The following review first appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of the Arkansas Historical Quarterly (AHQ). It appears here with the express permission of the Arkansas Historical Quarterly.
In this powerful and important book, Kimberly Harper tells the story of how white people violently expelled African Americans from the southern Ozarks in the first decade of the twentieth century. White Man’s Heaven uses a series of four interlinked case studies to provide a nuanced account of what can only be called a pattern of racial cleansing in Southwest Missouri and Northwest Arkansas. The first case study examines the 1901 lynching in Pierce City, Missouri, of three African-American men implicated in the murder of a white girl and the subsequent armed assault on the black section of town. “The refugees ran for their lives,” Harper writes, “as the violence raged…A brave few returned only to be told that they must leave Pierce City and never return on pain of death” (p. 29). Harper concludes that the events in this Lawrence County town “served as the turning point for the rest of the southern Missouri Ozarks, confirming the acceptability of lynching and expulsion” and setting a pattern that “was repeated over the next decade across southwest Missouri and in an adjacent county in Arkansas” (p. 41).
The events in Pierce City had demographic and atmospheric effects on communities nearby that fueled the spread of violence. Many of the people who fled Pierce City settled in Joplin, Missouri, where in 1903 a white mob lynched a black man accused of murdering a police officer. The Joplin mob, inspired and perhaps joined by members of the mob of 1901, went on to attack and burn the African-American neighborhood in the city. Dozens of black families, including some of those displaced residents of Pierce City, left in fear of their lives.
These acts heightened racial tensions throughout Southwest Missouri, and led to increasing violence toward blacks in Springfield, Missouri, the region’s largest city. There on the night before Easter 1906, a white mob numbering in the thousands lynched, burned, and mutilated the corpses of three black men following claims by a white woman that two black men had attacked her. Although the Missouri National Guard prevented the mob from marauding through a black neighborhood, the triple lynching ended African-American involvement in local politics. “While blacks were not expelled from Springfield after the lynchings,” Harper concludes, “local politics and government were cleansed of African Americans…[who] would not hold office again in Springfield until the end of the twentieth century.” (p. 234). Harper rounds out her account with a brief chapter on the expulsion of black residents from Harrison, Arkansas, in 1909.
White Man’s Heaven is exquisite story-telling. Informed by rich local newspaper coverage, court records, and biographical detail, Harper’s account is powerful in its description of the racial violence and aftermath, and evocative as a sketch of the political, social, and economic history of the southern Ozarks.
Explaining why lynching became expulsion in the Ozarks, Harper cites “a culture of violence” that encouraged vigilante action when people perceived threats, in this case from African Americans at a time of rising white supremacist sentiment nationwide (p. 254). Local politics also contributed. Black voters often turned elections in the Ozarks where Democrats and Republicans were evenly matched. But, as Harper points out, neither political nor social anxieties are enough to explain the drive from racial cleansing. Since African Americans were a small minority of the population, and thus economically marginal, Harper explains, “black communities could be driven out with little to no impact on the regional economy” (p. 255). Ozarks lynch mobs, once inflamed, had little to restrain their wrath.
What Harper has done in this book is to throw open an ugly history that many people in the region would be content to leave forgotten, even though it is still there in local memory and hushed folklore. It happened in my hometown, Mount Vernon, the seat of Lawrence County, Missouri, and the physical ruins of the black community that was destroyed, probably following the events in nearby Pierce City, are still there, hidden in the woods near Interstate 44. No one in town talks about those violent events, and you could not find the place now unless you knew where to look. But that history cannot be forgotten or ignored any longer. Harper’s book is an important contribution for specialists in the field, but it is also essential reading for anyone who lives in the southern Ozarks. The story she tells of “a dark mark upon the land yet to be removed” demands a reckoning (p. 256).
University of Sussex