OPINION | Tom Dillard: Last column remembers firsts

Editor's Note: To our great sorrow, this is Tom Dillard's last weekly column. We wish him all the best in this attempt at retirement.

It was a warm summer day in 2002 when Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Executive Editor Griffin Smith invited me to lunch at Whole Hog on Cantrell Road in Little Rock. Others at the luncheon, their sleeves rolled up while doing battle with pulled pork sandwiches dripping with BBQ sauce, were editorial director Paul Greenberg and Ed Gray, editor of the book pages. Griffin's vision for a new column on Arkansas history was to add life to that neglected part of the paper.

At that time, I was director of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System in Little Rock and had just inaugurated my lifetime goal of creating, with the help of Tim Nutt at the Butler Center and Bobby Roberts, CALS director, an encyclopedia of Arkansas history and culture.

Bobby and I had been undergraduates at the University of Central Arkansas, both graduating in 1970. Three years later, we were associated once again as history graduate students in Fayetteville, and I can recall us drinking coffee in the student union and bemoaning the sad state of Arkansas history at that time.

We would shake our heads after sharing such facts as "there are more entries on Ohio in the Journal of Southern History than about Arkansas." We were unhappy with the leadership of the Arkansas Historical Association, and believed the Arkansas History Commission was dead in the water.

Arkansas history had pretty much fallen out of the public school curriculum, or was relegated to a semester taught by a coach in the off-season using a textbook published when Homer Adkins was governor -- as was my actual experience in seventh grade.

I recall us agreeing that if we were ever in a position to do something about the situation, he and I would aggressively take history to the public -- believing, or maybe simply hoping, that Arkansans were ready to reclaim their lost heritage.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas grew from those attitudes and hopes, and now -- all of a sudden -- Griffin Smith wants me to write a weekly column! This was possibly a second big opportunity to reach a large number of people.

I was eager to accept the offer, but worried about my ability to conceive, research, and write an original weekly column. With a deadline facing me every Tuesday, I fretted about rushing into print without time for reflection and refinement-- something which flies in the face of any historian. Meantime, I had more than a full-time job in developing the Butler Center and the Encyclopedia.

My solution was to give it a try, with the realization that I could always resign. Fortunately, Griffin Smith did not prescribe anything in the way of subject matter, as long as it dealt with Arkansas, and this gave me the incentive I needed to accept the offer.

Early on, I wrote about subjects I had researched in the past, including the incredible story of M.W. Gibbs of Little Rock, who became the first elected Black municipal judge in the U.S. in 1872. Gibbs, who was born free in Philadelphia in 1823, had an incredible life before he moved to Little Rock in the aftermath of the Civil War, becoming a successful merchant in Gold Rush California, making a fortune in Victoria, B.C., building a railroad to open coal mines, and serving on the Victoria City Council. In his spare time, Gibbs co-founded the first Black newspaper west of the Mississippi.

Upon moving to Little Rock, Gibbs began a long career of political and business activity. He established a bank in Little Rock in 1903, following his service as the American envoy in Madagascar.

Two columns were devoted to another postbellum Black leader and businessman, Green Thompson. He served 18 years on the Little Rock City Council beginning in 1875, the last Black person to serve before Charles Bussey was elected in 1969.

Thompson was a successful merchant and owner of Thompson Hall, the primary Black meeting place in the city. He was murdered in 1902, and the crime was never solved.

You might notice that I devoted a considerable amount of space to the history of Black Arkansans. Many readers of both races have responded eagerly. Ethnic history is of special interest to me, and I wrote columns on Polish, Italian and especially German immigrants. Researching the history of Chinese immigrants was as enlightening as it was difficult, but the resulting two-column story generated a large number of emails from readers.

Another multi-column story dealt with the roles mules have played in the history of Arkansas. Did you know that an estimated 6 million mules died in service to Union forces during the Civil War? In 1860 Arkansas was home to 10% of America's mules. It turns out many readers have memories of growing up on farms where mules were used to till the cotton fields.

No doubt some of my columns proved irritating. I wrote often on topics dealing with Reconstruction, trying to establish that on the whole, that era of harsh adjustment following the Civil War was actually a positive time as those Yankee do-gooders finally brought us a public school system, a state university, a state civil rights law, and banks. Plus, they built a system of railroads.

I never ran out of topics, but worried about that. One of my desk drawers was full of some 90 file folders holding notes on various possible columns. For example, in response to a reader suggestion several years ago, I began collecting information on the history of textile production in Arkansas. The file bulges, but I never believed I was competent to fully comprehend, much less intelligently express, how our ancestors grew their own fibers, processed them, and wove the most beautiful cloth. I did, however, report on efforts to start a silk industry in Arkansas.

One does not write a weekly column without the help and support of many people -- too many to thank by name. But my wife, Mary Frost Dillard, deserves much of the credit for critiquing drafts of my columns. Karen Martin and the other editors at the Democrat-Gazette (and Becca Martin-Brown at the Northwest Arkansas edition) were often critical in cleaning up after me. A special word of thanks to publisher Walter Hussman for his consistent encouragement.

I hope to continue in these pages as a guest contributor from time to time. Meantime, I am going to be busy revising a selection of my favorite columns for book publication. Meantime, keep my email address handy and feel free to use it.

Tom Dillard lives near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].

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