January 19, 1863 (Tuesday)
Borders, for the most part, are arbitrary lines on a map, denoting little or nothing of original value and indicating little or no difference from one side of the line to the other. This is especially true when these lines follow meridians rather than geographical features such as mountains and rivers. This was exemplified in Arkansas, though Arkansas was hardly a rare example.
Within the box of imaginary lines referred to as the State of Arkansas, there lived as diverse a set of people as one could imagine. They were spread across two vastly different geographical regions, known simply as “the Highlands” and “the Lowlands.” The Highlands contained the southern portion of the Ozark Mountains. They grew little cotton and did not “require” slave labor. The folk of the Highlands generally did not own slaves, nor did they have any interest in owning slaves. Strong Union sentiment ran through the Highlands, even from the beginning of the war.
The Lowlands were nearly the mirror opposite of the Highlands, not only in geography, but in the people as well. Cotton was king, and therefore slavery was its consort. The divide between rich and poor was wide and enforced by the wealthy slave-holding class. This being the state’s controlling class, at the time of the War, Arkansas still did not provide free schools. Whatever Union sentiment ran through the Lowlands was quashed by this class, who had no interest in any movement that might emancipate their slaves.
By and large, the wealthy were well educated, while the poor from both the Highlands and Lowlands were often illiterate and uneducated.
And so, it must have appeared strange when, in October 1863, twelve men from the two Highland counties of Sebastion and Crawford met to talk Union. Gathering at Fort Smith, they called upon adjoining counties to call for a new state government that was loyal to the Federal government. It was decided that on January 4, 1864, they would all come together at Little Rock.
These small conventions were county-based, and were probably more like quiet prayer meetings than brash, pulpit-slamming engagements. Somehow or another, delegates were selected and began to meet in Little Rock in early January. At first, the numbers were pitifully small, numbering around twenty men from but eleven of Arkansas’ fifty-five counties. As the convention continued, delegates were added, some without being elected even in their own counties.
Aside from those oddities, Arkansas’ Constitutional Convention was run as one might expect. The delegates drew up resolutions for inclusion in the new constitution, argued over seemingly unimportant verbiage, and then voted again and again, changing a phrase or single word between each call for “Aye” or “Nay”.
Each day, the roll call recorded a varying number of delegates, though the largest was forty-five, representing twenty-three counties. In this way, less than half of the imaginary boxes inside of the box constructed on three sides by imaginary lines, and known as Arkansas, were represented.
But it should not be implied that only the Highland counties were among them. Though Union sentiment ran low in the Lowlands, often, there were enough loyalists to select a few to send to Little Rock. On the surface, nearly half of the counties represented were from the Lowlands, though sixteen were wholly unrepresented. There were some anomalies as well. For example, the most populated Highlands county, Washington, had not a single delegate, while the least populated Lowlands county, Clark, had four, even though its county seat was occupied by the Confederate army.
These anomalies were echoed throughout the delegates of the convention, but the biggest anomaly might be that nobody in Washington, especially President Lincoln, knew it was going on. Lincoln, of course, wanted Arkansas to come back into the fold, and encouraged General Frederick Steele, commander of Union forces in Arkansas, to get as many people to take the oath of loyalty as possible. Lincoln, in fact, did not learn of this convention until early February.
Still, each day, including this date, the delegates wrote, discussed, argued, and voted upon a new constitution as if it were bound to be accepted as legal (and eventually, it was – though only for a few short and tumultuous years). It was on this date in particular that they met to discuss the issue of slavery.
The history books proudly state that Arkansas’s constitutional convention outlawed slavery on this date. This statement is, of course, true. But it is not the final word. The work completed on this date, would become Article V of the 1864 Constitution, which states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall hereafter exist in the state….” It expands on that premise a bit, laying down what was the legal ages that one might and might not be an indentured servant or an apprentice.
What the convention did not lay down, and perhaps did not even consider, was the rights of the freed population. At the start of the war, Arkansas had over 111,000 slaves (nearly one-fifth of its entire population). It had only 144 free black men in 1860. This is a very telling figure. Virginia, for example, had over 58,000 free blacks. In 1843, Arkansas barred free blacks from entering their state. In 1860, the state required that any free blacks who just happened to live there be sold into slavery. In Arkansas, it was made very clear that the only black people that were wanted were slaves. If slavery was outlawed, so too was the black population.
Some versions of the finished constitution included a resolution that stated: “no negroes or mulattoes not living then in the State were permitted to be brought in or reside in the State, save by the authority of the government of the United States or under some proclamation of the president.” This passage was only found in a few early 1900s publications, and thus might reflect the mood in Arkansas at that time.
Many from the Ozark Mountains, despite being largely pro-Union were, after the 1890s, incredibly racist. The entire region barred people of African decent from living, working, and in many cases, even traveling through the Ozarks. The town of Alix, located in Franklin County, for instance, maintained a sign at their limits which read: “Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On You In Alix”. It was there until 1970.
The 1864 constitution provided no protection for emancipated slaves, asking only that their former owners “treat them with humanity.” Still, this was more of a reflection of past sentiments regarding black people. For nearly three decades after the war, blacks would indeed live more or less peacefully in every county of Arkansas. It wouldn’t be until the 1890s when they would be driven en mass from much of the state and all of the Ozarks, including such counties as Boone, Polk, Mississippi and Clay. Sadly, many towns and even counties in Arkansas maintain this status quo to this day.1
- Sources: The Constitution of the State of Arkansas edited by Uriah M. Rose; Publications of the Arkansas Historical Association, Volume 3. Typically, I eschew internet sources, but in this case, I had to resort to The Arkansas Encyclopedia, which is very well researched and lists sources. Mostly, I used it for census data. For the information on “sundown towns,” I used the book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James Loewen, which I heartily recommend. Also, his website keeps track of many oral histories concerning sundown towns from the past, as well as those still active today. [↩]