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Tom Dillard: Daisy Bates, Johnny Cash first of many who should be remembered

by Tom Dillard | November 22, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.

Fundraising to create statues of Daisy Bates and Johnny Cash for Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol is reported to be going well, with about one-half of the needed $1 million pledged.

I am happy to see Bates and Cash memorialized in this fashion, as they are important to Arkansas history, having contributed mightily to the story of our country and the larger world. I hope the new statues will be the first of many to recognize worthy Arkansans who have contributed to our small southern state. As you might expect, I have some suggestions along that line.

Scipio Africanus Jones (1863?-1943) was the foremost Black attorney in Arkansas for the first half of the 20th century. He also deserves credit for saving the lives of the 12 Black defendants sentenced to death in sham trials during the aftermath of the Elaine Massacre.

The defendants had been tortured until confessing to murder charges. With assistance from the recently established National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, several prominent white attorneys were hired to appeal the death sentences. Local Black citizens and organizations raised money to hire Scipio Jones to join the team.

As Grif Stockley has written in his splendid book "Blood in Their Eyes," Jones was the defense lawyer who always rose to the occasion, pressing onward through trials and hearings while working behind the scenes to convince powerful white officials of the need to pardon if not free the accused prisoners. He also raised substantial funds to pursue the appeals.

Neither Gov. Charles H. Brough nor his successor Thomas C. McRae would budge from their hands-off attitude. But Jones and his white colleague Edgar L. McHaney of Little Rock made a formidable team, and with a little help from Judge John E. Martineau and others, they were able to delay the executions and take their appeals all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court.

Black leader W.E.B. DuBois described the trial as "the greatest case against peonage and mob law ever fought in the land ..." Finally, in January 1925, the last of the Elaine defendants were set free.

A branch post office in Little Rock was named for Jones in 2007. I know of no statues in his honor.

Jones was not the only hero to emerge from the Elaine Massacre trials. The first attorney hired to defend the Elaine prisoners was former Confederate officer Col. George Murphy. A well-regarded lawyer and former Arkansas attorney general, Murphy underwent a political transformation as he aged.

Formerly a Democrat, he ran for governor in 1913 as the Progressive Party nominee, gathering 8,109 votes while Democrat George W. Hays won with 52,581. He died during the early stages of the Elaine trials and has fallen into near historical oblivion.

John E. Martineau, who was serving as a chancery judge at the time of the Elaine appeals, earned a place in our collective memory when he signed a writ of habeas corpus on June 8, 1921, just in time to stop the execution of six of the Elaine defendants. That might not seem like an act of judicial bravery, yet it was, because Judge Martineau knew that as a chancery judge he had no jurisdiction in this criminal case. But it bought time.

The Arkansas Supreme Court had previously chided Martineau for acting outside his jurisdiction, so he was putting his professional reputation at stake in signing that writ. Fortunately, he survived any fallout and a few years later was elected governor, followed later by elevation to a federal judgeship.

It would be nice if the U.S. Postal Service, assuming it survives the remaining weeks of the Trump administration, would issue a postage stamp commemorating Judge Martineau.

Another Arkansan deserving of a bust, if not a statue, in the state Capitol building is Isaac Murphy of Huntsville. An outspoken opponent of secession, Murphy was the bravest member of the Arkansas secession convention of 1861.

Although most of the delegates won election as unionists and voted more than once against motions to secede, after fighting actually began, secessionists gained the upper hand, and all the delegates except Murphy ultimately voted to join the Confederacy.

Martha Trapnall, wife of prominent Little Rock businessman Frederick Trapnall, arose from her seat in the gallery and tossed a bouquet to Murphy as he stood his ground amongst a torrent of criticism.

Ultimately, Murphy and other unionists from Madison County had to flee the state, though his daughters remained in Huntsville, where they were repeatedly robbed and threatened before being rescued. He returned to Little Rock after federal forces captured the city in September 1863.

The following April, Murphy was inaugurated as governor of the newly-organized unionist state government.

One of the things I really like about Murphy is his emphasis on education, even in a time of war. As historian Michael B. Dougan notes in his entry on Murphy in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the new governor devoted more than one-third of his inaugural speech to the need for a public school system.

If I were king of Arkansas, one of my first edicts would be to establish a holiday in honor of Mary John. Born enslaved in the 1780s, probably at Arkansas Post, and originally known as Marie Jeanne, Mary John would go on to purchase her freedom in 1840 for $800. As if saving up that princely sum was not miracle enough, Mary John opened a tavern at Arkansas Post in 1846.

Judge J.W. Bocage of Pine Bluff recalled that Mary John's "splendid dinners at the Post of Arkansas will never be forgotten by the few survivors of her day ..." Another contemporary of John's was W.H. Halliburton, who late in life wrote about Mary John's "public house," describing it as "the most celebrated [tavern] in the state for the perfection of its cusine [sic] ..."

There is no shortage of Arkansans who did amazing things, who made extraordinary accomplishments, and who ought to be remembered. Not all of them were white, nor male, nor military commanders.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]


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