkansas’ was the headline in Time magazine on Dec. 7, 1936.

“Historian Michael Dougan of Jonesboro has written that Crawfordsville spent $57 on white education for every dollar spent on education for African-Americans. According to Woolfolk, Marion ‘never had a school building for the sole purpose of Negroes’ education.’ It wasn’t until 1925 that an elementary school for black children was built outside Marion in the all-black community of Sunset. Though some high school courses were available after 1935, people wanting higher education were forced to go to schools in Memphis, Little Rock, St. Louis and elsewhere. Even the high school courses available at Phelix High School in Sunset weren’t free to black students. Though buses were provided for white students, buses for black students weren’t used until the fall of 1946.”

A school building at Sunset, which is still a largely black community, is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Former slaves continued to live in the area as sharecroppers and tenant farmers after the Civil War.

“Friendship Lodge No. 39, a Masonic association for African-Americans, was organized in 1873,” writes Steve Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “A school for African-American children was built in 1924 with money provided by the Julius Rosenwald Fund. The school served children from Marion and the surrounding area through the eighth grade. High school classes were added in 1937 with families required to pay $8 a year until 1943.

“The original Rosenwald building became the high school when a new elementary school for African-Americans was built next door in 1955. Streets and homes were built around the school, and the community became known as the Sunset subdivision. Only a few businesses developed in Sunset — two cotton gins, a funeral home and some stores and cafes. There was also a lamp-manufacturing firm founded in 1963 by M.L. Pike Jr. The plant burned in 1973. It was rebuilt, but as the company grew, it built a larger plant south of Marion.”

The Rosenwald school building was no longer needed once Crittenden County schools were desegregated in 1970.

“The elementary school continued to be used for classes, serving both white and black children,” Teske writes. “Occasionally, the elementary school used the high school building for special events. The Rosenwald building was designated the Marion Colored High School, but locally it was known as Phelix High School. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places on March 23, 1995.

“The subdivision received city services from Marion, but Sunset incorporated as a town in 1970 and began to seek federal funding to provide water and sewer services. Sewer service became available in 1978. When it incorporated, Sunset had about 450 residents, most of whom were African-American.”

The population was down to 182 by the 2020 census.

Two other communities with interesting histories that are located just north of Sunset are Jericho and Clarkedale.

Like Sunset, most of the residents of Jericho are black these days. The community was settled in the 1840s by a riverboat captain named Stephen Stonewall James and brother John James. They built a cotton gin and sawmill. They then named the community after a city in the Bible.

Railroad construction picked up in Crittenden County in the 1880s.

“The Frisco line ran through Jericho, where another line connected with the Frisco to carry logs from the diminishing forests,” Teske writes. “A post office was established at Jericho in 1886. A boardwalk east of the Frisco tracks led to Jericho’s main business establishment, a saloon with a gaming hall. Other stores were also built near the railroad.”

Jericho’s white population began to decline in the early 1900s.

“In 1910, a black man, Steve Green, fled the state after killing his white employer near Jericho,” Teske writes. “He claimed self-defense. Green was later arrested in Chicago, but activists and lawyers successfully prevented his return to Arkansas due to fears of mob violence.

“A Church of God in Christ was formed in 1916. It disbanded after a few years and then was reorganized in 1924. In the 1920s, Jericho was home to the East Arkansas Baptist Association Academy, one of the largest African-American schools in the area. In some years, more than 100 students were enrolled at the academy, many of whom boarded with local families.”

Jericho was incorporated as a town in 1986, and a renovated cotton gin was converted into the city hall. Clarkedale, meanwhile, wasn’t incorporated until 2001 even though it’s one of the oldest settlements in the county. Crittenden County’s first county seat of Greenock was within the current boundaries of Clarkedale.

After the railroad came through in the early 1880s, Cleveland B. Clarke opened a store and was named postmaster.

“At first, the post office and settlement were called Clarkton,” Teske writes. “Clarke had come to Arkansas from Peoria, Ill., where he had become wealthy manufacturing and selling rye whiskey. He established a plantation in a largely wooded area near the railroad and maintained a summer home there. A Missionary Baptist church was established in 1884.

“The name of the post office was changed from Clarkton to Clarkedale in 1910. A second plantation was established nearby by Henry Banks and William Danner, residents of Mississippi. They had a large number of tenant farmers, mostly African-Americans, who used more than 200 mules to cultivate the land.”

Clarke’s store was destroyed by a tornado in 1921 but rebuilt.

I finally head west out of Marion on U.S. 64 and soon find myself in Crawfordsville. The community has fewer than 500 residents, but a number of new homes have been built in recent years by people who work in downtown Memphis.

“Crawfordsville benefits from a slightly higher elevation in comparison to its immediate neighbors, and its history is largely unblemished by the devastation that floods have exacted on nearby communities,” Adam Miller writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The establishment of Crawfordsville began as an outgrowth of the timber industry in east Arkansas during the post-Civil War era. The opening of a railroad line through the community sustained city growth as its economy transitioned from timber to farming during the early 20th century.

“Unlike other communities in Crittenden County that diminished or disappeared once the timber-rich acreage had been cleared, Crawfordsville continued to prosper as an agricultural community after its formal incorporation in 1912. Crawfordsville was named for Adolphus Fountain Crawford, who fought for the Confederacy as a young man and settled in the area to work at the R.C. Wallace & Co. store, which was in Vincent (about two miles southeast of present-day Crawfordsville). Crawford is credited with opening the first store in what’s now Crawfordsville and also served briefly as the city’s first postmaster in 1870.”

The Swepston family was also prominent in the area. John Swepston originally was from Ohio and operated the Ware & Swepston mill on Cypress Bayou. He also operated a gristmill and sawmill on Alligator Bayou. His brother Smiley was a state representative.

“Wilsie Wise Swepston, one of John Swepston’s six children, became a leading area merchant and gin owner, establishing a store in Marion,” Miller writes. “He moved back to Crawfordsville in 1882, where he built a gin and opened another general mercantile business. He was a member of the district school board and served as Crawfordsville postmaster, county assessor, county sheriff and state representative. Beside the Swepstons, other families who migrated to the area are commemorated since almost every street is named for an early resident.

“Timber clearing and sawmill operations dominated local trade following the Civil War. The opening of a rail line through the city in 1888 encouraged timber interests near Crawfordsville to expand. Businesses that once thrived in Crawfordsville included St. John Rod & Pump Sucker Co., who daily loaded out two or three railroad cars of hickory, and the Gilt Edge Cooperage Co., which employed 70 people and produced 50,000 hoops each year. This railroad access facilitated commerce and also brought traveling salesmen.”

There once were four hotels within walking distance of Crawfordsville’s depot. In 1944, a camp for German prisoners of war was established just outside Crawfordsville. Local farmers used the prisoners for labor. The Crawfordsville camp closed in May 1946.

The first school district here was formed in 1869. Crawfordsville High School was built in 1911. It was enlarged in 1935 and burned in 1966. Incremental desegregation began in 1966, and the district was integrated by 1969.

“Following legal action from the U.S. Department of Justice, the district completely integrated, causing outlying wing schools to be closed,” Miller writes. “Students in the area now go to school in Marion or West Memphis.”

Crawfordsville was once the home of one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Arkansas, Uncle John’s. The restaurant on Main Street burned in June 2018 and wasn’t rebuilt.

Uncle John’s was opened in 1984 by John and Lucille Marconi. The couple had seven children. The youngest, Michael, ran the restaurant after his father died.

I get hungry just thinking about it as I leave Crawfordsville and enter Earle, named for Confederate officer and KKK member Josiah Francis Earle.

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