Lynching victims deserve a place in Arkansas history.
On the night of Feb. 3, 1922, a 36-year-old African American named John Henry Harrison was murdered by a lynch mob in Malvern, Hot Spring County.
The circumstances around this lynching are not fully clear and sometimes contradictory, but all sources agree that Harrison had been arrested earlier that day for scaring and chasing white girls and women; the county sheriff had tried to sneak Harrison out of town after rumors of a lynching surfaced; and a mob of disguised white men took the accused from the sheriff and killed him in a hail of gunfire. No one was arrested, and this blatant murder went unpunished.
John Harrison was one of at least 318 documented victims of lynching in Arkansas since August 1836, only two months after Arkansas became a state, and was one of five Black men lynched in Arkansas in 1922 alone.
John Henry Harrison was born March 9, 1885, probably in Clark County. The 1910 U.S. Census found Harrison living in Caddo Township, Clark County; by 1917, when Harrison registered for the military draft, he was living with relatives at 405 Vine St. in Malvern. Three years later, the 1920 Census found Harrison living on Banks Street in Malvern.
In the early 1920s, Malvern was a bustling county seat of 3,864 people. It was a railroad town, replete with repair shops, a round house, and a sizable depot. Even more important to the economy, however, was the timber industry. High quality and abundant deposits of clay allowed Malvern to become a center of brick production by 1917, and the city received electrical service in 1914, long before most towns in the state.
Newspapers at the time reported the Harrison lynching as the first in Hot Spring County history, though follow-up reports mention two earlier possible lynchings. The African American residents of Malvern, like Black people throughout the old Confederacy, lived constrained lives because of the constant threat of racial coercion, backed up by city and county police authorities.
More ominously, Malvern had an active and politically powerful Ku Klux Klan presence. Only a month before John Harrison's lynching, the Klan headquarters in Little Rock granted a charter for the Malvern Klan chapter.
The 13 officers listed on the charter were among the elite of Malvern white society: three merchants, a jeweler, a blacksmith, a physician, a Presbyterian minister, the manager of the town's electrical plant, a bank cashier, a bookkeeper, the postmaster, a lumber mill foreman and a stock rancher.
The Malvern Klan chapter grew quickly, boasting more than 1,000 members. In March 1922, only a month after John Harrison's lynching, the Malvern Klan made a dramatic entrance during the showing of the early racist silent film "The Birth of a Nation," bursting into the Royal Theater and parading about, as historian Kenneth C. Barnes has written, to "a deafening cheer from the all-white audience."
Later, "the robed figures continued marching down Main Street to Page Avenue until they disappeared into the fog."
The Malvern Klan, Barnes wrote, flexed its racist muscles again in October 1922 when "they made a point to parade behind an electric cross through the African American section of town."
The Malvern Daily Record reported on the lynching with a headline reading "Black, Who Attempted Attacks on Women, Is Shot to Death by Angry Mob," gives more than a hint at the racist interpretation of the dismal affair.
"The negro had made three or four attempts to attack white women and girls," the paper reported, "and one attempt was only prevented yesterday afternoon by a young lady outrunning him." He had "attempted to attack several school girls near Perla." He was arrested after officers were called by a white woman whose home Harrison was "seen in the act of entering..."
All the newspaper accounts agree that Harrison refused arrest and fled the scene. He made the mistake of fleeing onto the grounds of a large sawmill in nearby Walco, where several white workers joined the pursuit. He was eventually wrestled to the ground and arrested around 3 p.m.
According to a "special" report datelined Malvern, the Arkansas Gazette reported that "mob violence was talked among the mill hands at the time [of the arrest], but they were dissuaded by officers." Instead of immediately jailing Harrison, multiple sources establish that he was taken before several witnesses, all of whom identified Harrison as the guilty party. The sheriff's office said Harrison admitted his guilt.
The Gazette story, supplied by an unnamed local correspondent, also introduced a new detail in the accusations, saying that Harrison was guilty of insulting the white women and girls "while scantily clad." Nothing so aroused the insecurity and rage of Southern white men more than Black male sexuality, and the notion of a Black man exposing himself to white women would have enraged the mob.
At about 8:30 p.m. Sheriff Bray, realizing that a lynching might be in the making, tried to sneak Harrison out of town. The prisoner was first taken to a private residence to await the arrival of a passenger train bound for Arkadelphia where he was to be jailed. About 10 p.m., the sheriff and two deputies went to the depot, where one of the deputies bought tickets while the other hid the prisoner under a seat in "the negro coach."
The Malvern Daily Record article explained what happened next: "Just as the train was ready to start, a masked man boarded the engine, and holding a revolver on the engineer, commanded him to hold the train, and at that same time, a mob of perhaps 20 stormed the coach..."
The mob acted quickly, as the Daily Record noted: "... holding the deputy, [the mob] dragged the negro from beneath two seats in the negro coach, and rushed him from the train." From there, Harrison was "taken to a spot above the depot cafe, and riddled with bullets."
The "orderly" mob then dispersed, not mutilating or burning the victim's body as happened in some lynchings. However, Harrison's body was put on public display at the F.D. Cooper Undertaking parlor where it was observed by "visitors from all parts of the county..."
The coroner convened an inquest the next morning, but no effort was made to identify the murderers, instead deciding that Harrison died at the "hands of persons unknown." The only witnesses called were from law enforcement.
So many questions were not asked at the time, the most obvious being what was Harrison's mental capacity? Any Black man who had always lived in the South -- assuming he was mentally competent -- would have known that repeated exhibitionism before white women and girls in broad daylight was decidedly risky.
The Harrison lynching will be the subject of a conference at 10 a.m. Feb. 2 at Malvern High School's Bailey Auditorium. Box lunches will be provided. Attendance is free. To register, call (501) 332-5441.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist. Email: [email protected].