Arkansas: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Part I, The Good

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Downtown Little Rock. Home to many amazing sunsets throughout the year.

I lived for three years and eight months in Little Rock. I’m in Virginia now. My time in Arkansas was eventful and interesting. My leaving was always likely, but never inevitable. Some things I will miss about it. Others I certainly will not.

Arkansas is a big state, size-wise. Not so much for population. But the place has a fascinating history, and it is woefully understudied in comparison to a place like Virginia. Here are some cool things to see while you’re there. Note that these are only places that I visited. I didn’t hit every site that I should have, such as Fort Smith, Crystal Bridges, and Eureka Springs.

Fayetteville (northwest Arkansas). “Fayettechill” is the home of the Razorbacks, who reside at Arkansas’s biggest college and flagship of the University of Arkansas system. Fayetteville has all the cool things you would associate with a college town: used book stores, bars, vinyl record shops, greasy spoons, and strip clubs.

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Pea Ridge/Elkhorn Tavern (northwest Arkansas). This Civil War battlefield isn’t far from Fayetteville. It was one of the most important battles fought in Arkansas. The Rebels lost. The National Park Service runs the battlefield, which is large and pristine by Civil War battlefield park standards. You’d be hard-pressed to walk the whole field in an afternoon. And there’s so many trees that you might run into a deer as you stroll through.

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Pea Ridge/Elkhorn Tavern battlefield.

Natural Bridge (northwest Arkansas). This place is worth a stop. Admission was $5 when I was there. Virginia also has a Natural Bridge. But, not surprisingly, Virginia is more obnoxious about it.


Little Rock/North Little Rock River Trail (central Arkansas). What I will miss most about Little Rock was the amazing bicycling/pedestrian trail that winds along the Arkansas River. Most weeks, I rode 25 miles on my bike. I started in Hillcrest, rode to Cantrell Road, got on the trail by the Verizon building, crossed the Big Dam Bridge (which has the longest pedestrian bridge in the United States), went up Big Rock, turned around, and headed to downtown Little Rock. At the Clinton Library, I rode west heading back to Hillcrest. The ride took at least 2 hours, with stops for lunch and water along the way.

Because of Little Rock’s mild winters, you can cycle the trail almost every week of the year, weather permitting. Winter days range from the teens to the 70s. Most of the time, though, it hovers between 45-60 degrees, which is doable for cycling enthusiasts.

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Arkansas River, as seen from Big Rock in North Little Rock. Part of LR/NLR’s magnificent River Trail system.

Hot Springs (central/southwest Arkansas). This old gambling town isn’t what it used to be. The race track is still there, but the city is a shadow of its former glory. Still, it’s worth visiting, especially the gardens not far from the downtown.

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Hot Springs on St. Patrick’s Day is the closest Arkansas gets to Bourbon Street.

Historic Washington (southwest Arkansas). Washington was where the Confederate government moved after the fall of Little Rock in September 1863. The old, and modest, capitol is there, along with many other historic buildings.

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Courthouse in Historic Washington.

Hope (southwest Arkansas). Not far from Washington is Hope. As is true of many small towns in Arkansas, Hope has seen better days. But it is the home of Bill Clinton, Mike Huckabee, and Patsy Montana. The Clinton childhood home, run by the National Park Service, is worth visiting.

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Hot Springs. Home of one president, and one guy who should never be allowed to even run for president.

Kingsland (south-central Arkansas). Tiny Kingsland, which is about 75 miles south of Little Rock, is the birthplace of Johnny Cash. The town numbers only about 450 people. But its’ worth seeing if you’re a Cash fanatic.

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Cothams (Scott, in central Arkansas). About ten miles east of Little Rock is Cothams (pronounced “Cottums”) in Scott, Arkansas. It’s home of the hubcap burger, so called because it’s as big as one (and yeah, it pretty much is). Yet, as huge as this place’s hamburgers are, the burgers are surprisingly not as filling as you might think. And good thing, because you’ll need to save room for the Mississippi Mud Pie.

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Scott (central Arkansas). Scott isn’t a walkable community. But it is very pretty in spots, especially in the spring, and it has an interesting history (i.e., Marlsgate plantation house). The place is good for cyclists, too, who could ride easily from downtown Little Rock to the center of Scott in about an hour.

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A pecan plantation on Col. Baucum Road in Scott. The kind of spot that Bonnie and Clyde might have rested in.

Dyess (Mississippi County, northeast Arkansas). Dyess was created in the 1930s. It was a New Deal experiment intended to help small farmers by giving them a house and 20 acres of land. Nothing in Dyess was free, but it gave a fresh start to many, including Ray Cash, the father of Johnny Cash. Johnny lived there until he was 18, when he enlisted in the Air Force and spent four years in Germany.

The bed that Johnny Cash shared with his older brother Jack.

Lakeport Plantation (southeast Arkansas). Not far from the Louisiana border is Lakeport, is the only surviving antebellum plantation in Arkansas along the Mississippi River. The place was lovingly restored by Arkansas State University. The plantation still grows cotton.

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Lakeport plantation. The only surviving Arkansas antebellum plantation along the Mississippi.

In Defense of Otey


By Colin Woodward

So, no likes Otey. The haters surely are correct. The Natural State deserves better. The Travelers should be ashamed of themselves. They should instead follow the example of Fayetteville and name mascots after more enlightened and respectable creatures: like the pig. I don’t know how to put possum-speak on a bumper sticker. But it could never have the gravitas of “woo-pig-sooie.”

Will Arkansas ever recover from the great Otey debacle? Only Bill could say.

I’ve only been to one Travelers game. Back in 2012. I had a good time. But I was a bit surprised by the large number of military-grade weapons that were being displayed inside the front gates. Was it some kind of gun show? Were Arkansans just being vigilant, given the possibility that an unwanted possum might show up? I’m not sure. I also saw a truck that was essentially a Confederate flag with wheels.

A possum mascot has no right to bring down the rebellion-fueled buzz of whomever drives this van.

High-powered rifles and Rebel flags, of course, deserve a central, even ubiquitous place at our baseball games (and in our society in general). But a cartoon possum? Not so much.

The barefoot Otey, with a bat slung over his shoulder, one button undone on his overalls—and wearing what I can only guess is an ironically displayed bowler hat—clearly perpetuates an Arkansas stereotype. Since Arkansas has eliminated all remnants of racism, poverty, political buffoonery, and religious extremism from its society, it’s time to focus our anger on the important things: the politics of minor league mascots.

At a Travelers game, you can get a beer, a dog, and a high-powered rifle.

I lived for five years in Richmond, Va., where the minor league baseball team was called the Flying Squirrels. Before they were the Squirrels, the Richmond team was the Braves, whose fans are known to do the “Tomahawk Chop” at games. In Richmond, I was also two hours away from the nations’ capital, whose professional football team is the Washington Redskins.

Clearly, Otey is a far more absurd and offensive creature, who is keeping Arkansas at the bottom of educational rankings, per capita income, and crime.

Otey needs to go. Or maybe Little Rock should change the name of the Travelers to the Awesome Possums. Think about it. Anyone can be a Traveler. But not everyone can be awesome. Or a possum. Unless you’re George Jones.

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.

My Visit to Central High School

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By Colin Woodward

I’ve lived in Little Rock for about a year and half, and yet I didn’t visit Central High School until this spring. It was a beautiful Easter Sunday in Little Rock when I passed by the famous site. Since nothing much was open that day, I decided to ride around town and take some pictures.

If you take Daisy Bates Drive headed west from downtown, you’ll pass Central High. What struck when I first saw the building was how large it is. I’d seen it many times in pictures and films. But in person, it’s an impressive structure. Ironically, though, it’s easy to drive near without ever going past it. The school is not on my way to work, and Little Rock’s many hills are good for hiding things.

I was surprised to see that a gas station across the street from the high school had been preserved as it would have looked in 1957. And across the street from the gas station is a museum that is run by the National Park Service. Central High is the first site in the South run by the Park Service that I have seen that has nothing to do with the Civil War.

3-31-13 157My visit to Central High was long overdue, not just because I live in Little Rock, but because of my interest in southern historian. My primer in the Central High crisis was a video on Vivion Brewer that I watched wile I was working  Smith College, where Brewer graduated. Since coming to Little Rock to work in an archive, I’ve been unable to escape Central High’s history. Currently, I’m working on processing the large Hugh B. Patterson Papers at UALR. Patterson was the business manager of the Arkansas Gazette during the integration crisis. His father-in-law was J. N. Heiskell, the owner of the paper (and a godfather, of sorts, to the UALR archives).

The Gazette famously took a stand against the segregationists when Governor Orval Faubus threatened to close the school in order to prevent integration. The Gazette did nothing so radical as advocate equality among the races. Instead, it took a law and order viewpoint: the Brown decision, the paper opined, should become the law of the land.

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The rest of the story is well known. Faubus closed the schools. Little Rock became a symbol of the early civil rights struggle. Whites opposed to race-mixing boycotted the Gazette, which, despite the financial hit it took, won two Pulitzer Prizes for its editorial writing during the crisis.

Processing Patterson’s Papers has provided me with some interesting insights into the Central High issue. Faubus, though he would become synonymous with southern Democratic political machines, seemed fairly moderate when first elected in 1954. In 1957, when the crisis began, he was only in his second term (Arkansas governors were then only elected for two years). No one could have seen how staunchly anti-integration he became, though his viewpoint would echo through the fields of George Wallace’s Alabama and elsewhere.

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Ironically, Harry Ashmore, the editor of the Gazette during the crisis, had worked with Faubus early on in the governor’s career. Ashmore, a native of South Carolina, wrote a speech on education that might have been responsible for Faubus becoming governor. By the fall of 1957, however, Ashmore and Faubus were on very different sides of the issue of integrated schools.

So, I’ve been now seen Central High. Maybe soon I’ll actually go inside the museum.

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.

Crime in Little Rock, Arkansas

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By Colin Woodward

In 2017, Little Rock was rated the most dangerous city in America with a population less than 200,00 people. Arkansas is a third world place, more or less, and with it comes third world levels of crime.

This is a violent country, and Little Rock is a violent city. Things in central Arkansas have improved much from the early-mid 1990s, when the crack epidemic made crime so bad that HBO aired a documentary called “Bangin’ in Little Rock”. In the early 90s, many cities were damn near unlivable. Gangs were killing other gang members–not to mention innocent bystanders–over new drug turf. Mid-size cities had murder rates far greater than they should have had. The inner cities were seething. Los Angeles blew up in 1992 as a result of the Rodney King verdict. By the late 1990s, cities found ways to lower crime rates, helped by new approaches to the problem and the subsiding of the crack warfare.

In August 1993, I enrolled as an undergraduate in a college in Hartford, Connecticut, which was experiencing some of the worst crime in its history. The city set a record for murders one week that summer when I was there. It was my first experience being away from home for longer than a week. Given the bloodshed in Hartford, most of us at Trinity College didn’t dare venture off campus, at least not alone. It wasn’t until four years later that I felt safe enough to walk to the grocery store a few miles away.

After leaving Hartford, I moved to Baton Rouge, where the crime was–amazingly enough–far worse. Just about everyone I knew in Louisiana had been a victim of a crime in one from or another: breaking into cars, muggings, burglaries, assaults. You name it. If you can manage to live in Baton Rouge, New York City should be easy. Or Beirut.

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Now, I live in Little Rock, where crime statistics are hard to come by. The city’s wikipedia page has no crime statistics (as of 2017 May 9, there is a crime section of several sentences, with no references to recent crime). Is the city trying to hide something? You bet it is. Yet, you don’t have to live here long to realize how high the crime is. There’s a popular Facebook page called Forbidden Hillcrest, which reports on the crime in that prosperous neighborhood and surrounding areas. It’s easy to read Forbidden Hillcrest and think that Little Rock is in chaos. It’s not chaotic, but that doesn’t mean the crime rate isn’t high.

The facts don’t lie. There were five murders this past week. The latest involved a man allegedly shooting a driver after a road rage incident. Another case involved two teens being kidnapped. One was released, but his friend was murdered. After these killers are found, tried, and convicted, they will know the true meaning of misery when they are sent to Cummins or some other prison. If they make it that far.

At the rate of 5 murders per week, Little Rock would average 250+ murders for the year. There are only about 193,000 people in this city. To put that in perspective, in 2007, New York City, which has over 8.3 million people, had fewer than 500 murders. Even if Little Rock only averages, say, 25 murders this year, its per capita murder rate is much higher than in New York City. And let’s not even get into the rapes, robberies, and other crimes.

Little Rock usually averages between 25 and 40 murders per year. Here are some statistics. The number of murders in Little Rock for the last few years (updated after this post went live in 2013):

2016: 42

2015: 31

2014: 44

2013: 36

2012: 45

2011: 37

2010: 25

2009: 32

2008: 40

2007: 51

2006: 58

2005: 41

With the warmer weather comes more crime, usually. July 2012 was the deadliest month for Little Rock since 1993. Ten people were murdered in July last year in the capital. Only one month in the past twenty years has been worse: December 1993, when eleven people were murdered.

Recently, Little Rock had the dubious distinction of becoming the 6th most dangerous city in the United States. Little Rock police, among others, might contest such a ranking. But there is no question that Little Rock is a high crime city.

Why? There are many reasons. There are the obvious factors of race, class, drug problems, and history. The South has always been a violent place, with a higher percentage of poor people than other parts of the country. Not all people who commit crimes are poor, of course, but the South, more so than other parts of the country, is still working out issues of racial and class justice left over from the Jim Crow era.

Another problem is political, namely, legislatures that don’t focus on the crime issue or want to pay for improving the conditions that lead to crime: bad schools, unemployment, drug abuse, bad parenting, psychiatric disorders–just to name a few. I’ve heard a lot about the most recent Arkansas legislative session, but I didn’t hear any serious crime measures proposed. All I heard was talk about making people handle crime on their own by letting them carry guns in churches and college campuses. Gee, thanks. As if I didn’t have enough to worry about. Amazingly, Arkansas does not have a “Stand Your Ground” law. Perhaps the bad press out of Florida has cooled efforts to give Arkansans a license to kill.

On Forbidden Hillcrest you can read a lot of responses along the lines of: “you should’ve had a gun!” Victim blaming. Yet, more guns, concealed or not, does not make us safer. Whether or not you use your gun in a legitimate instance of self-defense, a crime has still been committed. At best, you can make a bad situation not as bad. Warding off an attacker still means you were attacked.

No one will contest another person’s right to defend him/herself. You might not be a criminal. But being in a constant state of violent preparedness still makes you a violent person. And urging people to get a gun and not address the root causes of crime is at best a cheap, lazy solution. Instead of politicians urging a greater police presence, they want an armed citizenry taking matters into their own hands. As for myself, I don’t feel safer thinking other people might have concealed weapons. I feel safer seeing more cops, especially on foot.

Guns, used responsibly or not, lead to frequent tragedies. About 30,000 people per year in this country are killed by guns, 2/3 of them suicides. That means 600,000 people in the last 20 years have died from guns, roughly the number that died in the Civil War. The fact that most were self-inflicted make you wonder why you might own the gun you have.

Little Rock’s downtown has improved dramatically in the last twenty years. Shops and restaurants and other businesses are thriving. There’s new construction. It’s relatively safe. You see cops. It’s much improved over the late-80s, when the downtown was a desert. Still, the city has a long way to go before it could be considered safe.

Responsible parents care most about improving schools and lowering crime. That’s something Republicans and Democrats can always agree on. For some people, carrying a gun everywhere makes them feel safe. For me, living in a place where I feel like I would never have to carry a gun is the truest measure of safety. Little Rock has a lot to offer, but the crime rate is not one of its highlights.

Sleepy LaBeef and the Arkansas Sounds Festival

By Colin Woodward

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the Arkansas Sounds Festival. This two-day concert of all-Arkansas musicians was sponsored by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, which is part of the Central Arkansas Library System, and is housed in the Arkansas Studies Institute in downtown Little Rock. The event was put together by musician “Big” John Miller and featured such acts as Sleepy LaBeef (shown here), Sonny Burgess, Tyrannosaurus Chicken, Velvet Kente, and a Levon Helm/Michael Burks tribute put on by Jeff Coleman, Jess Hoggard, and others.

The only act I was able to see much of (I have a book manuscript to complete, darn it!) was Sleep LaBeef, who played on Friday night. Sleepy was in good form. He was a human jukebox, tearing through song after song with a medley of classic blues, rock, and country tunes ranging from Johnny Cash to Clarence “Frogman” Henry. Not bad for a guy in his late 70s.

Unfortunately, the weather, while cool, was not ideal. The lack of sunshine no doubt hurt the festival’s beer sales. However, the promoters could count the weekend as a success. I walked past the Levon Helm tribute late Friday night and the place was packed. Another festival is planned for next year. Let’s hope Arkansas Sounds becomes a staple in the local music scene.

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.