Racial History of Howell County Part III
Wed, 09/02/2020 - 3:01pm admin
It is my impression, based on source documents I've read in the old courthouse and county records elsewhere, the non-white population of Howell County continued to diminish after the Civil War. It remained low for decades, below one percent of the total population. Negroes freed after the war did not stay probably due to a lack of jobs and an opportunity for younger men and women to find mates. An economic recession after the Civil War, social unrest, and violence between former combatants for at least a decade made Howell County an unattractive place for people of color.
Prosperous white families moving into the area in the late 1870s and 1880s brought a few black servants with them, mostly women serving as domestics in homes.
The arrival of the railroad changed our diversity picture a bit. Before the construction of the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Memphis Railroad in 1881 and 1882, Colonel John C. Evans of Clay County, Missouri, purchased 2,280 acres of un-cleared land in the area now known as Olden. Evans brought peach trees from Texas with the intent of planting the majority of that land in peaches. When the railroad reached his property at the end of 1882, Evans entered into a working relationship with Benjamin Franklin Olden, an attorney for the railroad. Their business dealings and friendship led to a community that sprang up along the tracks, and in Evans, renaming the place "Olden."
It's a long story to be explained another time, but Olden had already been known as Albina since 1872, then Edom since 1880, then Hynes for about a month, then Edom again. Edom was named after Doctor J.C.B. Dixon's son Edom, who at the time was a foreman for a railroad construction camp there. In January 1883, Colonel Evans started a post office at Olden and also began what was said at the time to be the biggest orchard in the United States, maybe the world. A lot of work had to be done fast to make that happen. Other orchards were already growing in the Olden area, but Evans started by clearing thousands of acres using imported labor. That labor was provided by a train carload of negroes hired by B.F. Olden in Oxford, Mississippi, for that purpose. Many would become the black citizens of West Plains.
Initially, several of these black families seized on the opportunity to homestead land or purchase cheap railroad land around Olden and try their hand at farming for themselves. An enclave of negro families grew at Olden during the 1880s and 1890s, and a black community was established on the north edge of West Plains. It was known as "Illinois Town," or more often the racist term, "N-town," was used. The community was located near the home of B.F. Olden.
Between these two negro communities, a cemetery was established, known later as the Sadie Brown Cemetery, in honor of a prominent negro woman. There are between seventy and one hundred graves in this cemetery, located near the junction of Highways 63 and 14.
So let's back up a bit. The first black homestead established in the county predates all this orchard building activity. Still, it seems to, in some way, be related to the arrival of the other negro group living in this same area between Olden and West Plains. We find William Bobo residing in that community in 1870 with his wife and three mulatto children. Morris Farrar, Isaac Farrar, and Anderson Moore all appear with homestead completions in the late 1870s. I've not figured out what if any relationship these folks' homesteads had to the group arriving from Oxford, Mississippi. But, you don't see any black settlement in the county anywhere else in this period.
In 1884 B.F. Olden and J.C. Evans continued buying additional land for fruit farming, and Olden went south to hire more black laborers to work their farms. Their arrival brought more homestead claims and land purchases by black families. Their names included Campbell, Dyer, Oaks, Ball, Bradley, Brown, Wade, and Jackson. Another homesteader in the period was George Shaw, who eventually moved to West Plains and became one of the best know African Americans in the community.
On the occasion of George Shaw's death in January 1918, the West Plains Journal wrote a multi-column synopsis of his life, based, to a degree, on George's narrative about himself. I'm not sure of the veracity of all of his story, but the Journal wrote:
"George Shaw, West Plains' oldest negro character, is dead. His lifeless body was ground on the floor of his home on 'N-Hill,' in the northern part of the city, by his two small children, who ran screaming through the snow to the home a neighbor to tell them that daddy was dead."
"For several months, Uncle George, as everyone called him, had been in failing health. He was suffering with dropsy. Sometime during the night, George got up to build a fire, fell on the floor, and died. Uncle George was somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 years old. He was an interesting talker and often told vivid stories of his early life in Africa, when he was captured by slave traders and brought to the United States and sold on the block. These stories were rarely believed. Before the Civil War, he was a slave on the plantation of William Shaw, a wealthy planter of Oxford, Mississippi."
"George Shaw was brought to West Plains with a colony of 30 negroes from Oxford, Mississippi, by Judge B.F. Olden in 1883. This was just following the completion through Howell County of the K.C.F.S & M. Railroad. Judge Olden, then a prominent West Plains attorney and for whom the town of Olden was named, had a number of these negroes working on his farm. They were the first negroes brought to this colony. Others in the colony who still reside are Pony Thomas, Morris Farrar, Mack Alexander, and Henry Peguese. They had a hard time, and their condition did not greatly improve as time went on."
The article went on to describe George's occupation as a laborer throughout his life, leading to an injury in a quarry explosion in Williford, Arkansas, that killed a son and cost George an eye and several fractured ribs. He established a reputation as a well-digger. The article relates the time he was hired by, "The trustees at the State Fruit Experiment Station at Mountain Grove to dig a large cistern at the station. Now, the citizens of Mountain Grove will not permit a negro to even hesitate in that town. George and two of his boys did not know this when they stepped from the train at Mountain Grove with their picks and shovels and proceeded to the fruit station a mile outside the city limits. The next day the astonished negroes were notified to get out of town, and in their hasty departure, they forgot their tools. The negroes walked home, a distance of 50 miles."
Though this was supposed to be an article intent on showing George's life and contributions to the community, it reveals the dark side of how blacks were treated here during the Jim Crow era. The writer of this article and editor for the West Plains Journal Gazette was a rabid racist. His words were often objectionable, and some I refuse to include in anything I write but will preserve some of it for this story. He continued,
"When the negroes here celebrated emancipation day Uncle George barbequed the meat. He was a great eater, a most powerful man, with a mouth like the opening of a cave. At the picnics here, the boys always bet on Uncle George in the chicken-eating contest, and George always won. He devoured his chicken, bones, and all before other darkeys were well underway and then took a part of the fowls from other contestants."
"When eggs were ten cents a dozen and picnics were held every Saturday during the summer, George made some easy money. For a dollar a day, he 'hired out" to a manager as a star attraction. The old darkey put his head through a hole in a sheet, and the boys and men threw eggs at him. Upon one occasion, a youth from Ozark county, who could knock a squirrel from the highest limb of a sycamore tree with a rock, broke up the fun. he slipped in a china nest egg and in one throw put the negro out of business."
"One dreary day in October 1903, the denizens of "N-Hill" were startled by receiving letters which read, 'N,' don't let the sun set on you another day in West Plains. Signed, Committee.' That was moving day in C--ntown. Every negro left except George Shaw and his family. 'I ain't skeered of no Committee,' George told the thoroughly scared negroes. Some of them went South on the first train. Others went to the home of the late Colonel E.C. Markham, where they remained for several days. Colonel Markham had been commander of a negro regiment in the Civil War, and the negroes had faith in him. He armed them with guns, but the 'Committee' didn't come."
As a consequence, George was elevated in the black community and looked upon as a leader for the remainder of his life. He outlived several wives and fathered four of his children between the age of eighty-three and eighty-eight. George was alone at home with the youngest of his children when he died during the winter of 1917-1918. He is buried in the Sadie Brown Cemetery mentioned earlier, along with so many of those black men and women of Oxford, Mississippi, who came in railcars to work the orchards.
The editor of the West Plains Journal-Gazette, Will Zorn, who wrote the article about George Shaw cited here, never missed an opportunity to put in a dig against the African American race in his paper. As a consequence, he was eventually fired from his job as Postmaster of West Plains in 1922, in part for an editorial against Republican President Harding and his administration in which he was critical of their policies, as he put it, "on the "N-" question.