Hope is Alive
By Brett Wilson Guest Commentary Steam was rising off the grass on another hot summer morning in the Mid-South. I was taking the long way to work. I've been doing that often as of late. While looking at houses for sale on line, one caught my eye as “the oldest home in Crittenden County.” It was said to have been built in 1903. I couldn't resist the urge to go see it. After driving by, I continued around South Loop Road by the levy and down Broadway near the river back into town. This is my community.
There was a teenager gunned down the night before around six in the evening. He died in the middle of South Avalon Street. It was all over the news. These are the news stories I was familiar with before moving here to Crittenden County seven years ago. West Memphis regularly makes the lists of most dangerous cities in Arkansas or even the nation. If you asked people around the state about our city, you will not likely receive a pleasing point of view about it. Nationally we are most well known for the murder of three young boys and the long legal battles involving the young men charged with the crime. We've been a hot spot for racial tensions, poor education, crime, and all the other ills that seem to perpetually plague the Delta and most urban areas. I won't deny I see these things too when I drive around our city. When we as people see these issues, we respond in a myriad of ways. Some people are disgusted, some are angry, some are afraid, while others are confused and baffled by the situation. We are often quick to point fingers or assign blame. On my recent long drives to work, I've felt a different emotion; love.
As a minister and one who wants to make the world a better place, I've been looking for what I can do to help our community. The needs seem overwhelming. The barriers and walls between races and economic classes seem too great. I feel lost as to what I am supposed to do. In the midst of it all, I've fallen in love with our broken community. This was the purpose of God leading me on the long roads to and from home.
My curiosity led me to research the history of Crittenden County. I was so intrigued to discover in the encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture that our first settlement was called “Hopefield.” A Dutch immigrant named Benjamin Fooy looked at this area rich with resources and potential and named his Spanish encampment “Campo de la Esperanza” (“Camp of Hope “or “Field of Hope”). Six years later when Arkansas came under the control of the US, the name was changed to Hopefield. It was a thriving river town described as a “healthful, moral and intelligent community.” It was also deemed “one of the cleanest places on the river.”
Following the death of Fooy in 1823, Hopefield gained a far different reputation. Gamblers, duels, thieves, and those seeking refuge from their troubled times in Memphis found a home here. Communities formed around the area as well as economic, political, and social systems in an environment open to slave labor as was the norm in that shamefully dark period of American history. Those systems were fought for during the Civil War leading to the Union Army in Memphis evacuating and burning Hopefield to the ground to prevent Confederate guerrilla operations. It seemed that an area so full of hope at it's inception was to be left as a pile of ashes.
In the Reconstruction Era, racial tensions were hotter than the flames that consumed our riverside city. The KKK was so active that Crittenden County was put under martial law by the governor. Our broken foundation of slavery and racial class division had crumbled and we were clawing to find a future. How could an area where Whites and Blacks were so clearly separated and unequal begin to see each other as fellow citizens? The stroke of a pen in Washington D.C. seemed very detached from our reality. Nevertheless progress was made and even public offices were finally opened to African Americans in 1868.
West Memphis, Marion, and the other communities that make up Crittenden County began slowly growing and population moved westward from the river due to flooding and outbreaks of yellow fever. It seemed that racial division was beginning to mend on the political front as many public offices began being filled by African Americans by 1888. In fact the offices of judge, county clerk, assessor, and a representative to the state legislature were held by African Americans in a county where they demographically outnumber white citizens five to one. One of the darkest days in our community's history occurred on July 13th, 1888 when white rioters stormed the county seat in Marion. At the barrel of a gun, county clerk David Ferguson as well as all the other African American elected officials were forced to resign. They were then loaded on trains and told never to come back. Even worse than the burning of the buildings of Hopefield, it seemed all hope of building a community together as black and white citizens was lost. For the next one hundred years there was not an African American elected official in Crittenden County though they have remained the majority.
Communities continued to grow away from the river, but in 1912 Hopefield was washed away in a flood and was never fully reestablished. In a symbolic way, it was as if hope had faced more than it could weather. Though there were many historical milestones to celebrate from the early years of the 20th century, everything is tainted when you look through the lens of racism. Lynchings were still not uncommon. There was no political voice for people of color. Segregation anchored the African American community in patterns of poverty, poor education, and little economical opportunities.
In 1936, as covered in the Time Magazine article “Slavery in Arkansas,” a deputy Sheriff in Crittenden County Paul D. Peacher brought national attention to our community by becoming the first individual convicted of peonage when he was found to have actively enslaved black citizens through debt manipulation. Individuals who were resistant to racial equality rained down violence on those in both the black and white communities who sought to bring the two together. This was the case at Providence Methodist Church outside of Earle in 1936 when black sharecroppers were meeting with the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union. According to historian Donald Grubbs, Deputy Hood, one of those enacting the violence, threatened to kill those in attendance regardless of their color because of their efforts to work together across racial boundaries. While beating the individuals with axe handles and the butts of their pistols, the mob defied the efforts to bring the divided communities together.
Not all racism has been so blatant and violent. A quick look into the educational history of our community will shed light into the chasm of separation between school districts within our town. As recorded by Margarette Woolfolk, Marion for example did not have a school for black students until 1925 when a school was built for them in the all-black community of Sunset. Even then their schedules were set up to accommodate the planting and harvesting seasons. In addition, buses were not provided for black students until 1946 though they were provided for white schools long before then. Black students wanting to pursue high school education had to pay for their courses, which few could do, or pursue education in Little Rock, Memphis, St. Louis, or elsewhere. After approving a $300,000 building project for the 900 student white school, a bond for building a black school was denied in September of 1949 leaving the 310 black students in a half burned building with five teachers and a oneroom church with a handful of teachers packed with 370 more students. Similar situations were prevalent in the county as documented in the March 1949 issue of Life Magazine when West Memphis again gained national attention for all the wrong reasons. The process of integration moved as slowly as any other progress seems to move in the Deep South due to fear and uncertainty prevalent in both the white and black communities in regards to each other. Brown v Board of Education led to the beginning of desegregation in 1954, but it was 1971 before a black student graduated from Marion High School due to efforts to prevent desegregation using attendance zones and other social and political methods to prevent the process. Only after a ruling by federal judge, Thomas Eisele, in February of 1971 demanding the desegregation no later than October of that year did the process gain widespread traction.
We've faced division in the face of tragedy and crime as was mentioned earlier in reference to the West Memphis Three case which drug our community into the national media. In addition, the tensions flared to a fever with the tragic shooting of twelve year old De Aunta Farrow in 2007 by a white police officer who reportedly mistook the young African American boy's toy gun for a real weapon. We were thrust into the national spotlight as the complex and deep seeded division was widened within our community.
Why would we want to revisit these dark moments in our community's history or look into the wrongs done by both sides of the racial divide over the years? You may question how after researching this information I could fall more in love with our community. I have three words to answer your inquiries; faith, hope, and love. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:13, “Three things will last forever-faith, hope, and love-and the greatest of these is love.” I'm praying for God to give me His view of our community. When I pray those prayers, I have a whole new perspective. No longer am I disgusted or angered that people would choose crime or poverty and in turn destroy the fabric of our town. Rather, I am brokenhearted as a parent with an estranged child would be while I consider the complex reasons for our community's issues. I'm moved with love for our community.
Love is not limited to favorable circumstances. Paul also clarifies what love is in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 when he says, “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance”.
With this new lens in place, I feel more like Benjamin Fooy looking out over fertile ground and endless potential; I feel I'm looking at a new Hopefield. I recognize our greatest poverty is not financial, educational, social, or political. Our greatest poverty is a poverty of faith, hope, and love. Somewhere through the years of hardship, racism, violence, and tragedy many have stopped loving our community; stopped hoping for progress; stopped having faith in the Lord and each other.
Our resources are different now. Though agriculture is still a staple in our county, our greatest resources are not found in our fertile soil, and they run deeper than the one hundred feet of river silt that nourishes our crops. Our greatest resources are our people. While I drive, I see churches and community service centers doing what they can to help those in need. I see services offered by ASU MidSouth that if utilized can lift individuals and families out of financial poverty. Health Departments and career centers, the Literacy Council and businesses, and inspired individuals are all making efforts for a better Crittenden County. I see the 8th Street Mission for Jesus Christ providing hot meals three times a day for anyone in need, providing hope and life giving help to those caught in addictions, and assisting citizens in need of clothing, food, furniture, and more to get on their feet. Drive a little farther and you'll find the Hope House providing help to women escaping domestic violence or seeking help reentering society after being incarcerated. Organizations like CASA serve the children in the foster care system. There are food programs, tutoring programs, church programs, and countless other efforts being made.
All of these efforts are wonderful and more than worthy of all of our support, but still I wonder if we have neglected the greatest poverty in our community. Again 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 sheds light on our efforts in order to examine our motives when it says, “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn't love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God's secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn't love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn't love others, I would have gained nothing”. What are our efforts if they are void of love? Not everyone can be involved in every effort, but everyone can truly love our community.
When we moved here seven years ago, we were told by well-intending friends with a wink of the eye to avoid certain neighborhoods that were, “getting darker, if you know what I mean.” It's discouraging to hear inflammatory statements about our community as a whole or about certain slices of our community.
For years and more intensely these last few weeks I've craved direction on what to do to help see our community truly come together and achieve it's great potential. I realize what first must happen is for me to fall more deeply in love with my area. My faith in God and people must be stronger than my fears and doubts and reservations. Hope must again be the prevailing wind behind the sails of progress. As these changes take deeper root in my own heart, I appeal to you, citizens of Crittenden County. Can we love each other no matter which side of Missouri Street we live on? Can we have faith together regardless of whether our street has a number or a proper name? Can we hope together in spite of what school zone we live in? Is grace and mercy achievable after so many years of division and well-earned distrust? Can we again stand on the banks of the Mississippi River and look out over the area west of Memphis and see potential and opportunity; a “Field of Hope.” It's in our blood, citizens. Our foundation is built on hope. After all has transpired I believe yet again that three things still remain; faith, hope, and love.
Brett Wilson is the Assistant Pastor at West Memphis First Assembly of God.