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Knowing the value of local history

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Heritage sites, important places just around the corner from home

Special to the Times East Arkansas is rich in history and there is an ongoing effort in several communities in this Arkansas Delta region to promote the history and historical locations we have. Crittenden, Cross, Poinsett, St. Francis, Lee and Philips Counties, individually have a rich history, combined they tell the story of a land people mostly wanted to cross to get to Indian country and beyond with a few staying to make Arkansas the Natural state that it is.

Our history is filled with good and terrible events.

Crittenden County has seventeen nationally registered historical places to keep one busy if one is inclined to visit and tour these locations. The counties surrounding Crittenden have many more.

For example, Earle, was once known as The “Pearl of the St. Francis (River) Delta” isn’t what it used to be but it sure has left an indelible imprint on the history and its people.

Once upon a time Earle was the most populated city and the commercial hub of Crittenden County.

Earle has three listings on the National Register of Historic Places. The old Earle High School (with the names of graduates in the sidewalks) now abandoned and falling into ruins; The Missouri Pacific Railroad Depot (currently the Crittenden County Museum) and my personal favorite, the Reverend George Berry Washington, Jr., memorial gravesite located on highway 149 north of Earle. The reverends resting place was immortalized by Earle’s own world famous artist, Carroll Cloar in his painting entitled, “Angel In The Field.”

Not far from these three national treasurers are other important locations, the Gibson-Bayou Church and Cemetery and the old (but renovated and formerly known as the Richards old log cabin) where people used to sit on the front porch and watch steamboats go by on the old Tyronza River (this was prior to the river being diverted). Just a few miles to the west is the old town of Twist. There was a time that this vast farmland was one of the largest farms worked by sharecroppers in America. Twist is also the place that B.B. King ran into a burning building to retrieve his guitar he had left. Why B.B. King named his guitars “Lucille” is worth learning. A few more miles to the east and north is the town of Tyronza.

Tyronza is the home of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (SFTU) museum and what used to be named “Red Square”. This was so named because of the two socialist business owners, Clay East and H.L.

Mitchell who started the SFTU in 1936.

A few more miles to the north is the town of Lepanto and the community of Dyess or what was long ago called Dyess Colony, the boy hood home of Johnny Cash.

I fear that we are living in a culture filled with people who do not truly know the value of history. For some people, their zeal to “right” past wrongs take them down a road which leads to the literal and physical destruction of history.

Many people are quick to destroy the artifacts, monuments and documents of people, places and things that have shaped our society (for good or bad).

One local example of this is in Memphis where some people want to dig up and remove the remains of the confederate General, Nathan Bedford Forrest from his resting place and move him somewhere else – the thinking being out of sight is out of mind.

Apparently, hiding the history is more desirable than learning from history.

But removing and covering up history doesn’t change history it only guarantees the ignorance of history.

History is the record of real people, how they lived, what they did, where they traveled, what they accomplished. History is also the record of failures and tragedy – good or bad its history and we should learn it.

Acknowledging and learning from history in no way means that one supports or encourages a particular viewpoint or action.

Acknowledging and learning from history does not give or imply approval of history. I am very concerned that “political correctness” or fear of “offending” someone is creating an atmosphere of ignoring or far more dangerously, enabling history to be rewritten reflecting current values. This is the destruction of history.

It is true that the cost of maintaining historical structures and sites can be excessive in view of other and more pressing needs but the cost of not preserving history and not learning from history will be paid by people who, because they do not know history are doomed to repeat the same mistakes of previous generations.

I doubt few elementary or high school students know who Reverend George Berry Washington, Jr. was.

Rising up from the ashes of disadvantage and having nothing – this man is worth celebrating. Born into slavery, this man overcame far more than any of us will ever experience in life.

His accomplishments were many; achieving the status of landowner (one of the largest in Crittenden county) should be celebrated.

Our history in this part of the state is greater than just one or two communities and keeping this to one city or even one county is falling short of the greater vision and good for the entire east Arkansas region.

Josiah and Louisa Earle.

Josiah served in the army during the Spanish American war and in the Confederate Army during the civil war. After the civil war, he settled in land around Earle.

Earle is named after Josiah Earle primarily because after he passed away in 1884, his wife Louisa built the first rail depot as a way of enticing the trains traversing Memphis and Little Rock to stop in Earle. The original station burned, it was rebuilt, it burned down again and finally the current building was built.

Earle was originally spelled Earl and the “e” was added some years later at the behest of the postal service and railroad companies.

Facing adversity, starvation, disease (malaria), overcoming difficulties these are just some of the lessons we can learn from those who came before us.

Black, white, Hispanic, Italians, Jewish, Chinese, Lebanese, Syrian, Native Americans, Spanish, French, free, slave, indentured servants and others; all of these people groups directly contributed to building and enhancing Crittenden county and Arkansas. It is from these previous generations we must learn from. Our children and grandchildren futures depend on knowing history, or they will be doomed to needlessly repeating the terrible mistakes made in the past.

I recently conducted the funeral for a man who grew up sharecropping, chopping cotton, worked hard all of his life. A man who even though he faced many hardships and adversities in his life, provided for his family and contributed to his community.

His family worked hard, often times being taken advantage by those in control of supplying the seed, equipment and land used by his share cropping family. He had an extremely limited education but was successful – why? I believe it was part God’s favor, part his hard work and part his wife’s encouragement.

Life was hard, unfair, there was no welfare, no public assistance, no food stamps, if one didn’t work and contribute one probably would not eat.

I believe Earle can be a city with a bright future, joining with Marion, West Memphis, Tyronza, Truman and other communities with a joint effort from leadership and a determination to make our area a destination instead of a detour. I believe the future does depend on us going back and recognizing, honoring, understanding and learning our past (the good and bad).

We can hope, as W.L.

(Billy) Rogers, Jr., wrote in his history of Earle published in the Earle Epic (1976), “It is profoundly hoped that when at a later date someone, perhaps not yet born at this writing, may well be able to report that the 50 years following the period covered in this history will have been equally rewarding, fruitful and promising years for the wonderful people of Earle who are here at that time and that they will have as much respect and admiration for their forebears as this generation has for theirs.”

History teaches profound lessons so long as one desires to learn. And as H.L.

Mitchell, co-founder of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (arguably the forerunner of the modern civil rights movements) wrote in his book “Mean Things Happening In This Land,” reminds us that history not learned condemns the unlearned to repeat the same mistakes made by previous generations. When will we weary and have our fill of repeating the same mistakes?

How many times will we wander in the desert of despair, destined to repeat the all too familiar and cruel lessons of ignorance?

May I suggest a one-day history tour of East Arkansas for education and enjoyment.

Stop 1: Marion, Crittenden County Courthouse (hangings, lawful and unlawful once occurred here). Walk over to the Crittenden County Bank and Trust Company (also on the National Registry of Historic Places on Old Military, this is a unique building. A few blocks to the north in Sunset on highway 77 is Phelix School (two of my children attended school here) and this is also on the National Register of Historic Places because it was the former Marion Colored High School. By the way, the first road in Arkansas was the Old Military Road leading west from Fort Esperanza and the settlement of Hopefield on the banks of the Mississippi.

Stop 2: Earle, Tour the Crittenden County Museum. The old Earle High School is just three blocks away.

Walk on the sidewalks and see if you recognize names of people who lived, worked and left their “mark” on our region and take your “selfie” with the Bulldog.

Before you leave Earle, stop in at Young’s Grocery store or Clark’s pharmacy for a quick snack, or eat at Vinnie’s restaurant for a great breakfast or a hamburger.

Stop 3: Earle, Highway 149 north towards Marked Tree, the “Angel in the Field” will be waiting for you.

Park on the gravel road and walk up to the memorial.

Think about what Reverend George Berry Washington, Jr. must have experienced rising up out of slavery as a child and becoming one of the largest landowners in Crittenden County in the early 1900’s. This “Angel in the Field” memorial was erected by the reverend’s wife and daughters, who later moved to Memphis after losing their land due to the Great Depression.

Stop 4: Earle, Continue north on state highway 149 about half a mile and come to Gibson-Bayou Church and Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in the area.

Know that years ago when the Tyronza River would flood sometimes bodies would be washed out of their graves.

People would paddle their boats up to the cemetery and bury their loved one in the cemetery.

Walk around and read the prophetic warning sign posted for your contemplation.

The Gibson Bayou Day is worth attending too!

Stop 5: Twist, Continue north on highway 149 and turn left on the old Twist highway (42) to see the marker telling the story of B.B. King and how he came to naming his guitars “Lucille.” If you look to the left side of the road the historical marker will be under a tree. Look closely or you will miss it.

Stop 6: Tyronza, Back to state highway 149 and go north to Tyronza’s “Red Square.” This is what the area in front of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (SFTU) museum used to be called in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s.

Our culture was forever impacted by what happened in this building.

Touring the museum is worth ones time! The SFTU was the first and successful endeavor at integrating black and white people into a union demanding $1 per day for “choppin’ cotton.”

H.L.

Mitchell who was originally from Halls, Tenn., came to Tyronza and took over his uncles dry cleaning business. It wasn’t long after that he met Henry Clay East, who operated a gas station next to Mitchell’s dry cleaning store. It was these two men who started the SFTU.

One must dig deep into local history to get the greater story of what happened.

What happened in Earle and Tyronza eighty years ago would make your skin crawl but we can learn from it.

Stop 7: Lepanto, Lepanto has a quintessential bustling downtown district and it also has the “Painted House” which is patterned after the Arkansas boyhood home of novelist John Grisham, who wrote the book “A Painted House.”

Stop 8: Dyess Colony, To the east of Lepanto is Dyess Colony, check out the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Winter, 1970, volume 29, number 4, pages 313-327 for a good history of this much hailed revolution of farming practices. Dyess Colony, was a social farm experiment that began in the late 1930’s and essentially ended after World War II. Johnny Cash and his family were moved here to help them start a new life farming.

Stop 9: Tyronza, stop at either Clara’s Midway Café (next to the SFTU museum) or Tyboogies restaurant.

Both restaurants serve great food. From Tyronza, go home and reflect on the wealth of history we have.

Ask your children or grandchildren if they have ever learned any of this local history in their Arkansas history class.

I have another suggested day of driving to see history in Eastern Arkansas covering West Memphis, Helena- West Helena, Mariana, Elaine, Forrest City, Wynne and Parkin but this is for another day.

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