Activists push to remember lynching victims in Arkansas
A bright blue marker stands on the corner of Sixth and Main streets in North Little Rock, just across from the North Little Rock Tourism building. It tells the story of Homer G. Blackwell’s death on that corner on Oct. 7, 1906.
Blackwell, a restaurateur and business owner, was lynched in what is now known as the Argenta Race Riots of 1906. He was out of town during the height of the violence, testifying in a court in southeast Arkansas. He arrived home on October 6, at the end of the riot.
“However, he had a big mouth,” said Kwami Abdul-Bey, co-convener of the Arkansas Peace and Justice Memorial Movement. “He asked questions.”
Blackwell was then accused of firing at two white men, and thrown in jail. He was dead the next day. His bullet-riddled body hung from a lamp pole on the corner of Sixth and Main streets. His murderers were never brought to justice.
Now, over a century later, the Arkansas Peace and Justice Memorial Movement is erecting a historical marker and honoring his life with a ceremony.
The group is one of several organizations grappling with the question of how to remember victims of racial terror in Arkansas. Kwami and his wife Clarice Abdul-Bey, the group’s other co-convener, are working to erect monuments to the 493 documented victims of racial terror in Arkansas. This is the second marker they’ve helped establish, but according to Clarice, they don’t intend to stop there.
"One of our most important priorities is genealogy and trying to find the families," she said. "We're not doing this just so we can have markers here in the State of Arkansas, we are also trying to honor the families of the victims.”
It’s a daunting task. Clarice and Kwami both admit they aren’t genealogists, relying on help from local historians. They need their community's assistance to help unravel the story.
The thread of relying on community ties all the speakers at the commemoration ceremony together. Elise Hampton, a commissioner for the Black History Commission of Arkansas shared how she learned about her own history.
"As a young child growing up in central Arkansas, it was in church that I learned the stories of Black Arkansans. In school, even in Arkansas History class, the only story I heard was that of the enslavement of my ancestors,” she said.
Hampton is also a middle school principal. She’s looking forward to seeing her students discuss this marker and these stories with their families.
"Our communities were impacted, are impacted, and will continue to be impacted by the lynching of Black Americans, so long as too many of us are sleeping on our own history.”
According to Kwami Abdul-Bey, nearly 500 documented lynchings occurred in Arkansas. Like Hampton, many people growing up in Arkansas didn’t learn about these events in school. And many didn’t have a community to teach them what they didn’t know.
"Since there is no documentation of that in any history book here in Arkansas... we have to make sure that those narratives are prominently placed,” he said.
Abdul-Bey thinks the marker can help bridge that gap in education, but it’s only a starting point. In an interview a few days before the ceremony, Clarice Abdul-Bey said it’s important to empower the next generation through education, so that they know how to talk about difficult histories, and what more they should do.
"Also to know what not to do, and how to do it. And so that is the importance of documenting history, and it's very important that they understand it and they know the truth.”
Clarice and Kwami hope learning these histories won’t shut people down, but will prompt people to look at history through a solutions-based lens.
"How do we stop this from being a perpetual event that is tearing the fabric of our communities and our humanity away?"
But, over a hundred years later, not everyone agrees on what should be taught. The governor and state education officials have said teaching the more painful parts of Black history could teach future generations to hate America, and one another. Activists say that’s not the point, they just want victims to be honored in a significant way.
Jakira Franklin is a member of the youth poetry group Writeous Poets started at Little Rock Central High School. At the ceremony, she shared how the recent attempt to remove Advanced Placement African American Studies from Arkansas schools affected her.
"I don't like how they want to take away a Black History class when it's one of the most important classes I could have," she said.
"It's my history, it's my history, it's my history."
There’s a tension between honoring Blackwell’s life and reducing it to a tragic story. The two paragraphs on the marker can’t tell the full story of Blackwell’s life, only its violent end.
Maybe, though, Clarice says it’s enough to inspire community members to learn more about the history of the streets they walk by every day.
"If the dominant culture who are perpetuating these issues and continuing to hide them won't allow for the education of the past, then how are we to move collectively together for peace?"