During the late 1800s, urbanization ushered into Arkansas something unseen in the South: a true black bourgeoisie. They were tradesmen, a black society of entrepreneurs and professional men that worked their way into tremendous wealth. In Pine Bluff, Wiley Jones began as a houseboy who had been gifted from a wealthy lawyer to his son as a marriage present. Jones ascended to being one of the wealthiest men in the state. With no schooling he worked from sunrise to sunset; in a restaurant, in a barbershop, as a saloon operator, at a major real estate development company, and later at his business the Southern Mercantile Company. In 1886 he became the first African American to receive a franchise permit to operate a streetcar system. He had 1.25 miles of track that he sold which are still owned and utilized (Pine Bluff Transit) by the city to this day. A fan of horseracing, he built a harness-racing track in a fifty-five-acre park he owned.
During the same time the lives of some black urbanites were prospering, the quality of life of many rural whites was on a sharp decline. White farmers were now in the position of working for and having to negotiate with black business owners. When the cotton market crashed the circumstances of many white Arkansas farmers began to closely resemble the conditions of the long exploited rural black populations.
During Reconstruction, Republicans actively courted black voters around the state. However, as economic situations were shifting, poorer white Arkansans pressured politicians to favor their needs. In response, at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century, Democrats declared their primaries private party elections – thus no longer subject to state or federal laws. Black voters were therefore banned from the polls. No longer holding political power, African Americans in Arkansas lost all influence over local police, courts, and public schools. They were no longer citizens.
Any attempts to confront these injustices were met with hostility from white employers and absolute violence from vigilantes such as the Ku Klux Klan. There was a general lawlessness that resulted in full-fledged race riots where white mobs attacked groups attempting to organize the black vote. Leaders were identified and subject to “night riding” or “whitecapping.” From 1860 to 1930 there were 318 documented lynchings in Arkansas; 231 of the victims were black.
This legacy informs Kevin Cole’s work. His grandfather Terry was from just outside of Star City, Arkansas. When Kevin turned 18 in 1978, Terry wanted Kevin to go vote. Unconvinced that politics would influence his young life, Kevin did not want to go. The 91-year-old used his cane to draw a map in the soil. He told his grandson to find a specific tree and to stand there. To take it in. Kevin did as he was asked and standing there, he had a truly frightening feeling. When he returned, his grandfather informed him that this specific tree had been used to lynch African-Americans by their neckties on their way to vote.
Standing up for the right to be heard and having a political voice was such privilege that African-Americans voters treated it with proper reverence. Wearing their Sunday best to the polls, black voters were easy for vigilantes to identify. As Aatish Taseer writes in Anatomy of a Lynching (2017): “A lynching is much more than just a murder. A murder may occur in private. A lynching is a public spectacle; it demands an audience...A lynching is a majority’s way of telling a minority population that the law cannot protect it.”
Cole’s work, his demand of an audience is its own spectacle; a celebration of history and survival.