George Berry Washington Jr.: The Man and the Angel
As I mow, rake and pull up weeds at his burial site I survey the surrounding land he once owned, imagine his house, cotton gin, and store that once stood so many years ago across the dirt and gravel road that no longer exists. No longer are there any remnants of his “Main Place,” only his Indian Mound, the imported marble Angel statue that marks his burial site.
The Angel in the Field stands watch as he rests in his Indian Mound resting ground. Most people drive past and never see this amazing site, even fewer stop to read the epitaph upon his grave.
George Berry Washington, Jr. (GBW) was born on Dec. 25, 1864, and died on Aug. 30, 1928. Throughout his adult life he helped establish and sustain many families to scratch out a living as sharecroppers or day laborers all during the time of the abuse and neglect of black Americans.
He stands out in the history of Crittenden County and the state of Arkansas as a man of intellect, business, civic, ministry and familial responsibilities. He was a man of Christian faith.
There is a vast untold history of black and white folks who lived and died to clear the East Arkansas primordial forests that once were so thick that few ventured to make a living in this unique place. The hardship of crossing an unforgiving forest and swamp claimed the lives of many who dared to venture across its great gulf. After the forests were cut and the land drained of its swamp water, it was put first into growing vegetables to sustain the settlers, then the cash crops were needed and then, finally in the 1800's cotton was introduced.
Cotton changed the landscape and forever bound the history of black, white, Indian, Hispanic, German, Jew, Italian, Greek, Chinese and other people groups together. We are a finely woven tapestry, our culture is made of brightly colored individual threads and each is a part of the fabric that makes our culture unique and strong. Try as we may to avoid, diffuse and cut the ties that bind us together we are held together with a common history and a very common future. GBW is part of this heritage and history.
GBW was born on Christmas Day, 25 December 1864 to his parents John A. Washington and Rhoda A. Washington. Born at home and with little thought their son would become a minister, plantation owner, ginner, store owner and one of the largest landowners in Crittenden County.
GBW was considered to be mulatto (“Mu” according to the U.S. Census of the 1800's). Mulatto was the official designation of all people having “some proportion or perceptible trace of negro blood.” He was able to read and write and though most slaves and freed people were unable to read and write, he and his siblings could read and write.
GBW married his first wife, Ella Roselle (in some sources Rostelle) on 25 May 1883 and to this union two daughters were born; Elizabeth (Lizzie) and Arrener (Irene).
Little information is available concerning Ella but it is assumed she passed early in their marriage.
On 27 May 1897, GBW married Lula Wright from Memphis. Lula and George continued to build the plantation, (Referred to as “The Main Place”) bought and sold property and helped hundreds of people.
According to Deed documents in the Crittenden County Courthouse, GBW and his wife Lula, donated four acres of land on 23 December 1919 to the Gibson Bayou Cemetery and Pentecostal Church Association. The Gibson Bayou Association had three trustees, S.A. Shannon, J.R. Abbott and Lyman McCoy who signed the contract.
An additional one-acre of land was sold by the Washington's for $500 on Dec. 23, 1919, to the Gibson Bayou Cemetery and Pentecostal Church Association. Although Gibson Bayou has been a historically white cemetery it was George Berry Washington, Jr., a black man who helped sustain and expand the cemetery through his donation of land. Interestingly, S.A. Shannon, J.R. Abbott and Lyman McCoy are buried in Gibson Bayou Cemetery just down the road from GBW.
George Berry Washington, Jr., also served many people as a pastor. He would often preach to the many workers employed on his plantation as well as ministering in ST. Peter's Missionary Baptist and Spring Hill Missionary Baptist churches.
George Berry Washington, Jr. died suddenly of acute gastritis on 30 August 1928. George Berry Washington's funeral was held at the First Baptist Church in Earle and was well attended.
Every person faces great challenges in life. Some people speak about the disparities between the different people groups. Some point to the disparity of education, wealth, opportunities, food, or land.
Whatever the disparity, one only needs to look at the many examples of individuals who have strived to overcome his or her disparity. GBW is one such example of a person overcoming great adversity and disparities.
Earle artist and educator, Brian W. Speed wrote a poem about GBW titled “The Man And An Angel”: On the outskirts of Earle, of “One-Forty-Nine” Stands a statue of an angel in a briar patch of vines.
Her aim seems to be to watch over this site – The grave of a man who did so much that was right.
He was born into slavery in eighteen sixty-four, And died a free man, some sixty years later or more.
The color of his skin proved no barrier to him, For he won the respect and trust of all free men.
He built his own church and preached there as well, And spelled out the difference 'twixt heaven and hell. “Elder Berry” he was called by those who knew him best; He purchased his land, a few acres at a time Always claiming it to be the best he could find.
Field after field he added to his claim, Never forgetting to say, Thank you, Lord, blessed be Your Name.”
Acres and acres of cotton he grew, And he built his own gin that he might gin it too.
He organized a Lodge and built his own store; And if he had had time, he would have done a lot more.
Bro. Berry had two daughters and a lovely wife, too, Who need his affection, if and when he got through; But he finished it all too late, on a hot summer day When the Lord called him home for his heavenly stay. 'Twas on the thirtieth of August in nineteen twentyeight That he said his farewells to his earthly estate.
He laid down his tools, for the earthly work was done And moved on to Glory to be with The Son.
O' what a blessing one can find out “One-Forty-Nine” If one has a purpose and a right frame of mind.
For quite near the road stands an angel each day With a rose in her hand and a gaze, far away.
She was sculptured in Italy so many years ago And has since stood there where the cotton and beans grow.
And from the four lines so engraved in her base-Stands a motto quite suitable for the whole human race… “Hallelujah! 'Tis done I believe in The Son I am saved by the blood Of the Crucified One.”
This beautiful 'Angel in the Field' was listed on the National Registry of Historical Places in 1994. It is the only surviving evidence of the life of George Berry Washington Jr.
Two years after GBW's death, his land was sold for farm loan debts. Most of his family moved to Memphis and some into south Arkansas. The Crittenden County Museum in Earle has a small pictorial display of George Berry Washington, Jr.
George Berry Washington, Jr. serves as an example for each person to be determined to overcome their disparity and be quick to lend a helping hand to those in need.
By Clayton Adams Special to the Times