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The situation in Lonoke County was dire for African Americans during the latter half of 1897 and early 1898. In June 1897, a black normal (teacher-training) school was ransacked and one of the teachers severely whipped. In September, that same teacher was found dead. In December, Oscar Simonton, an African-American merchant, was attacked and his store ransacked. In February the following year, notices were placed on the doors of black residents warning them to leave the county on pain of death. This was closely followed by the burning of black homes and schoolhouses.
Trouble had flared up several times in the county dating all the way back to Reconstruction. Many of the reports on the 1898 events refer to a prior incident, twenty or twenty-five years earlier, that was reportedly the root cause of much of the recent trouble. This incident is probably the battle between the members of the Eagle family (who were prominent in the county) and a group of black citizens. According to press reports, in November 1873, two black men stole some hogs from Dock Eagle, a prominent farmer. Eagle, two of his relatives, and James Sullivan went after them, “took them in charge,” and returned home. The two black men escaped, informed their neighbors that they had been attacked by the Ku Klux Klan, and assembled a posse consisting of thirty African Americans to pursue their attackers. In the meantime, Eagle had formed his own posse to capture the thieves, and this posse unexpectedly encountered the group of African Americans. Shots were exchanged, all three Eagles were killed, and Sullivan was mortally wounded. A man named Dock Gray was the only one to escape the melee, and he reported it to the county sheriff. When the sheriff and his posse found the bodies, they had been robbed of their guns, horses, and all of their valuables. James Philip Eagle, the state representative from Lonoke (Lonoke County) at the time, had returned home, and an inquest was being planned. The sheriff of neighboring Pulaski County had also formed a posse to search for the murderers, but had so far failed.
The Reverend Frank T. Boone, a local African American who moved to Lonoke County from South Carolina shortly after these events, adds another facet to the story. In his interview with workers from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s, Boone said that the black citizens in Lonoke County, much like those he remembered who belonged to the Union Laborers in South Carolina, had already organized for self-protection. It was a secret organization, and if a member got in trouble, he communicated with the others by using a horn. Boone speculates that it was an organization of this sort that coordinated the action against the Eagle family.
There was further trouble in the county in late August 1887. Apparently a group of black laborers was disappointed in the amount that Clarence Chapman paid them for some work. According to the Meriden Daily Republican, Chapman, described as a “large plantation owner,” refused to pay his black cotton pickers for the previous week, when it had rained. The workers then shot Chapman, who subsequently died. His wife and mother, who had heard the gunshots, were reportedly “riddled with bullets” when they ran to the scene. (Another report in the St. Paul Daily Globe says that Chapman was only wounded in the hip and omits the information about his wife and mother.) Neighboring whites, having heard the shots, rushed to the scene, but were met by the black workers, who “opened a fusillade upon them.” Three whites were killed and a fourth seriously wounded. Four of the blacks were also shot.
Later in the day, a “large party of whites” managed to arrest about a dozen black citizens and take them to the jail at Clear Lake, eighteen miles from Lonoke. A crowd of blacks began assembling around the jail, vowing to rescue the prisoners. Rather than being put into cells in the jail itself, the prisoners were tied to posts in the jail yard “where they would be under cover of the rifles of the whites who were stationed in the surrounding houses.” That same evening, rumors began to circulate that another group of African Americans had attacked the convict farm south of Clear Lake, freed the prisoners, and shot the lessee, a Mr. Williams. That same night, a number of buildings belonging to white farmers, including Chapman, were torched. County sheriff Hicks had apparently organized a “strong posse” and was on his way to the scene. He had also posted armed guards all along the eighteen-mile route from Clear Lake to Lonoke. Although many in the county anticipated an all-out race war, by the end of August, according to the Saint Paul Daily Globe, “the negroes have all gone home, and…no further disturbance is feared.”
In June 1897, violence flared again when a white mob ransacked a black normal school and took Professor D. T. Watson into the woods, where they beat him severely. This incident apparently prompted an investigation by the Arkansas attorney general and the state superintendent of public instruction. A subsequent article in the Arizona Republican added the fact that “[t]he mob told the negroes that they wanted them to chop cotton; that they had education enough, and that normal schools were too much for negroes.” By September, Watson was missing and had apparently been “mysteriously murdered,” killed near M. L. Isbell’s place in Hamilton Township. A later report in the Nebraska Advertiser indicated that Watson’s body had been found hanging from a tree with the following sign pinned to it: “A warning to ‘nigger’ schoolteachers. We want none of this kind of people in this country; others beware.” Later, the New York Times reported that Watson’s body was found hanging from a fence “with sixty-nine bullet holes in it.”
There was further trouble in December 1897 when prominent black merchant Oscar Simonton was attacked by masked white men. Although wounded, he managed to escape to Little Rock (Pulaski County), where he appealed for protection from Governor Daniel Webster Jones. Jones offered him protection so that he could return to Lonoke County to appear before the grand jury in the case the following February. He also promised to “afford the civil authorities of the county every assistance in giving the colored people ample protection.”
By this time, newspapers across the country were reporting a concerted effort by whites to drive black residents out of Lonoke County. The Atlanta Constitution traced the trouble back to the Eagle incident, saying that the feud had been carried on for decades by relatives of the murdered men. Although many white citizens had “done all in their power to prevent trouble and deplore the present situation…they have been unable to prevent it.” According to the New York Times, “An element of the white population has undertaken before this to rid the county of the blacks, and there is no telling the number of negroes who have suffered death at their hands. The mob sets the civil authorities at defiance.”
On January 29, a salesman returning from Lonoke County reported that African Americans were leaving the area in droves, and that business was at a standstill: “Peaceable negroes who have lived at Lonoke for years are taking their families and leaving town as fast as they can get away. The younger negroes are sullen and defiant.” A similar report, published in the Atlanta Constitution, indicated that “there is a well organized movement among an element of whites to run all the negroes out and that a meeting of white men was to have been held this afternoon at Lonoke to devise plans for carrying out their purpose.” Further reports indicated that a white man had recently killed an African American and been acquitted of the crime, and that blacks were continually being whipped by mobs.
The Daily Star reported on January 31 that unsigned notices displaying the skull and crossbones and warning blacks to leave the county within thirty days had been posted on the doors of almost every African American home in the town of Lonoke. The Gulf Coast Breeze indicated that the notices concluded: “If you don’t go you will be hung to the limb of a tree and your black carcasses filled with lead.” Similar signs had been posted in some of the surrounding areas, and on the doors of black schoolhouses. While many African Americans had left, others had sworn to stay and defend their homes. One prominent black citizen advised others to obtain arms and prepare to defend themselves: “When the negroes of Lonoke County kill about 25 of these white men the outrages against the negroes will stop.”
By the middle of February, trouble had flared up again in Lonoke County, where a mob had been active for several nights burning and destroying the property of African Americans in Crooked Creek Township. The grand jury had just adjourned after considering the situation, and concluded: “We have made especial efforts to investigate the depredations and outrages committed against some of the colored residents of the town of Lonoke, but regret to state that our efforts have been without success, and we are compelled to refer these matters to the next grand jury.”
There are no reports to indicate the final outcome of all of this unrest. Whatever became of the subsequent grand jury deliberations, the actions of the mobs do not seem to have had much effect on the African American population of the county, which remained around forty percent of the total until the beginning of the Great Migration in the 1920s.