dee_burris: (Default)
2013-10-11 01:35 pm

A journey to the Arkansas delta...

Earlier this week, I went to Phillips County, Arkansas in search of two cemeteries.

That search turned out to be for three cemeteries. I located two of them, and got into one.

But I couldn't have done any of that if not for the help of some very kind people along the way.
I started in West Helena, at the funeral home that handled the burials of three members of the William and Emma McCarroll family - William, Emma, and son-in-law, Josh Martin, Sr., husband of their daughter Mary McCarroll.

I thought I was looking for two cemeteries. I had already spoken by telephone with a very helpful man who remembered the cemeteries on the death certificates - Howe Plantation and Zion Traveler, both in Phillips County.

When I got to Jackson and Highley Funeral Home, however, I found that the funeral home records said Emma McCarroll was buried at Zion Hill Cemetery, also in Phillips County.

The man at the funeral home told me that Howe Plantation was at Wabash, where the granary is now. He said Zion Traveler was at Mellwood behind a church of the same name. That made sense, as Josh Martin, Sr.'s death certificate said he lived at Wabash, and Emma and William McCarroll's certificates said they lived at Mellwood.

So I thanked him for his time, and set out from West Helena to Wabash.
I found the granary with no problem. There were a gazillion pickup trucks parked around it, and not a living soul in sight.

There was also no sign of a cemetery. Since it was getting close to lunch time, I decided to head on down Highway 44 to Elaine, where there is always fried chicken and fish at Robert's One Stop.
Around here, we call southeast Arkansas lowlands the delta. The mighty Mississippi River alternately meanders and roars along the eastern border of Arkansas. You have to cross the Mississippi River to enter our neighboring state of Mississippi.

The farm land is rich and fertile - a planter's dream. A white planter's dream, that is. For black Arkansans in Phillps and surrounding counties, working the land started out as slavery.

Then came sharecropping, which was just slavery by any other name. Whether a sharecropper paid cash rent on the front end, or crop rent after the harvest, he was still just scraping by. The guy who was making the big bucks was still the white plantation owner.

By the mid 1930s in the southern United States, sharecropping had largely been replaced by tenant farming. And although tenant farming was anticipated to enable tenant farmers to earn a decent living, you can't tell that in the Arkansas delta. (Sharecropping was still the predominant way of farming for black Arkansas farmers until the early 1950s. Arkansas has always been reluctant to give up its institutions.)

Tenant farming is still alive and well in Arkansas, but large corporations leasing land have contractual protections and insurance against crop loss not affordable by most individual tenant farmers. In the Arkansas delta, individual tenant farmers still pay crop rent, - 25% to 50% of the value of the harvest to the landowner.
It was a meeting of black sharecroppers from Elaine on 30 Sep 1919 that precipitated what has been called the deadliest racial confrontation in Arkansas history. (Source: The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture)

The sharecroppers were attending a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union in a church about three miles from Elaine. They wanted better payment for their cotton from the white plantation owners who dominated the area.

The sharecroppers had posted armed guards outside the church to prevent their meeting from being disrupted and to try to keep the white plantation owners from gathering intelligence.

There is bitter disagreement about who fired first, but two white men - one of whom was a deputy sheriff for Phillips County - died. By the following morning, lynch mobs of anywhere from 500 to 1,000 white people from Phillips and surrounding counties, as well as across the river in Mississippi, converged on Elaine. Hundreds of Elaine's black citizens were slaughtered. The Governor sent 500 battle ready troops from Camp Pike to help quell what was being called an "insurrection" of black residents.

The 1919 massacre nearly devastated Elaine. In 1920, the town population was 377. In 1970 - the period of time my friend lived in and remembers Elaine - the population had swelled to 1,210.

The last forty years have not been kind to Elaine. In 2010, the population was 636. There is ample visual evidence of its decline.

 photo ElaineAR9Oct2013.jpg
Photo taken from Highway 44, looking toward Main Street, 9 Oct 2013

A very sweet woman at Robert's One Stop waited on me at lunch time. I went to the back of the line to wait for her, and asked her about the location of the cemeteries. She said she didn't know, but if anyone did, it would be the mayor. She sent me around to the only bank in Elaine to talk to the mayor, who works there.

As a general rule, Southerners of any color are polite and hospitable. That's why it took me aback that of all the people I'd spoken to and asked directions from so far that day, the white mayor of Elaine never came out from behind her teller cage to talk to me. (She, one other teller and I were the only people in the bank.) Some of the African Americans were curious as to why a white woman was looking for obscure black cemeteries - That's a black cemetery, you know? - but they were all very cordial and welcoming.

She didn't know where the cemeteries were. She did, however, know the real "go-to" woman in Elaine.

Mrs. Viola Watson.

From the time I knocked on Mrs. Watson's front door, until I left a couple of hours later, I had a delightful time.

She knew exactly where the cemetery at Howe Plantation was. (Apparently, once I got to the granary, I zigged where I should have zagged.)

She also knew exactly how to get to Zion Hill Cemetery (she has a cousin buried there), and asked me doubtfully, Honey, are you down here by yourself? What are you driving? (She was right about that. There's not a road down in there, but there are two ruts. I've told Curtis that he is going to come with me with one of his four wheelers, because I am going to find that cemetery. I also told him we should call on Mrs. Viola Watson while we are there. She knew his parents.)

She wasn't sure exactly where Zion Traveler Cemetery was, except it was at Mellwood, behind a church of the same name. She told me if I stopped at the store at Mellwood, anyone in there should be able to tell me exactly how to get there.

I left Mrs. Watson's house and made my aborted attempt to find Zion Hill Cemetery. Then I cruised on down Highway 44 to Mellwood.

I had a sinking feeling as I went into the store and saw the two white women behind the counter. They were friendly enough, but they sent me back up the highway toward, but not into, Elaine with very specific directions about how to get to Zion Traveler Cemetery. (Okay, now two black folks, each of whom are older than both of you combined, have told me unequivocally that this place is at Mellwood. Um hmmm...)

I found the cemetery. It was St. Peter Cemetery. The elderly man clearing brush gave me a brief history of the church and cemetery. The church had been torn down before it fell down.

I took photos of every gravestone I could see. Everyone deserves to be remembered.

He also said Zion Traveler Cemetery was at Mellwood. Behind a church of the same name.
I was running out of daylight, and had no four wheeler with me. So I headed back to Wabash to find the cemetery on Howe Plantation, because I really wanted to find that one.

This time, I was determined to find someone to ask. I parked in front of what looked to be a caretaker's house, but the only one who answered my knock at the door was a dog with a low throaty growl. I skeedaddled back to the car.

Drove around the granary for a couple of minutes, marveling that no one had come round to ask me what the hell I was doing.

Then I saw him. A man putting gasoline in a four wheeler. (No, I did not heist his four wheeler.)

Maybe I walked up to trotted toward him just a tad too fast. Or maybe it was my joyous, Yay! A real live human being!

In any event, he took a step back as he said, "Okay...yeah..."

I told him what I was looking for. Not unkindly, he asked me the same thing I had heard for most of the day. That's a black cemetery, you know?

We stood shoulder to shoulder as he pointed down a road that bisects the granary to a little white dot in the distance. The sharecroppers' church. Behind it was the cemetery. He said his parents were buried there. He also said there were many more unmarked graves than graves with stones, because the people around there were so poor.

He told me the cemetery was part of what is known by the local residents as Howe Plantation. The plantation was owned by Jimmy Howe. I asked him how many acres. He told me to turn around in a circle, and look as far as my eyes could see.

When I got home, I did some research on Jimmy Howe, son of Otis Wilson Howe and Harriet Virginia May, and grandson of Wilson Herrick Howe.

African American sharecroppers in and around Wabash worked the plantation fields until the early 1950s. Due to poverty of sharecoppers, many were buried (as well as their family members) in a field behind the sharecoppers' church.

I thanked him, and set off down County Road 433, where the pavement soon gives way to gravel. I stopped at the church first.

 photo church.jpg

As you walk across the cemetery, it is fairly easy to see the evidence of unmarked graves, some of which have holes from shifting soil and disintegration of wooden coffins.

 photo IMAG0375.jpg

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Crops encroach to the very edges of some graves.

 photo wideangle.jpg

Someone must have loved her very much, as they made a homemade stone for her grave. I think her name was Mariah Washburn, but I can't make out any dates that may have been on the stone.

 photo MariahWashburn.jpg

I created Howe Plantation Cemetery on Find a Grave.

I didn't find a stone for Josh Martin, Sr. I wasn't expecting to, but was strangely disappointed anyway.

You can leave a virtual token for Curtis' great grandfather on his Find a Grave memorial.

Everyone deserves to be remembered.
dee_burris: (Default)
2013-09-26 08:57 pm

Howard Plantation, Phillips County, AR

For the past month, I've been working on the family tree of a dear friend of mine. He is African American, and the going gets tough.

I was helped out immensely by a cousin my friend didn't know he had. She found two of my Find a Grave entries for my friend's grandfather, Josh Martin, Jr., and Josh's mother, Mary E McCarroll Martin. The cousin contacted me, and we have been emailing and texting ever since.

There's a mystery surrounding the gravesite of Josh Martin, Sr. (Josh Martin, Jr.'s father). His death certificate says he is buried on Howard Plantation in Phillips County, AR.
When I first read that, I was dubious.

Josh Martin, Sr. died in 1945 of congestive heart failure while his children were teenagers.

I started researching any place in Phillips County called Howard Plantation. There was no cemetery by that name.

I looked back over the five death certificates I had for the Martins and McCarrolls, and saw that most of the burials had been handled by Jackson and Highley Funeral Home in West Helena, AR.

The ancestors smiled favorably on me. Jackson and Highley is still in business, although they do not have a website.

That was oddly a comfort to me. As I made the phone call, I hoped the voice of an elderly man or woman would answer the phone - someone who had been around Phillips County long enough to remember Howard Plantation, and be able to give me an educated guess as to why my friend's grandfather was buried there. (There was also another cemetery listed on the death certificates of my friend's great grandparents I couldn't find - Zion Travel, also in Phillips County.)
Twenty minutes later, I knew I had found him - the man who not only remembers Howard Plantation, but can give me directions about how to get there. (He also knows where Zion Travel is.)

Apparently, it was pretty common for African American sharecroppers to be buried on the plantation they farmed. Although there are several likely candidates for slaveowners with the surname Howard in Phillips County, right now I only suspect there may also be slave graves on Howard Plantation.

Next Wednesday, I'm going to Jackson and Highley Funeral Home in West Helena to meet and talk with the kindly gentleman who answered my call, and who was so gentle as he tried to let me down easily about the condition of the lands on which so many of my friend's direct ancestors are buried. As we talk, I hope I can get him to reminisce about Phillips County in the first half of the 20th century. I hope he will let me record him.

And then, I will follow his directions about how to get to Zion Travel Cemetery, and Howard Plantation. I want to take photos, even if there is nothing identifiable to see - no gravestones or monuments. Abandoned cemeteries are not new to me.

I want to lay some flowers even so. The history of some of Phillips County's abandoned African American cemeteries needs to be recorded - if possible with a list of some those buried there.

Everyone deserves to be remembered.
dee_burris: (Default)
2011-02-21 07:42 pm

Random musings...

The past week was a really good one for wrapping up loose ends on some of the ancestors, and getting a foothold on a couple more who have stubbornly refused to give up much detail at all in their sporadic paper trails.

In addition, I've found tantalizing little bits on a couple of people in other family trees I manage.

These are trees for some very special friends of mine, who having listened to me talk about discoveries in my family tree, have begun to reminisce about stories that came through their own families.

Usually, all it takes is for one of them to wonder aloud, I wonder if there was any truth to that... and I am ready to explain about how to start looking. These three didn't have the resources to start looking. They love the idea of having their trees online, and help me research by asking their families THOSE questions...did anyone ever mention so-and-so?

Because I'm just saying...I'll get as involved in your family history as you are.

So I have four family trees on Rootsweb that have no relationship to mine at all. Three of them are the aforementioned friends - one having a great-grandfather served with the US Colored Troops in the Civil War. Turns out his g-granddad had the same name as another man, almost exactly his age. Both men, named Orange Martin, had been slaves in Arkansas, and fought for their freedom.

It was so ironic to realize when I ripped open the envelope from NARA with Orange Martin's Civil War service record that I had the wrong one. Almost identical dates of birth, but served in different units, etc. And both lived in Arkansas.

It seemed like there was absolutely no one at all looking for the man I began to call The Other Orange Martin.

So I created that fourth tree. It has eight people in it - all of whom were identified in his military file. I keep hoping someone finds it and runs with it...and I hope they email me to say they want his records...

It may sound hokey, but when Todd Fox was preparing Nathaniel and Levi Callaway's gravesites to install their stones, and told me I could have the tops of the numbered concrete columns he took out to lay the markers...


I jumped on it.

Each was one was about 3 feet into the ground with the numbered top protruding about six inches. Nathaniel's was 102 and Levi's was 140.

Folks, that was a 125 year old concrete marker that was installed on the grave in 1886.


Right now they are on the front porch. I don't know if they will come inside (for protection from the weather in their 126th year) or stay outside.

I do know they are very heavy.

I hope I'm closing in on Margaret Ann Tipps (who married John Dillehay, then John Coffman and finally John Lockhead). If so, I'll probably be posting the saga of a woman who soldiered on against some pretty tough odds. They called her Molly.

Sounds like one of her kids kinda acted up, too. Wonder what it was like to deal with a teenager in the 1880's? At least you didn't have to worry about them wrecking the car.

And yeah, I'm wondering what was up with all Molly's Johns...

I've had my windows open for 4 days now. It has been very mild, and very humid.

And it's kind of weird to go out to my table on the porch with my laptop and not even need a sweater this time of year. But this is the south.

So I just cracked up when I finally figured something out.

I figured out why I had not been able to find the cemetery where Molly Tipps was buried. Everyone remembered being told she was buried in Blues Chapel Cemetery in White County.

Except there was no such cemetery, and I couldn't find anything that said in the olden days we called it that.

I went back and took a look at the 1930 census, when Molly was living with her son and his family in Grubbs, Jackson County, AR.

That's *real* close to White County. Molly died in 1937.

And guess what?

There's a Ballews Chapel Cemetery in Grubbs, right behind the Ballews Chapel Southern Baptist Church.


I love it when our Southern accents get in our way.

'Cause you can usually get around that.

The journey is good.
dee_burris: (Default)
2010-11-10 04:11 pm

Bits and Pieces: Marriage records

I will update this entry from time to time as I run across all the marriage indices I've collected over the years from various Arkansas counties. The letter and number combination at the end of each record is the marriage book volume and page number.

Click for long list of counties and names... )