Arkansas lost one of its most important civic leaders last month when David Solomon died in Helena at age 100. He was among the last of the Delta Jews.
The first Jews arrived in that booming Mississippi River town in the 1840s. A Torah was borrowed from a congregation at Cincinnati in 1846 to use for the high holidays. In 1867, 65 people formed Congregation Beth El. Now, 150 years later, the era of Jews living and thriving in the lower Mississippi River Delta nears its conclusion.
Solomon’s grandfather had arrived from Germany shortly before the Civil War and had eight children — six boys and two girls. Members of the second and third generations would later own farms, a wholesale dry goods operation, a department store and a shoe store.
David Solomon began the first grade at a Catholic school known as Sacred Heart, which was operated by the Sisters of Nazareth. The nuns quickly advanced him from the first grade to the fourth grade due to his intelligence. Solomon liked to joke that his mother finally pulled him out of the Catholic school when he kept coming home with crucifixes and tiny vials of holy water.
Solomon received his bachelor’s degree from Washington University at St. Louis and his law degree from Harvard. He applied to be a tax lawyer at a large firm in Memphis. When he wasn’t chosen, he came home to Helena to practice law.
His wife, Miriam, was the daughter of Charles Rayman, who operated Helena Wholesale Co. The couple had been married 69 years at the time of Miriam’s death in 2011.
During the first half of the 20th century, the Delta was perhaps the greatest American melting pot outside a major city. There are few towns in Arkansas with as colorful a past as Helena. A historic marker was even placed there by the Mississippi Blues Commission to commemorate this Arkansas city’s place in the history of the blues. The marker reads in part: “Helena was home to a flourishing blues scene that inspired Sonny Boy Williamson and other legendary musicians from Mississippi, including Robert Johnson, Pinetop Perkins, Houston Stackhouse, James “Peck” Curtis and Honeyboy Edwards, to take up residence here in the 1930s and 1940s. They and many others performed at a famous juke joint called the Hole in the Wall. Williamson’s rise to fame began in Helena as the star of KFFA radio’s ‘King Biscuit Time.’ Sonny Boy Williamson was born and laid to rest in Mississippi, and lived in Chicago, East St. Louis, Milwaukee, Detroit and numerous other locales. But Helena was the town he came to regard as home.”
The Arkansas Delta is like many parts of rural America, a place that in some ways never made the transition from the agricultural to the industrial age, much less the technological era. Sharecroppers moved from the cotton fields of the South to the steel mills and automobile factories of the Upper Midwest. They deserted towns such as Helena for the promise of better jobs in cities such as Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit.
With the loss of thousands of sharecroppers across the region came a loss of business for Jewish merchants and professionals. It’s common during the holidays each December to see visitors in rural east Arkansas whose automobiles sport license plates from Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. They’re the children and grandchildren of those who left the Delta when their services were no longer needed due to the mechanization of agriculture.
David Solomon witnessed that Delta history firsthand. When Temple Beth El closed in 2006 with fewer than 20 members remaining, David and Miriam Solomon began hosting Friday night services at their home. In December 2009, the Jewish news service JTA distributed an article about those services in which Ben Harris wrote: “The plight of Helena’s Jews is mirrored in scores of communities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those who stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood.”
Harris went on to write that Miriam and David Solomon’s “benign resignation” over the impending end of Jewish life in Phillips County derived “at least in part from the success they have had in winding down their affairs and ensuring the continued maintenance of their synagogue and cemetery, which dates back to 1875. Their ritual objects have been donated to other communities, and a trust has been established to ensure the cemetery’s upkeep. And with the synagogue and its glass-domed ceiling turned over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the building will not only be preserved, it will be put to good use.”
David Solomon’s death marked more than the loss of a legendary lawyer. We live in an increasingly urbanized state in which the majority of counties are losing population. The small-town lawyers who are leaders in their communities — often serving in the Arkansas Legislature or on prominent state boards (Solomon, for instance, served on the Arkansas Highway Commission) — are becoming harder to find.
I think back to 1985 when I was living in my hometown of Arkadelphia and received a call from H.W. “Bill” McMillan, who had practiced law there for decades and was among the top civic leaders in south Arkansas. He told me that he didn’t expect to live long, handed me a file and asked me to write his obituary in advance. I still consider his request to be one of the premier honors of my writing career. That’s because McMillan was a giant in my community. Four generations of McMillans practiced law in Arkadelphia, beginning with Bill McMillan’s grandfather, Henry, who started practicing before the Civil War and died in 1910 at age 80.
Like Bill McMillan in Arkadelphia, David Solomon was a giant in Helena. He practiced law from his office on Cherry Street until 2015. He was honored by the Arkansas Bar Foundation for 75 years of active practice.
When I speak to civic clubs in towns across Arkansas, I’m often struck by how much smaller the attendance is than it was two decades ago. At some of these clubs, most members are retired, preferring to talk about the past rather than the future.
Where are the Bill McMillans and the David Solomons of the future, the small-town lawyers who will make a difference in their communities and the state?
I hope they’re still out there.
All three of David and Miriam Solomon’s sons were highly successful.
David P. Solomon went on to become the executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society in New York.
Rayman Solomon was the dean of the Rutgers Law School in Camden, N.J., for 16 years.
Lafe Solomon was an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., and served as the NLRB’s acting general counsel from June 2010 until November 2013.
At the service honoring David Solomon last month at Beth El, Rayman Solomon and longtime Little Rock attorney John P. Gill spoke.
Here are their remarks:
John P. Gill
It is a privilege and a great honor to stand in this place, which to me is still sacred. To stand under the Star of David in the glass dome above is a thrilling experience. Look up at that star that was so much a part of the lives of Miriam and David Solomon.
I arise to say that the legacy of David Solomon is alive. There is no death to greatness. As the rabbi said, a good name lives forever.
In the “Twelfth Night,” Shakespeare wrote: “Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness.” David achieved greatness by living a life suggested in an old Methodist hymn that says “no one can serve God and despise another.” I’m not sure David paid much attention to Methodist singing, but his life followed that principle.
Except for those who attended Vanderbilt and Rutgers, many people will say that Harvard is the finest law school in America. It has produced justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. It has produced White House counsel. It has produced great lawyers on Wall Street. And it has produced a brilliant and dedicated lawyer on Cherry Street. David Solomon brought Harvard Law to Cherry Street.
When Helena called for courage, Helena turned to Mr. Solomon. When Helena called for compassion in action, Helena turned to Mr. Solomon. When Helena called for trust, Helena turned to Mr. Solomon.
It is not a play on words to say that it was the wisdom of Solomon that made him so special. And not just in Helena. People beg the governor of Arkansas to sit on the Arkansas Highway Commission, and the governor of Arkansas begged David to serve on the commission. David never asked for that job. When the largest bank in the state almost went under, David was asked to go to Little Rock and help revive it. But David was dedicated to this community and always came back to Cherry Street, where he brought Harvard Law to businesses and the needy alike. With all of his accolades and honors, it was his legal work for clients who were too poor to pay him that impressed me the most. No one knows how many chickens and sacks of okra he took for fees.
Today’s lawyers take an oath before the Arkansas Supreme Court that was written long before David began to practice law on Cherry Street 75 years ago. But the oath sounds as though it was modeled after the life of David Solomon. Part of the oath says: “I will not reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the impoverished, the defenseless or the oppressed. I will endeavor always to advance the cause of justice and to defend and to keep inviolate the rights of all persons whose trust is conferred upon me as an attorney at law.”
Last Sunday at an African-American church in this community, it was announced that Mr. Solomon had died. One by one, they stood and said, “He helped me.”
Until the very last days of his practice — indeed on the day his office closed — there were client files for the impoverished, the defenseless and the oppressed. Those files were, and are today, a silent sentinel to the greatness of David Solomon.
“Is Lawyer Solomon there?”
This was the question asked David, Lafe or me when we answered the phone at home during our childhood. The caller was a client or a client’s relative, and they were in distress and needed help. It didn’t matter whether it was dinnertime or bedtime, my father was always ready to counsel them. In thinking about how to describe my father’s life today, I could come up with no better description than his clients: Lawyer Solomon. I believe it captures his essential being and what he valued most.
My father was a lawyer’s lawyer who loved his profession. His love of the law began at Harvard Law School following his graduation from Washington University at St. Louis. He was a brilliant student who had finished high school at 16. He flourished at Harvard and enjoyed both the educational and social life in Boston. He returned home to practice in Helena in 1939. In an office on Cherry Street, he practiced law for 76 years, which appears to be an Arkansas record. His practice was interrupted only by his service in World War II. As a solo practitioner, he handled every type of case, both civil and criminal.
By any measure, my father had tremendous success as an attorney. One of the state’s top trial lawyers, he was invited to join the American College of Trial Lawyers. He was twice selected to serve as a special justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court when the justices all had to recuse themselves. He served in all offices of the Arkansas Bar Association except for president, and he turned down that honor.
There are many more honors and awards and successes I could mention, but what I would like to emphasize is that he was the embodiment of professionalism. That term has become synonymous with civility among lawyers, which he certainly was throughout his career. However, it means more. Professionalism requires mentoring of young lawyers, which he constantly did. It was his way of paying forward the training he received from the two generations of lawyers in practice when he entered the profession. Professionalism also requires public service and pro bono activities. My father did both of these without hesitation. For years he represented pro bono Helena’s hospital and then the Helena Hospital Foundation, which recognized his service when he retired two years ago by naming the Solomon Auditorium at its headquarters. He also served as a delegate to the 1969-70 Arkansas Constitutional Convention.
My father never sought political office. The only time I can remember overt political activity was when a racist ran for Supreme Court justice and my father led the east Arkansas campaign of his successful opponent. He served for 10 years on the Highway Commission, the last two of which he was the chairman. Anyone who knows Arkansas knows that is a political position, but David Pryor states in his autobiography that my father’s appointment was a political compromise. Gov. Pryor was able to appoint someone no one could object to and avoid a fight between two people who were campaigning for the position. However, he was no stranger to politicians. My mother used to love to tell the story of their invitation to the opening reception of the Holocaust Museum in Washington. At the reception, my mother wasn’t feeling well and after touring the room, my father said, “Let’s go. I don’t know anyone here.” Just as they started to leave, “Ruffles and Flourishes” played, the room divided and my parents were standing where the foreign leaders entered the room. The last person to enter was President Clinton. As he passed them, he said, “Hello, David. Hello, Miriam.” My mother said to my father: “At least if only one person here knows you, it’s the president of the United States.”
Let me turn to my father as a “Solomon.’ He was very proud of his family, and his family was proud of him. Until last Thursday there had been a Solomon living in Helena for almost 170 years, and my father and his sister, Hannah, were the second generation born here. My grandfather, David, was a farmer and merchant who had five brothers and two sisters. They shared in all things and took care of each other. As my Aunt Hannah and their father used to say, my father was “Mrs. Solomon’s only son” and he was, in fact, the only male of his generation. Like his father and uncles, he took care of all of the relatives. He managed the legal and financial affairs of his widowed aunts, his sister and all of his cousins.
In 1942, my father married Miriam Rayman. She had grown up down the street from him. They both attended Washington University, but they did not really date until my father was in the Army and my mother was working as an occupational therapist in Chicago. After his discharge from the service, my father thought about moving to Memphis to practice. But my mother was pregnant with my older brother, David, and all of their parents and the Solomon uncles wanted them back in Helena. So back they came.
My parents had a 69-year partnership in everything except law, but even there my mother was willing to let my father know what she thought he should do. Neither of my parents were conventional grandparents. My mother was the one who was emotionally probing. It was not that my father did not care or did not pay attention. Quite the contrary. He took great pride in all three of our lives and careers, and those of our wives — Nancy, Carol and Cam. And, of course, he loved hearing about the accomplishments of his grandchildren — Catherine, Hannah, Will, Claire and Jess. He welcomed their spouses into the family with open arms. Both of my parents were wonderful storytellers. They instilled in us the importance and the meaning of family through the stories of the Raymans and the Solomons, which they often told.
We are gathered here in this wonderful building with its magnificent dome with a Star of David at its center, which served as Temple Beth El from 1914-2006 when the remaining Helena Jews could no longer afford the upkeep. The Solomon family was one of the original organizers of the congregation in 1867. My father and mother were instrumental in leading the congregation over their adult lifetimes. My father served many years as president of the congregation and warden of the cemetery. As the Jewish community dwindled, my parents’ devotion to that community did not wane. They opened their house for services and organized holiday gatherings. My father was the last remaining lifelong resident of the Helena Jewish community.
My father also was concerned with the well-being of the entire community. He saw the problems of the Delta as the loss of economic opportunity in the area. Whether in his work as a director of First National Bank or in his volunteer service on various commissions and boards, he sought to bring industry and jobs to Helena and the region. One of his favorite stories concerned the time that a tugboat captain, Jim Walden, showed up at his office to inquire about using land on the river that our family owned. Jim asked my father how much the rent would be. My father told him that he should start his business and if it was successful they would talk about rent. In recognition of his assistance for many years, Helena Marine named its new tug the MV David Solomon. To honor my father’s tireless efforts on behalf of Helena, the community gave him an award dinner more than a decade ago. So many people have stopped David, Lafe and me over the past several days to say how much they will miss my father and then describe how he had helped them.
I would like to mention several characteristics of my father. I have noted that he was incredibly smart. But he also had the most disciplined mind I have ever encountered. At the same time that he had a major law practice, he managed a family cotton business, oversaw a family farm and was involved in banking and other civic projects. He had laser-like focus on whatever he had to do and always managed everything flawlessly. Of course, no description of my father would be complete without commenting on his bow ties. He explained that after having to wear long ties in the Army for three years, he vowed never to wear a long tie again. As David and Lafe can attest, among the hundreds of ties in his closet, there isn’t one long tie.
Finally, people have commented on my father’s wit and his not suffering fools. David, Nancy, Carol and I visited with him three weeks ago, and Lafe and Cam had been here a week before that. It was clear that he was slipping away and had good days and bad. The day after we arrived, he told stories and was thoroughly engaged. The next day, he imagined he was in a moving car. When we told him he was safely in his bed, he got agitated and told us to stop the car. I then decided to go with it and told him I was trying but could not do it. He looked up and said, “I’ve raised three idiot sons. They don’t know how to stop a car.” Clearly, he was not that delusional.
Later that day he said something to Carol and Nancy, and Nancy said: “David, you can see things that others can’t.” He replied with a grin, “That has been true all my life.”
David and Nancy, Lafe and Cam, Carol and I and the grandchildren would like to thank a wonderful group of caregivers who have taken care of my father the past two years. Lelia Johnson, Loyce Corbitt, Peggy Henson, Gretchen Ferebee, Jason Odle and Tommy Gause have provided him care, entertainment and love that made his last years so comfortable.
Several years ago, I saw a son introduce his attorney father for an award. The son ended by declaring, “I can only say that if I ever needed a lawyer, I would call my father.” I would echo that but also say that I could not imagine having a more wonderful father
I had the honor of growing up in Helena as part of the Jewish community. Miriam and a David were one of my parents best friends. David was our family attorney forever. When my mother passed away in 2011, Miriam and David hosted us for lunch after the service. I spent many an hour at the Solomon ‘s growing up as Lafe was a close friend. I am so happy the Temple will be used fir generations to come even without Gelena’s Jewish community. Helena is showing signs of life. I am blessed to have been raised there and have friends like the Solomon’s.