Opinion

Tom Dillard: Throughout history, newspapers are community diaries of Arkansas

My heart sank recently upon reading that the newspaper in Warren, The Eagle Democrat, will cease publication if a buyer is not found soon.

The newspaper began in 1913 in the village of Hermitage and moved to Warren the following year when it was taken over by Columbia University-trained lawyer J. Crawford Jolly. Mr. Jolly and his paper succeeded when so many previous newspapers had failed -- The Sunbeam, the first newspaper in the county, started in 1857; a reformist agrarian journal named Free Thought; and Swift's Flying Needle, an odd newspaper started by an eccentric physician.

For students of Arkansas history, the newspaper is perhaps our single most important research source. The isolated and rugged Arkansas frontier did not attract a highly literate culture, so state and local historians must rely heavily on newspapers, since the early settlers tended not to leave large collections of letters, detailed memoirs or diaries.

In today's post-literate society, it is difficult to understand how important newspapers were to early Arkansans. Every Arkansas hamlet had at least one newspaper at some point in its history. Everyone knows about the first newspaper published in Arkansas, the Arkansas Gazette, established by William E. Woodruff in 1819, the year Arkansas became a territory. But have you ever heard of The Spyglass, published in Conway? Or, how about Searcy's Arkansas Mule?

Then there were the German language newspapers, of which Arkansas Staats Zeitung and Arkansas Echo, both of Little Rock, were the most widely read. Among the smaller German papers was Der Logan County Anzeiger. In recent years Arkansas has also been home to two Spanish language newspapers.

About 200 Black-owned newspapers have been published in Arkansas. The Arkansas Freeman, established in 1869, only four years after the Civil War, was the first Black newspaper in the state. Tabbs Gross, its highly opinionated editor, was active in creating what became the Arkansas Press Association, thus making it the first integrated professional body in the state.

One of the older Black journals in the state and more or less still in publication is The Baptist Vanguard, the official voice of Black Baptists of Arkansas, established in 1882.

Modern readers would probably be surprised if not dismayed by the vehemently partisan nature of most 19th-century Arkansas newspapers. From the beginning, Democrats benefited from the considerable clout wielded by the Arkansas Gazette. The second newspaper created in Arkansas, The Arkansas Advocate, was established for the specific purpose of promoting the political interests of the Whig Party.

Young Albert Pike, who went on to become a prosperous lawyer, soldier and Whig leader, was an early editor of The Advocate. C.F.M. Noland, the wayward son of a prominent Virginia family who had been sent west for rehabilitation, was a fiercely partisan Whig journalist. (In 1831 he killed Gov. John Pope's nephew in a duel.)

One early editor who eschewed politics was William M. Quesenbury, generally known as Bill Cush, who founded the Southwest Independent in Fayetteville. Unlike most early Arkansas editors, Cush was a native Arkansan and well read. As a youth he was fascinated by the diverse journalism scene in Van Buren, where newspapers were in lively conflict with papers in nearby Fort Smith.

Cush was a man of many talents, including a provocative writing style and the ability to draw. His woodblock prints were among the early cartoons to illustrate Arkansas newspapers. He also knew how to turn out humorous copy. Here's how Cush quoted a local farmer on recent cold weather: "I've been married nigh on to 40 years, but I slept closer to Betsy last Friday night than I ever did before in my life."

Another unusual antebellum Arkansas editor was Elias Cornelius Boudinot, the editor of The Arkansian in Fayetteville. Born into the Cherokee tribe in Georgia in 1835, Boudinot was educated as a lawyer before coming west during the Trail of Tears. He probably knew Fort Smith editor John F. Wheeler, who got his start in newspaper work by printing the Cherokee language newspaper The Phoenix.

Among the more memorable newspaper characters of the last century was Roberta Fulbright, the outspoken publisher of Northwest Arkansas Times and the mother of U.S. Sen. J.W. Fulbright. Another noteworthy newspaperwoman from Northwest Arkansas was Maud Duncan, publisher of Winslow American from 1918 to 1958. Tipping the scales at less than 80 pounds, Duncan was called "the Little Printer of the Ozarks."

The rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan after World War I divided the newspaper world as it did the other components of life in Arkansas and throughout much of the nation. In Marshall, the county seat of Searcy County, both of the local weeklies -- one Democratic and one Republican -- supported the KKK. Local Klan opponents, however, established their own newspaper, The Eagle. The masthead proclaimed: "The idea of an invisible empire in a free republic is nothing less than visible nonsense."

Ozell Sutton became the first Black reporter for a major Arkansas daily newspaper in 1950 when the Arkansas Democrat hired him. Though he faced many obstacles, Sutton persevered in his job and succeeded in convincing the newspaper to begin referring to Blacks as Mr. or Mrs.

Arkansas has had a number of alternative newspapers which deal with matters often overlooked by the mainstream press. Among the more widely read was the Grapevine, published in Fayetteville from 1970 to 1993. Arkansas Times magazine began in 1974 as an alternative newspaper and was briefly named Union Station Times.

Some time when you have a free afternoon, go to the library and take a look at some of our early newspapers on microfilm. You will discover that newspapers are, as newspaper historian Michael Dougan has written, the "community diaries" of Arkansas.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County--where he reads the Malvern Daily Record. Email him at [email protected].

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