Remembering Early African-American Legislators
February is Black History Month, and it is important that we as Arkansans reflect on the extraordinary contributions of African-Americans throughout the history of our state.
This year, for the first time, we honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on his birthday as a singular holiday focused on his contributions. As the nationally known civil rights leader, Dr. King earned the right to stand alone on that day in Arkansas.
In the not-too-distant past, we had civil rights leaders such as L.C. and Daisy Gatson Bates and the Little Rock Nine. In 1981, Irma Hunter Brown was the first African American woman to be elected to the Arkansas General Assembly in either house. In 2003, she became the first African-American woman elected to the state Senate.
But nearly a hundred years before the modern civil-rights struggle, a cadre of black Arkansans was building a foundation for the others who would follow. Their stories are worth noting. Thanks to Christopher Warren Branam, we have some of them.
As a graduate student at the University of Arkansas in 1994, Christopher wrote a thesis, which he entitled “The Africans Have Taken Arkansas,” in which he recounted the history of men such as Anderson L. Rush, who was a member of the legislature in 1868. In June of that year, Mr. Rush introduced a bill that gave African-Americans the right to serve on juries. Gov. Powell Clayton signed it into law on July 13, 1868, which distinguished Mr. Rush as the first African-American man in Arkansas history to introduce a bill that became law.
William H. Grey, Richard A. Dawson, Ferdinand Havis, James T. White and John Rollins were also among the 32 African-Americans who served in the legislature during that time. We can still see the fruit of some of their work. In the House, for instance, Mr. Grey and Mr. White were among those who supported Senate Bill 6, which established the Arkansas School for the Deaf. Grey and White also voted to move the Arkansas Institute for the Blind from Arkadelphia to Little Rock, so that it could come under state support and control.
They understood the importance of transportation to economic development. And as Branam noted, Arkansas’s first African-American legislators, like their counterparts elsewhere, wanted to build internal improvements such as railroads, highways, and levees. “They saw industrial development as offering their own people an alternative to plantation labor.”
You can read Mr. Branam’s thesis at scholarworks.uark.edu. Type his name into the search bar. A reading of Mr. Branam’s work would be time well spent, especially during Black History Month.