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Touchpoints of Black History

Systemic racism lives on after 400 years

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Op-ed (Published on February 22, 2024)

Author: Dr. RL Booker

Editor: Veronica Mobley

Growing up in a rural town in southeast Arkansas, I learned snippets about Black history figures like Fredrick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. Dubois and Harriet Tubman. I did not then fully understand the significance of Frederick Douglas' 1857 speech in which he said, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress ... This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle."

I also didn't understand the importance of the sacrifices made by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, James Reed, Bayard Rustin and others during the civil rights movement. Some people continue to minimize the experiences of generations of Black people, but we must not get weary of standing with those who exhibit resilience despite injustices. I implore readers to think about their touchpoints with Black history throughout their lives.

In the 1990s, Black people comprised about 15% of Arkansas. In my hometown of Warren (Bradley County), Black people comprised about 42%. Like many towns and cities throughout the South, my hometown had a deeply rooted history of black enslavement.

Bradley County's first recorded number of enslaved people was 1,226 in 1850. By 1860, that number had grown to 2,690. Nearly one-third of the total population was enslaved in my home county. In the book, "With Fire and Sword: Arkansas, 1861-1874," Thomas A. DeBlack highlights how Ku Klux Klan violence in 1868 toward Black Arkansans in the southern counties was so frequent that then-Gov. Clayton Powell declared martial law in 14 counties, including Bradley, and deployed a militia to protect Black citizens. This information, while heart-wrenching, is important to share with the current and coming generations. It was not taught to me in the classrooms of Warren.

So, how is this history relevant today? In the Pulitzer Prize-winning "1619 Project," Nikole Hannah-Jones makes the argument that little in modern American life is untouched by the introduction of slavery into British North America and "that even things that we think have nothing to do with racism, that we think have nothing to do with slavery can be traced back to either the political, social, cultural, or legal norms that began to get established" when the first enslaved peoples were purchased. She highlights how racial segregation from the 1950s and 1960s still impacts everyone who experiences the frustration of a traffic jam today in Atlanta, Ga. While interstate highways were a revolutionary way to travel, they were often not the fastest route around a city. They avoided disrupting white neighborhoods and were instead built right through the middle of Black and brown neighborhoods. They were also used to segregate whites and minorities. In the late 1950s, Mayor Bill Hartsfield, who believed that Atlanta was a city too busy to hate, stated that Interstate 20 was "the boundary between the white and Negro communities."

While this history may seem a distant past, I only have to talk to my 95-year-old godmother, who we call Momma Jim. With her sharp memory, she can outline how the west side of my hometown is where the Black people lived, and the east side of my hometown is where the white people lived. Railroad tracks separated the town.

Photo of Warren Jr. High School (Built in 1932)
Warren Jr. High School (Built in 1932)

I could also have a conversation with my mother, Toni Walker, who attended the segregated school in my hometown from kindergarten through 5th grade. My hometown didn't integrate until 16 years after the Brown vs. Board of Education case that ruled segregation unconstitutional. In the 1969-70 school year, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare ruled that the "free choice (black and white schools options) had failed to desegregate adequately."

Searching the web, I found court cases from 1968 and 1969 in which white parents sued the Warren School District to stop integration. Through my experiences and stories shared by Black people from my hometown, it is clear denial of Black progress was not a reflection of all white people in Warren. I do not seek here to highlight individual racism but to shed light on an intentional system to keep Black people from accessing equitable resources.

I am grateful for Black leaders in my community like the late Erma Jefferson, a school teacher who fought for decades for justice and equality. Jerry Daniels, a long-time school board member, championed equitable education for all students. For years, Daniels spent long hours organizing sports leagues where Black children could learn about dedication and hard work while expressing themselves freely. I celebrate their unwavering commitment to Black progress.

I do not tell these undertold stories to place blame, shame or guilt. No one alive today created these systems. Nonetheless, the impacts are still far-reaching. We live in a time when it's difficult to talk about one's lived experiences based on race, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, age, or religion without being inundated with a firestorm of gaslighting and dismissal. As Dr. King stated in a 1966 speech at Monmouth College, "We have come a long, long way; but on the other hand, we must honestly face the fact that we still have a long, long way to go before the problem of racial injustice is solved."

I believe that we can get to that mountaintop where we are not only physically free but also economically, socially and psychologically. Now is the time to understand the complexity of our shared history and actively work toward being better together. In 2024, I encourage you to learn about what you do not know. I welcome you to start with Black history.



With Fire and Sword: Arkansas, 1861-1874. (2003). University of Arkansas Press.

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