March is normally one of my favorite months. I usually start the month by spending two nights in Hot Springs, watching high school basketball championship games. I sometimes return to the Spa City for that town's manic St. Patrick's Day celebration. It's the month that sees winter end. Jonquils are in full bloom, trees are starting to bud and the crappie are biting.
It's the month I enjoy watching the NCAA men's basketball tournament on television. It's the month when I resume sitting on the patios of restaurants. There are trips to Oaklawn for the races and maybe even a day spent in Arkansas' wine country if our sons are home from law school on spring break.
I don't have to tell you that March 2020 was different. As I look back on a month that none of us will ever forget, I think about Thursday, March 12, the day I drove to England to speak to the annual meeting of the chamber of commerce. I took the long route to give myself time to reflect on the events swirling around me. As I neared England on Arkansas 161, tractors were breaking ground in preparation for spring planting. Along the banks of Clear Lake, old men were fishing, no doubt hoping to have crappie and bream to fry for supper.
I was struck yet again by the resiliency of Arkansans. The slow drive gave me a chance to think about the things our forebears have survived. I often give a speech titled "A State of Disaster." The subject of that talk is the succession of natural and man-made disasters that have defined much of this state's history.
Consider the natural disaster that was the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12. These earthquakes began in December 1811 and continued until April 1812. On Monday, Dec. 16, 1811, a huge earthquake began about three miles beneath what's now Blytheville. Thousands of acres of land in what are now Mississippi, Poinsett and St. Francis counties sunk. The worst of the earthquakes in early 1812 came on Jan. 23 and Feb. 4. The westward expansion of the United States was just beginning at that time, and Arkansas was already a hard place to get into. Its eastern border was made up of swamps and often impenetrable hardwood forests. With tens of thousands of acres of downed timber due to the earthquakes, this became an even tougher place to enter from the east. Arkansas was thus slow to develop, but we survived.
Consider the many scandals in Arkansas' early years as a state. Far too often, laws weren't enforced. The Arkansas Real Estate Bank was marked by constant financial mismanagement and political corruption from 1836-55. Arkansas was a wild frontier place filled with corruption. We survived.
Consider the man-made disaster that was the vote to secede from the Union. Secession wasn't preordained in Arkansas. Large parts of the state are covered by mountains, and most of those mountain residents owned no slaves. Unionist David Walker became the president of the state's secession convention in 1861, and Unionists held the majority through the convention's first session. The Confederate firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina in April 1861 changed sentiment. On May 6, 1861, Arkansas Secession Convention delegates voted to secede. We thus suffered the ravages of being on the losing side of the Civil War and the further ravages of Reconstruction. Yet we survived.
Consider the state's decision after the war to allow timber and railroad companies controlled by Northern investors to buy millions of acres of land from the public domain for next to nothing. Among the 11 former Confederate states, Arkansas was second only to Florida in the number of acres in the public domain. About 27 percent of Arkansas' acreage was unclaimed. More than 600,000 acres were purchased by speculators, who stripped the land of its timber and left it to erode. In the words of the late historian C. Fred Williams: "Not only did these companies deny the state tax revenue by taking land off the market, they deprived the state of even more revenue by transporting resources out of state for processing." Still, we survived.
In the 20th century, the Great Flood of 1927 ravaged Arkansas. The state had more people displaced and more acres under water than Louisiana and Mississippi combined. That was followed by the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, the Great Drought of 1930-31 and yet another major flood in 1937. People fled Arkansas in droves. We survived.
With the rapid mechanization of agriculture from 1940-60 in a state where cotton still dominated the economy, tens of thousands of sharecroppers and tenant farmers were no longer needed. They could find work, however, in the steel, automobile and other factories of the upper Midwest. They left. Arkansas lost a larger percentage of its population during that 20-year period than any other state. We once had seven seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. That fell to four seats due to population losses. We survived and have, in fact, been gaining population since the 1960s.
Also consider the man-made disaster that was Gov. Orval Faubus' decision to block nine black students from entering Little Rock Central High School in 1957. The Central High desegregation crisis became the biggest news story in the world that fall. Arkansas had a black eye worldwide, and economic development ground to a halt. We survived.
On that day I drove to England, the wild plum trees and tulip magnolia were in full bloom. An early spring had arrived. But so had the pandemic, something far crueler than any winter. Once more, we'll survive.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 04/04/2020