Harrison housing project causes controversy

Project led by George Floyd’s uncle, council member sparks controversy

Harrison city councilwoman Elizabeth Darden speaks to a crowd of about 200 Tuesday night at Signature Tower about Hope929 and the Gateway Harrison project. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Bill Bowden).
Harrison city councilwoman Elizabeth Darden speaks to a crowd of about 200 Tuesday night at Signature Tower about Hope929 and the Gateway Harrison project. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Bill Bowden).


HARRISON -- A Harrison City Council member and George Floyd's uncle plan to build an affordable apartment complex, call center and community resource center just outside the city limits on the north side of town.

Gateway Harrison will provide 30 apartments and jobs for 50 area residents, Council Member Elizabeth Darden told a crowd of about 200 who attended a public meeting about the project on Tuesday night at Signature Tower.

She said it's not a homeless shelter or halfway house, but an effort to help people from "historically marginalized groups" who need help to take the next step to transition up.

Gateway Harrison has anonymous donors and potentially $10 million available over time, she said.

But some area residents say the project is about race, and that's a topic that many in Harrison would rather avoid.

A news release about the development indicated it would help "the people of Harrison, Arkansas, a location once labeled the most racist town in America."

"We chose to do this in Harrison, Arkansas because we want to show there is nowhere in America we won't go to help people make their lives better and we plan on trying to bring similar projects to other communities," the release quoted Selwyn Jones as saying.

Jones was the uncle of George Floyd, a Black man whose death on May 25, 2020, in police custody sparked protests across the country.

Darden and Jones founded a national nonprofit organization called Hope 929, which was incorporated in Delaware. The 929 stands for the nine minutes and 29 seconds that Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd's neck before he died, said Darden.

Floyd's death had "nothing to do" with Harrison or a housing project planned for the area, Bo McGarrah said during a question-and-answer session near the end of Tuesday's meeting.

And the name Hope 929?

"You guys make us sound racist when you use that, and we're not," McGarrah said, drawing applause from the crowd.

"What inspired our organization does not have a direct correlation with the project we're doing here," Darden told the crowd. "We were inspired to create a company that implements tools for societal problems. The community development doesn't have anything to do with what happened in 2020."

"How can we stop this if the people don't want it?" another man asked.

"Well, you can't," replied Darden.

Being outside the city, the development didn't have to go through the Harrison Planning Commission or City Council for approval, said Wade Phillips, Harrison's chief operating officer and city engineer.

And there are no zoning laws in the county, said Robert Hathaway, the county judge.

The property Hope 929 plans to buy is located northeast of the intersection of Arkansas 7 and Arkansas 43. It's behind businesses that line the east side of Arkansas 7 in that area. Darden said they plan to buy 5 acres with an option to buy another 5 acres.

In a telephone interview Friday, Darden said she moved from Alaska to Harrison 12 years ago. Her mother grew up in Harrison, and Darden visited the city during summers when she was a child.

Darden has deep roots in the Ozark Mountains. Her great-great-great-grandfather, Beaver Jim Villines, was a fur trapper who built a log cabin in Ponca in 1882. It still stands today.

Darden said she serves on the Harrison Community Task Force on Race Relations, which was founded in 2003 to combat negative publicity.

"The world sees Harrison, Arkansas, as something that it's not," she told the crowd on Tuesday. "I wanted to show the world that this is such a wonderful place. People have created a mockery of Harrison. It's not true. ... You all are wonderful people."

Harrison has been dogged by image problems since racial unrest more than a century ago. The problem was exacerbated in the 1980s when Thom Robb, leader of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, moved to rural Boone County and began using a Harrison post office box for the group's mailing address.

"Though nowhere near as murderous as other race riots across the state, the Harrison Race Riots of 1905 and 1909 drove all but one African American from Harrison, creating by violence an all-white community similar to other such 'sundown towns' in northern and western Arkansas," according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "With the headquarters of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan located nearby, Harrison has retained the legacy of its ethnic cleansing, in terms of demographics and reputation, through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 0.1% of Harrison's 13,338 residents are Black and 3.4% are of two or more races.

A 2016 article in The Daily Mirror in the United Kingdom dubbed Harrison "the most racist town in America."

Through the Task Force on Race Relations, Darden met Jones in 2021, when he came to Harrison to participate in events held by the Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission.

Darden and Jones soon began working together on the podcast "Setting it Straight with Selwyn Jones" to "lift the voices" of people seeking justice. Initially, Darden was one of the producers, but now she's a co-host.

Darden said she realized they were doing a lot of talking, but they needed to implement solutions, so they founded Hope 929 "with the mission to help historically marginalized groups, give them the tools to become more self-sufficient."

"In that, we are empowering communities and building more equitable futures and that is our goal," she said.

Hope 929's foundational pillars are community development, public safety, education and social outreach, said Darden.

"We are promoting this to the people of Harrison, not going to other cities to bus people in," said Darden. "That's been one of the biggest misrepresentations. ...

"So people are like, 'Oh my goodness, you're bringing in the ghetto. This is going to be the projects, the hood. You're going to have a crime-ridden community,'" said Darden. "They're putting out all this false information and fear."

There's an FAQ section on Hope 929's website to help answer some of the questions people have been asking.

The group sent out a news release in late October saying they were about to break ground on the development, but Darden said construction hasn't really started yet. Board members and part of Hope 929's executive team were in the vicinity, so Oct. 27 was a good time for a groundbreaking ceremony, she said.

"The Uncle of George Floyd, having established a charity in his nephew's name, is breaking ground for a new community space, call center and affordable housing development," according to the news release. "His organization is looking to elevate lives with a project that will deliver employment opportunities, housing, and essential resources for the people of Harrison, Arkansas, a location once labeled the most racist town in America."

Some people at the meeting on Tuesday questioned whether an affordable housing development is needed in Harrison. Darden said there are currently 410 households seeking affordable housing. That includes people in Harrison as well as the seven counties covered by the Northwest Regional Housing Authority -- Baxter, Boone, Carroll, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy.

Darden said Gateway Harrison will have six efficiency studio apartments, seven one-bedroom apartments, 10 two-bedroom apartments and seven three-bedroom apartments.

Darden said Hope 929's first project of this kind is being built in the Harrison vicinity because she lives there, she's raising her children there, and she knows there are people who need help in Harrison.


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