Miscegenation Laws, Long Gone, Leave A Generational Divide in Arkansas City

Nov 18, 2016

  

Paul Fletcher, 49, looks on as Derondrick Daniel, 23, and C.J. Edgerson, 25, work.
Credit Bobby Ampezzan/ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

  Little Rock director Jeff Nichols’ movie Loving, about the Supreme Court case that extirpated anti-miscegenation laws in 1967, opens nationwide today. But what does that mean for folks in Arkansas City, where the nearest movie theater is the Hollywood in Monticello, about 50 miles away, where it's not playing anyway?

For the imagination, then, Arkansas City denizens can entertain this nugget of true crime in their own backyards: In the second half of the 19th century, when the traffic on the Mississippi River and the loamy Delta soil together made for a surefire boom town, there lived a Desha County sheriff, popularly elected and upward. By the early 1880s, though, he'd been smitten by a "mulatto," Missouri Bradford, with whom he bore a child (though married and father of two white children). To keep matters private, he moved Bradford to Memphis, and to keep her quiet, found a minister who'd marry them.  

The couple's name was printed in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and soon Bankston was brought up on charges stemming from anti-miscegenation statutes. Inside a Memphis courthouse, the sheriff didn't deny he'd married a black but, rather, that he himself wasn't a white. He was American Indian.

More for lack of evidence to the contrary than definitive proof, the jury sided with Bankston. The case was settled. Rather than return to life with his white family — or the young mother, Bradford — he returned to the courthouse to deliver a bullet to one of the prosecuting attorneys, who himself happened to be concealing a knife. Bankston shot the man dead, but the dying man lunged and pierced the sheriff, mortally.

Ricky Morgan, 48, and Charlie Stinson, 60
Credit Bobby Ampezzan/ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Today, Desha County is almost evenly black and white. More than two generations after Jim Crow segregation, the houses in and around the county courthouse in Arkansas City are fairly mixed. As Charlie Stinson, a 60-year-old African American said, "Growing up, the one's that're racist, now they're kids are marrying black."

So is Arkansas City's racial legacy, perhaps emboldened by the libertine, Bankston, one of racial amalgamation?

Or residual segregation?

A LEGACY

In this little Delta town, cupped by steep Mississippi River levees on two sides, a reporter cannot throw a microphone at a voice and not eventually hear, "I used to be mayor here."

Two such emeriti are Carolyne Blissett and Rick Bixler, 62 and 74. Both are white, both lived many years of Jim Crow segregation — and both are the parent (Bixler) or grandparent (Blissett) of women who married and produced offspring with black men. 

Former Arkansas City Mayor Rick Bixler, 74
Credit Bobby Ampezzan/ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

"You know, I'm old school," Bixler says. "It's accepted today, but there's lots of people, it's like voting for Trump, you don't want to talk about it, but there's lots of people deep down has got mixed feelings about it. But it's something that you've got to accept in our society today and move on."

His daughter lives in New Jersey now, and he didn't elaborate on his relationship with her, but he added his hunch that what "puts me uneasy is, it seems like when this stuff happens, it has a tendancy to destroy our moral values."

Blissett was more effusive, and more conflicted. When her granddaughter, who lives now in Louisiana, first began going with her husband, she openly opposed it. "Dredlocks, gold teeth, sagging pants ... my husband was rolling over in his grave." 

Former Arkansas City Mayor Carolyne Blissett, proprietor of Mama Carol's Bar & Grill
Credit Bobby Ampezzan/ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

The couple raised the girl, and she "just always had this problem." They taught her "it's all right to be friends, but you don't make a lifetime relationship with them."

"And if you had to pick someone, why couldn't you pick a Mexican, you know?"

"And if it's black, why couldn't it be a lighter black?"

But her granddaughter maintained.

"The heart wants what it wants."

Eventually the girl married and had a child by the man, and suddenly, Blissett was confronted with the loss of both a granddaughter and great-granddaughter if she could not displace her perspective.

"But he's an intelligent person, works all the time, they've made a home."

In the pit of anguish she's convicted, as they say in the church, and cries, "It's the older generation. It's us! I'll agree, it's us."

She has pictures of her granddaughter and great-grandbaby, but no "family pictures, you know?"

WHITE PEOPLE PROBLEMS

Lamark Hobbs, 62, proprietor of Turnrow liquor store

  On the other side of the fence, folks wonder what the big deal is. Joyce Cobert, who's several years older than Blissett, raised four boys. She says they can marry anyone they want to, and besides, ain't nothing she could do about it. "Kids going to be kids," Ricky Morgan, 48, says, "and you're gonna love 'em, and if you don't something's wrong with you."

Across from Mama' Carol's is Lamark Hobbs' Turnrow liquor store. He's exactly Blissett's age, and several years ago he dated a white woman, he says. "It went OK," and he didn't get any grief from family.

Because he didn't tell his family. And neither did she.

Jamie Barnes, 37, cashes out Faith Cater, both of McGehee.
Credit Bobby Ampezzan/ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Jamie Barnes, 37, is a clerk at Nu-Bees Cash Sales. She's dated white guys, and look, this thing is white people's problem.

"I think if black people have a problem, it's way different than white people. It's, what, there was no black men around? White people, it's like, they don't belong. He’s supposed to be our slave, not our daughter’s boyfriend."

White people think black people should be slaves?

"Yeah, I do. Like, 'He’s supposed to be working out on our farm.'"

And Barnes corroborates Blissett's sentiment that the race and actual coloring of the skin is key. Hispanics, Barnes says, are treated like blacks, whereas Asians are hardly different than white. 

Younger still than Barnes are C.J. Edgerson and Derondrick Daniel, 25 and 23. At an abandoned gas station in the center of town they're standing posts for a chainlink fence. 

Derondrick Daniel and C.J. Edgerson, 23 and 25
Credit Bobby Ampezzan/ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

"No, I can't say it's just white people," Daniel says.

"It's generations," Edgerson says, and further, "depends what parts you're in."

INTERGENERATIONAL MISCEGENATION

Miscegenation, from the Latin for "mixing races," was a term that didn't exist before the Civil War. For most of the 19th century, the term of art was "amalgamation," an origin more alchemical, as in the smelting of steel from base alloys. The latter was not particularly pejorative, but the former was from the very start.

Desha County Judge Jack May says that's exactly how Arkansas City — and America — is going to get over this, by amalgamating. 

Desha County Judge Jack May, 76, of McGehee
Credit Bobby Ampezzan/ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

May was born before World War II, and he hasn't dealt with interracial marriages or children in his own family. Is it a problem for white people more than black? Yes, because blacks were dealt the injustice of Jim Crow, and fair or not to say, they've had to "roll with the punches."

For whites, there's simply this: "Those couples have had children, and the grandparents love the children, just like they would if they weren’t interracial, and that has caused a lot of acceptance. Those children being born — wipes a lot of racism out of their minds.”

It's true for Blissett. It was easy to unmoor when her granddaughter defied her wishes. 

"At first, you know, I just said, 'That's it. I'm through.'"

But now they have a child. There will be more. 

"I love that great grandchild! I want to be in their lives."

So she's adopted a religious posture of acceptance, a tenet of Buddhism and Christianity alike. 

"I'm not a religious person," she says, by which she means stridently, though she is a Christian. "But since this has become a challenge for me, I try to think about the plain old Serenity Prayer. If I can change it, I can change it. Be open to that person and what that person can bring to your loved one."

As coolly as she slips into wisdom, she slips back out.

"It's try to change, if you can. I know I'm supposed to love one another but you can't do that all the time!"