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  • Writer's pictureDennis McCaslin

Arkansas Ghost Towns: "Little Africa" - Polk County African American community

In the years between the Civil War and World War I, all-black communities sprung up all over the southern part of the United States, and these informally organized "populated places" often assumed the name "Little Africa" as a place name identifier.

Communities with that name were plentiful in places like Arkansas. Tennesee, Kentucky, South Carolina and even Alabama, with no fewer than six so-named townships in Arkansas during that time period.

One of those was an all-black community that lay near Board Camp Creek in Polk County east of the county seat of Mena.

For a few decades, it was home to many of the county’s African Americans, but the community did not survive the changing economy and growing racial hostility of the county’s white population.

The first African American to stake out a homestead in the area that would become Little Africa appears to have been Nelson Ray in 1875.

He was followed by others such as Thomas Moore (who filed for a homestead in 1884), Cicero Cole (1899), William Ray (1901), and Frank Hill (1904).

The overwhelming majority of the black residents of Center Township, where Little Africa was located, listed their occupation as farmer or farm laborer on the 1900 census, but like many farmers of the time, they not only worked their own land but also hired themselves out as labor to some of the other nearby landowners.

Their wives took on odd jobs of their own, such as doing laundry and housework for white families.

The Moore family operated a sorghum mill, while the Rays were renowned blacksmiths whose shop attracted clients, both black and white, from miles around.

The community had a church that also served as a school.

In 1897, various elements started to seek to thin out the black community in Polk County with the posting of numerous "handbills" and signs advising minorities to "mind their place" and "stay out of town when the sun goes down" signs.

There was also an incident a year later that saw the mayor "admonish a dozen boys and men" for their "campaign of terror".

Bit may historians have linked the decline of the black community of Polk County to the 1901 lynching of Peter Berryman in Mena.

In 1900, Peter Berryman, age forty-five, was living alone in a house in Mena. He could neither read nor write; his occupation is illegible on the census record.

According to various newspaper accounts, Berryman was “half-witted” and had committed several crimes in Mena, including a near-fatal attack on an engineer with an axe.

In October 1899, he had an argument with a deputy marshal because he was cooking meals in the alley behind Garrett’s Saloon. The marshal attempted to arrest him, resulting in a fight during which the marshal hit Berryman several times over the head with his billy club.

Berryman appeared in court the following morning and was fined. In general, however, the citizens of Mena seemed to tolerate his erratic behavior.

On February 19, 1901, Berryman allegedly attacked 12-year-old Essie Osborne. Essie’s mother, hotelkeeper Almira Osborne, told the Arkansas Gazette that Berryman was accustomed to coming into the family’s yard for water through an opening in their fence, but he had recently argued with the Osborne children.

Essie was sent out to board up the opening, and when Berryman encountered her, he began to tear the boards off. She threatened him with a hammer, and he kicked her in the abdomen, injuring her severely.

Berryman was arrested and jailed pending trial the following day.

In the middle of the night on February 20, Officer Al Jones was making his rounds when he was accosted by a group of masked men who “met Night Officer Jones and compelled him at the point of guns to hand over the keys and his revolver.

Two of them were left to guard Jones, while the others went to the jail and secured the negro. About 2 o’clock they returned where the officer was being guarded and gave him his keys and gun. Then the men quietly disappeared without a word.”

Jones woke up other men and began to search for Berryman. Berryman’s body was found at daylight, hanging from a tree outside of town, “gruesomely beaten, bloody, and shot.”

Berryman’s body was left at the foot of the tree so that area residents could view it. The Mena Star reported that “hundreds of curious citizens” did so.

Local historian Inez Lane, for reported in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas that after the lynching: “In a short time the families had left their farms and Polk County, some moving south to locate near Texarkana, others to Caddo Gap.”

However, economic considerations likely played as prominent a role, if not more prominent.

In 1910, the Kansas City Southern Railroad began the process of removing its division shops from Mena, a city that the railroad had essentially built.

Rumors of the railroad abandoning Mena had been circulating in one form or another for a few years at that point, and with the departure of the railroad, there also departed many black workers from Mena.

The 1900 census recorded 177 African Americans in Polk County, most of them concentrated in Mena, but the 1910 census recorded only forty-six, most of these in Center Township.

In addition, the damage to the local economy probably made it harder for the black population of Little Africa to augment farm income with outside work.

Whatever the cause, by the 1920 census, there were only nine African Americans recorded in the whole of Polk County, six of whom were in Center Township, including Cicero Cole and his wife, Ella Cole, along with their two granddaughters.

During the 1920s, the county became increasingly hostile to the presence of African Americans, with the Mena Star openly advertising that city as “100% white” in 1920 and the Ku Klux Klan holding a massive organizational rally in 1922.

Inez Lane, writing in 1977, reported that the Coles “were still living on their tiny farm near Nunley when we came to Polk County some fifty odd years ago” but, due to their age, soon moved away to be closer to relatives.

By 1930, there were only three African Americans listed on the census in the entire county.

Little Africa had vanished.

According to the US Census Bureau, Polk County continues the trend of a small black population, with just 0.6% (1200) of the estimated 20,000 residents being African American.

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