Opinion

Tom Dillard: Railroads helped start aggressive immigrant recruitment after Civil War

Railroads play a huge role in the story of Arkansas. In addition to opening up the state, providing a means for participation in the national economy, and speeding up travel, the railroads brought in large numbers of immigrants.

This was especially the case with the efforts of the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad, with the company even signing an agreement with the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock to set aside lands for Catholic immigrants.

That is why Arkansas has a whole string of ethnic Catholic communities between Little Rock and Fort Smith, Subiaco Abbey in Logan County being the most prominent. Less well known were the efforts railroads made to recruit Black immigrants from the troubled old South.

A few years ago, when I was director of Special Collections at the University of Arkansas, we purchased from online auction house eBay a 16-page booklet exhorting Black residents of the southeast United States to relocate to Arkansas.

Throughout the 1800s, Arkansas and other frontier states endured a great labor shortage. During Reconstruction following the Civil War, Arkansas began an aggressive campaign to attract immigrants, especially from German-speaking countries. Black residents of the southeastern states were targeted, too.

The Reconstruction constitution provided for the office of Commissioner of Immigration and State Lands, and a Black political leader, William H. Grey of Helena, was elected to the office in 1872.

The state Immigration Commissioner had a tiny budget, and his office was never particularly successful, though some German language brochures were distributed. It was the coming of the railroads in the early 1870s, especially the Little Rock & Fort Smith, which brought in large numbers of immigrants.

The railroads had received vast expanses of federal land as an inducement to build the lines, and every immigrant represented a potential buyer for that land. While the state government put little money into recruiting immigrants, many railroad companies aggressively sought them, including hiring labor agents to scour the southeastern states in search of dissatisfied Blacks.

University of Central Arkansas emeritus history professor Kenneth C. Barnes has written that one flamboyant agent, Robert A. "Peg Leg" Williams, claimed to have relocated some 80,000 Black workers from the southeast to the Mississippi Valley between 1883 and 1890. C.A. Rideout, a Black lawyer at Morrilton, often worked as a labor agent, including for the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad.

Both the railroads and independent labor agents often engaged in questionable practices, including depicting Arkansas as a land of milk and honey.

William Pickens, who would later become a field secretary for the NAACP, was brought as a child to Arkansas when his parents were recruited from South Carolina to relocate to an Arkansas plantation in 1888. Pickens recalled in his autobiography that the land agent had portrayed Arkansas as "a tropical country of soft and balmy air, where cocoanuts, oranges, lemons, and bananas grew ..." Departing in January, the family encountered heavy snow and biting winds in Memphis before reaching Woodruff County and a one-room hut where they spent the rest of the winter. Oranges and bananas, indeed!

The immigration agents found Black residents throughout the southeast ready to give Arkansas a chance. Political repression, along with economic distress, had grown in many southern states as Reconstruction came to an end in the latter 1870s. Nowhere was this more the case than in Edgefield County, S.C. Racial and political violence were severe in much of the state, but particularly in "Bloody Edgefield."

At first, many South Carolina Blacks sought to emigrate to Africa, but an 1879 attempt to organize an exodus to Liberia failed. Disappointed Blacks began to look westward. A large number of Black southerners moved to Kansas, with others going to Texas and a few to Oklahoma. But among South Carolina's Edgefield County Blacks, Arkansas became a place of special appeal.

In 1881, two Edgefield County residents started a club to promote migration to Arkansas, and by Christmas of that year the roads out of the county were packed with wagons and carts headed to the nearest rail point, Augusta, Ga., bound for "Rockansas."

Within two weeks, whole communities in Edgefield County were deserted. Historian George B. Tindall has estimated that 5,000 Blacks left Edgefield in the last week of December 1881. One local newspaper predicted that 20,000 acres of land in that county would go unplanted the following spring.

Some South Carolina Black political leaders were appalled by the exodus, realizing that it would dilute Black political strength. Likewise, white South Carolina agricultural leaders opposed the out-migration since it depleted their labor supply.

Labor agents working in Edgefield County found themselves facing angry mobs, and Rideout, the Black Morrilton attorney who worked for the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad, was forced to hide in the woods until he could make his way back to Arkansas.

This was the setting when in 1883 the Rev. V.H. Bulkley, author of the booklet, came to Arkansas to inspect the conditions faced by South Carolinians in their new home. Bulkley claimed in the pamphlet that he had previously preached against emigration, but he had changed his mind after going to Arkansas. "I am now fully persuaded that the hand of Almighty God is in this emigration," Bulkley wrote.

The 16-page booklet suggested that not only had Bulkley changed his mind;, he seemed to be actually promoting the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad, and most likely was on their payroll. Bulkley praised Arkansas extravagantly, including the topic of race relations. "I tried in vain," he wrote, "to find a white gentleman opposed to the emigration of colored people to Arkansas."

The state's Black population soared during the 1880s, increasing by 98,431. That Black growth rate exceeded any other southern state.

Only five years following the publication of Bulkley's booklet, Arkansas was roiled with racial violence, most prominently in the 1888 elections in which Black ballots were stolen in many counties. Elected Black county officials in Crittenden County were run out of town at gunpoint. Within another five years, Black voters had been disfranchised, and rigid segregation laws had been adopted.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]. An earlier version of this column was published July 22, 2007.

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