White Man’s Heaven reviewed in Journal of Southern History by John Williams Graves

The following review first appeared in the February 2012 issue of the Journal of Southern History. It appears here with the express permission of the Journal of Southern History.

Just four days after the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, the school board of the Ozarks mountain town of Fayetteville, Arkansas, voted to admit seven black to the high school, beginning in the fall term. Fayetteville’s school district thus became the first in the states of the former Confederacy to authorize compliance with Brown. The contrast with the fierce resistance to school desegregation that occurred in 1957 in Little Rock was striking. Anyone, however, who concluded that racial attitudes were inherently better among whites of the mountain South might well be disabused of the idea after reading this excellent study by Kimberly Harper. She examines in detail the circumstances that led to the lynching and expulsion of African Americans from five towns in the southern Ozarks between 1894 and 1909: Monett, Pierce City, Joplin, and Springfield in southwest Missouri and Harrison in northwest Arkansas.

One of those circumstances may have been the culture of the region itself, where traditions of the frontier lingered, including “folkways of extralegal violence, honor, and vigilantism” (p. 1). However, modernity was intruding into the southern Ozarks through expanding railway lines, new railway towns, and lumber and mining camps and settlements. Concomitantly, there arrived groups of transient laborers given to violent behavior. Violence, however, was not restricted to these groups. Both middle- and working-class whites, from the towns and from the surrounding countryside, participated in the bloodlettings. In numerous instances they and their black victims had resided together in the same communities for years.

Why then, one wonders, were there sudden eruptions of white racial hatred? Echoing an idea first advanced by Howard N. Rabinowitz and others, Harper hypothesizes that part of the explanation for such racial explosions may be generational. Younger blacks not conditioned by the experiences of slavery may not have abided by the old racial etiquette; if so, some whites no doubt would have seen them as insolent and rebellious. Further inflaming local whites were the perceptions, correct or not, that black-on-white crime rates were increasing and that the “local judiciary was too weak and ineffective to uphold the law,” in part because of the alleged refusal of blacks to testify against members of their own race (p. 39). In the minds of whites, therefore, even blacks who were not themselves accused of crimes shared in a kind of collective guilt, making it only right and proper to expel all blacks from their midst. Furthermore, local political conflicts and competition enhanced the feeling among some whites that mass expulsions of African Americans were needed and desirable. Since relatively few blacks resided in these Ozark locales and for the most part occupied only menial and marginal positions in the workforce, they could be driven out with little adverse economic impact.

Harper very effectively weaves into her narrative numerous contemporary newspaper reports and eyewitness accounts. While at times she might have better related local happenings to broader developments and changes in racial attitudes and policies that were occurring throughout the nation, this shortcoming is compensated for by the vividness and sense of immediacy that she brings to the local events she describes. An invaluable work, White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894-1909 supports and importantly expands on recent studies of sundown towns and racial cleansing by James W. Loewen and Elliot Jaspin. Harper’s study also complements and reinforces the earlier investigations of Gordon B. McKinney concerning the prevalence of racial prejudice in the eastern Appalachian South. The notion that whites living in the southern highlands have been somehow immune from the racism and intolerance that are an undeniable part of American and southern history is belied by all these studies.

John William Graves

Henderson State University

This entry was posted in Book Praise, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.