The 1920 Republican State Convention was riven by racial discord. Black men had played a major role in the state Republican Party since its founding not long after the Civil War, but the alliance had never been free of conflict.
By 1920, a substantial number of white Republicans, known as the Lily Whites, had organized to exclude Black delegates from the state convention. After hearing Andrew J. Russell, a leading Lily White from Carroll County, take the floor to proclaim "when two races undertake to ride the elephant, one must ride behind," the Black delegates and their white allies, known as the Black and Tans, held a competing convention and nominated the first Black candidate for governor in Arkansas history.
Black participation in the Arkansas Republican Party harkens back to April 1867, when the party was organized in the capital city. Three Black delegates were in attendance, and John Peyton of Little Rock served on the convention resolutions committee.
From the beginning of Reconstruction in 1867 until the early 1890s, when Black and poor white people were essentially disfranchised, Black voters had been an important political force in Arkansas, almost always as a reliable constituency of the Republican Party.
During those three decades, at least 86 Black Arkansans served in the Legislature, and Black Republicans held some of the highest offices in Pine Bluff, Helena, Little Rock and elsewhere.
Black businessman Green Thompson of Little Rock served on the city council from 1875 until 1893, when the white city fathers did away with ward elections in order to remove all Blacks from the city council.
Black allegiance to the Republican banner was not always smooth. A major debate erupted at the 1868 convention -- called to write a new constitution for the Reconstruction government -- when a white Republican delegate proposed to prohibit "rites of matrimony between a white person and a person of African descent ..."
The distribution of political spoils -- the patronage system -- was another source of contention between Black and white Republicans. As early as 1869, the editor of a Black newspaper in Little Rock complained bitterly about the iron grip white Republican officials held on government jobs, noting that Blacks held fewer than 10 of the 200 patronage positions in Pulaski County.
Much of the conflict over patronage jobs took place in the largely Black Jefferson County Republican Committee. During the McKinley administration, well-known Pine Bluff Black Republican leader Ferdinand Havis sought appointment as postmaster of Pine Bluff, only to see the job go to a white candidate. In 1905 Havis was again turned down in his quest to become the U.S. Marshal for East Arkansas.
Things came to a head in Pine Bluff in 1910 when, after much parliamentary maneuvering, the Black-led Black and Tans defeated the leader of the Lily Whites for convention chairman. As the Lily Whites left the convention in protest, victorious Blacks waved and shouted "goodbye" and joined in a rousing chorus of "Auld Lang Syne."
Despite the victory in Jefferson County, Black Republicans found the Lily Whites to be persistent and cunning opponents. Nowhere was this more the case than in Pulaski County. As early as 1877, a white candidate for Little Rock City Council had packed the nominating convention with white delegates in order to defeat Black contender, J.R. Roland.
After the turn of the 20th century, when Jim Crow segregation was in full force, the Lily Whites found a new and effective technique: They held meetings and conventions in facilities which did not admit Blacks.
The Pulaski County Republican Committee fell completely under the control of Lily Whites in 1914, whereupon it decided to hold the county convention in the Hotel Marion, the most prestigious and segregated hotel in Little Rock. The technique worked so well that it was repeated in 1916 and 1920.
The Black and Tans were furious, and usually held competing conventions. Sometimes, such as in 1902, Black Pulaski County Republicans fielded their own slate of candidates for county offices. In 1914, Dr. D.B. Gaines, a Black physician and popular pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, raised the prospect of taking the response further by nominating a Black candidate for governor. Nothing came of Gaines' proposal, but things changed by 1920.
World War I had a profound impact on the sense of expectation among Black Arkansans in 1920. Only a few months earlier, Black veterans of the Great War had helped organize a sharecroppers' union in Phillips County, which in turn resulted in the Elaine Race Massacre. Another important factor explaining the nomination of a Black man for governor was the commanding presence of Scipio A. Jones, the pre-eminent Black lawyer in Arkansas.
On Jan. 13, 1920, Jones took time from his efforts to free the 12 Elaine farmers sentenced to death in sham trials to write a letter to A.C. Remmel, chairman of the Pulaski County Republican Committee, inquiring "as to the policy of the Republican party ... as regards the Colored voters in the coming nominating convention?"
He also noted that: "The Colored people without hesitation endeavored to meet every requirement of a citizen in the prosecution of the war by cheerfully complying with every call of the government, from the giving of their sons on the battlefield, to the purchase of bonds, and the contributions of funds for war activities."
Remmel had no intention of Black participation in either the county convention or the state convention, and he won. He switched the meeting site of the county convention from the Marion to the Capital Hotel at the last minute. Jones, fellow lawyer J.A. Hibbler, and Dr. J.G. Thornton boldly marched into the Marion, where they stayed until someone turned out the lights. The Black Republicans then gathered in their own convention.
The situation was repeated at the 1920 state convention, but this time the Black delegates held a separate convention and nominated a candidate for governor, Josiah H. Blount. A respected educator from Forrest City, Blount was well received in the Black community. He polled more votes than the Lily Whites' candidate, Little Rock lawyer Wallace Townsend, in Pulaski, Jefferson and a handful of other counties, for a total of 15,627 compared to 64,339 for Townsend and 123,604 for Democrat Thomas C. McRae.
Blount and his pioneering campaign for governor in 1920 are the subject of a major exhibit at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena. Titled "1920: An Exceptional Election Year," it will be open through March 27, 2021.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]