- Associated Press - Monday, July 17, 2017

TEXARKANA, Ark. (AP) - For one Texarkana woman, a recent exhibit at the Museum of Regional History about African-American men who served as Arkansas legislators holds a special, personal connection.

June Womack’s grandfather was one of just a few dozen black men who, in the days of post-Civil War Reconstruction, served in the Arkansas General Assembly. He served in the House of Representatives for the 28th General Assembly during the early months of 1891, representing Chicot County from the Delta region of the state.

The Texarkana Gazette (https://bit.ly/2ljY3k2 ) reports that Henry Augustus Johnson also served as a Justice of the Peace and, for two consecutive terms, sheriff of Chicot County. He was active in Republican Party politics, served as a delegate-alternate for the 1888 Republican National Convention and was a guest at the White House.

For a man born into slavery in North Carolina just a few decades earlier, it must have been quite a journey.

In Lake Village, Arkansas, in 2008, a park was dedicated to honor Johnson and his achievements.

And when you step into Womack’s Texas-side home, she might share with you a juxtaposition of photographs that shows how much her grandson looks like her grandfather. With their portraits beside each other, they look quite similar, and you can tell with the tone of her voice she’s lovingly proud of both.

“He looked more like him with the beard before he started his job,” Womack remarks of her grandson, Ryan Versey. Even with the beard cut shorter, the resemblance is uncanny.

Womack didn’t know her grandfather while growing up, but she’s heard the stories and family members have chronicled his accomplishments.

Among her mementos of Henry Augustus’ achievements is a photocopy of the newspaper The Freeman, touted as “A National Colored Weekly Newspaper” published in Indianapolis. This clipping dates from April 1891. Johnson, looking dignified with his healthy and voluminous beard, is pictured as one of 11 black legislators, each shown in a portrait.

Born around 1853, Womack’s grandfather grew up in Columbus, Mississippi, his father dying young, according to a bio that was part of a program brochure from the Lake Village park’s dedication. Johnson’s mother was an indoor slave, cooking and working inside for the slavemaster.

“He had a son, and the same one that taught his son taught my grandfather. And my grandfather graduated college in 1872,” Womack said. That college was Alcorn, now known as Alcorn State University. There’s a cross-generational connection there, too, because Womack’s grandson played in the Prairie View A&M; University marching band.

“When they would go to play football and the band would go and they went to (Johnson‘s) college (Alcorn State), I said, ‘Well, it really doesn’t matter who wins because my granddaddy graduated and this is my grandson, so I’m a winner any way you take it,’” said Womack, who was wearing a family reunion T-shirt. “Celebrating our heritage. The H.A. Johnson Family Reunion,” it states.

Johnson started work as a Mississippi school teacher in Washington County, then moved to Lake Village where he became schoolmaster at a school for black students. He married and owned land. From the bio: “Most publications at that time referred to him as a planter.” From there, he served in various positions of public service.

According to another newspaper clipping in Womack’s possession, Johnson was the only black sheriff in Chicot County’s history. That’s from a 1997 article published in the Chicot County Spectator.

Julienne Crawford, curator at the Arkansas State Archives, curated the touring exhibit that came to Texarkana and included Johnson among the 85 African-American legislators who served in Arkansas between 1868 and 1893, a window of just 25 years before an African-American served as a state legislator again in 1973.

These 85 men possessed a variety of backgrounds and rose to political prominence thanks to the 1868 Constitution in Arkansas that granted them the right to both hold office and vote. It was one of five state constitutions. Currently, Arkansas operates under the fifth, which dates from 1874.

African-Americans were also involved in the Constitutional Convention that granted the right to vote and hold office, developing and ratifying this document. The U.S. federal government had intervened in 1867 with new Reconstruction Acts, which led to the 1868 Constitution’s creation.

“That’s really the beginning of the Reconstruction era,” Crawford explained.

Such changes also gave rise to enhanced public education opportunities for African-Americans and strengthened the governor’s power in appointing officials like judges. Republicans increasingly served as governors and they were more supportive of African-Americans’ rights and education.

The 85 men who served in the Arkansas General Assembly were noted as either black or racially-mixed, Crawford explained, and most served in the House, only nine in the Senate.

“They were a mix of different types of people: lawyers, merchants, educators, ministers, farmers and other professionals,” the state archives curator said. “They tended to be a little bit better off than the average African-American.”

But on the whole, they weren’t as well off as their white counterparts in the General Assembly. Backgrounds varied. “There were some that had gone to college, some that had some education,” said Crawford. Not all were listed as being literate, according to the census, but most of them were and some may have later achieved literacy.

“And some were former slaves, some were freemen,” Crawford said. Some legislators, such as Johnson, also came to Arkansas from other states.

The number of African-American Arkansas legislators at one time reached a peak in 1873 with 20, said Crawford. But starting in 1874 changes were afoot, including the 1874 Constitution that hastened an increased power for Democrats. African-Americans could still vote and hold office, but the new constitution changed the centralization of authority.

Some rights continued for African-Americans, but increasingly Jim Crow laws instituted segregation, such as the Arkansas Separate Coach Law of 1891 that enforced separation between whites and blacks in trains and train stations.

“That was a big segregation law that passed,” said Crawford. And most African-Americans were against the law, which received national attention. New election laws were passed that year that created a standard state ballot, too. A literacy test was part of this.

“It affected both African-Americans and a lot of uneducated white voters, too,” Crawford said. Then, in 1892, a poll tax was enacted, so people couldn’t afford to vote anymore. This led to the disenfranchisement of thousands of Arkansas citizens who could previously vote.

“By the 1894 elections, there were 65,000 fewer voters, which is a one-third drop in the amount of people voting from 1890,” Crawford said.

At the same time, educational opportunities continued with the start of historically black colleges and universities, such as the college that eventually became the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Philander Smith College. Many blacks moved to urban centers, said Crawford, but there they often worked jobs with a lower economic status, such as the position of porter.

“There was more of a middle class coming about for African-Americans,” Crawford added. But there was also the resentment, violent lynchings included, visited upon blacks in Arkansas.

This is the backdrop against which men like Johnson made their achievements and then lost their rights. And the Reconstruction era when these African-American men served in the General Assembly and found more equality is a time from which we can learn a lot, says the archives curator.

“I think it’s an important part of our history that’s often overlooked,” Crawford said.


Information from: Texarkana Gazette, https://www.texarkanagazette.com

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