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Harrison, Arkansas

A sign reading “Harrison Best Small Town in Arkansas”
"The reasoning behind the flags is historical. They were put up to say 'Here is the five governments that have governed this particular area.' And it's the Spanish flag, the French flag, the United States flag and the Confederate flag. Because that was all the different parts. It is not meant as a slap or a sign that says 'You are not welcome here.'"
—Layne Wheeler, director, Harrison Chamber of Commerce

A historic newspaper headline reading “Drive Negroes From Harrison: Crowd Whips Several and Order Them to Leave”

According to historian James Loewen in his book Sundown Towns (New Press, 2005), “In late September of 1905, a white mob stormed the jail, carried several black prisoners outside the town, whipped them and ordered them to leave. The rioters then swept through Harrison’s black neighborhood, tying men to trees and whipping them, burning several homes and warning all African Americans to leave that night. Most fled without any belongings. Three or four wealthy white families sheltered servants who stayed on, but in 1909, another mob tried to lynch a black prisoner. Fearing for their lives, most remaining African Americans left. Harrison remained a ‘sundown town,’ [i.e., a place that threatened, ‘N*****, don’t let the sun go down on you here’] until at least 2002.”

The violence in Harrison caused black residents in neighboring communities to flee the area as well. In the 1900 Census, the black community in Harrison numbered 115 people in a town of 1,500. Less than ten years later, that community was gone. Today, Harrison is home to just over 12,000 residents, more than 97 percent of them white. Fewer than 40 African Americans live in Boone County, of which Harrison is the county seat, out of a total population of 34,000.

A contemporary newspaper headline reading “The story of a destruction of a black community, circa 1900, in Harrison, Ark.”

Harrison has only recently been forced to confront its legacy of racism. In 2003, a football coach wrote an angry letter to the local newspaper after his nine-year-old players were harassed with racial slurs at a game in Harrison, igniting a firestorm of debate. A group of town leaders formed the Community Task Force on Race Relations, with the mission to “respond to an inaccurate, negative image, namely that Harrison is a racist community.” Their actions have included filming a public service announcement about the perceptions of Harrison and taking out a two-page ad in the Harrison Daily Times in response to a racist letter to the editor.

In a symbolic act of apology to a black church destroyed in the 1905 expulsion, Harrison citizens have traveled several hundred miles to offer an AME church their assistance. Church leaders have also repented for the town’s past in a prayer ceremony. As part of an effort to promote healing, the town created a college scholarship for black students named after Aunt Vine, a prominent member of the original African American community. Although she was buried in Harrison, her grave is unmarked.

The Ku Klux Klan

A group of Ku Klux Klan members, dressed in white robes and pointed hoods, carrying a burning cross

Despite these actions, the underlying problem of systematic racism remains a part of Harrison’s local culture. A faction of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the notorious white supremacy group, has its headquarters in town. Led by Thom Robb, the Harrison-based Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is the largest and most active Klan unit operating in the U.S. today. Although its membership has declined following various defections and schisms in the 1990s, the Knights currently have an active membership of about 500 people, and hold regular activities in the area championing “the rights of white Christians.”

The Confederate Flag

The Confederate flag flying next to the American flag





A Confederate flag flies outside the Harrison Chamber of Commerce as well, and the town square boasts a monument to the Sons of the Confederacy. In BANISHED, Layne Wheeler of the Chamber of Commerce claims that the flag’s display is a historical one, and not a symbol of racism. To some Southerners, the flag remains an icon of regional pride, while to others, it is a symbol of bigotry and a Confederacy that supported slavery. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) organized a national economic boycott against state tourism in South Carolina for refusing to remove the flag from its statehouse, which other Southern states had done. In 2000, the flag was removed from the statehouse, but placed instead on the Capitol lawn. The flag persists as a contested issue nationwide.

Sources

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