Special Report: A Hidden History of Ozark Sundown Towns

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GRAPHIC CONTENT WARNING—This report contains strong language but we are sharing this with you in order to preserve the historical accuracy of that era.

Sundown towns are a hidden past of Northwest Arkansas some have chosen to forget but others remember firsthand.

For decades, signs banning black people from several cities after sundown graced the region.

Many say history repeats itself, but this is a past some Northwest Arkansans hope to never see again.

In 1956, 11-year-old William Flanagan was on his way to a little league baseball game and came across a black truck driver who was stranded and in need of food.

“He just came out of the woods to where I could see him,” said Flanagan. “His truck broke down and they had to get parts. The parts had to be sent in so he was sleeping in the woods right behind the place cause he could be seen there in the daytime at the station, but he couldn’t be seen at night.”

Flanagan remembers what the man wanted. He said he had him get a hot beef sandwich with a side of mashed potatoes, green beans and gravy.

Though he couldn’t recall the driver’s name, the curious kid in him remembers why the man had to hide because of Sundown signs that banned blacks from being in town after sundown.

“He could be in trouble. He could be hung, or beat up, or hurt, or killed or something like that,” said Flanagan.

While some remember the signs, it is hard to prove their existence. A historian with the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History says the museum has no record of the signs, though they are a part of Springdale’s lore.

There are similar stories from Rogers where, again, there are few records at the city’s historical museum, however some artifacts do remain.

An editorial published in a 1962 version of the Rogers Daily News sent the town’s chamber of commerce into an uproar.

Fats Domino, a black pianist, had come to town that January and an author penned an article pointing out the irony of a black singer coming to a town that once had signs boasting “N*gger, you better not let the sun set on you in Rogers.”

Jimmye Whitfield, who too remembers the sundown town signs said “your parents could look at you and say you shouldn’t go up there. You’re like why…oh just don’t go there. They don’t want you up there.”

Whitfield watched the discrimination from a distance in her hometown of Fayetteville. She says there were no sundown signs posted in the city, but the now 72-year-old recalls her time spent studying at the University of Arkansas and said the racism was just as present.

“They’d [students would] call you n*ggers…all kinds of names. Darkies, and whatever,” she said.

As you drive through Northwest Arkansas today, you won’t see sundown signs.

Flanagan believes a storm came over and nobody put it back up, and it was never replaced.

Dr. Guy Lancaster, Historian and Editor of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, says segregation separated the natural state decades ago and left a lasting effect behind.

“The important thing to remember is that when these signs reportedly came down post World War II era, the attitudes remained for many decades,” he said. “Historically, one has been able to draw a line down from Blytheville in Northeastern Arkansas to Texarkana in the southwest and both sides of the line would exhibit radically different racial compositions,” with western and northern Arkansas having a mostly white population.

Lancaster did add there is more diversity in the population today and credits companies like Walmart and Tyson for their incorporation of minorities, helping make sundown towns a “sign” of the times that perhaps withered away.

“I think what I’m starting to see is that old guard is just kind of gone underground more or less, more or less. And life goes on. The evolution of humanity is taking place. Really. These attitudes and things that separate human beings from others, it’s dying out,” Whitfield said.

According to a 2010 census black people made up 3% of the population in Washington County, and 1% in Benton County.

To promote African American culture, the region holds an Martin Luther King, Jr. event in January, recognizes Black History Month in February, and in June commemorates the end of slavery with a Juneteenth celebration.

This story was originally reported by Tevin Wooten. You can follow this report and more at Tevin’s Twitter or Facebook page.

[Editorial note: Anna Stitt and Joel Kattner also contributed to this story.]

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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