Women of the Arkansas Delta
“Women of the Arkansas Delta” is a photo exhibition and research project from The Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas in Pine Bluff on display at the Lakeport Plantation Visitor’s Center January 3rd to April 1st. The exhibit takes a look at a diverse selection of women from the Arkansas Delta region providing a snapshot of these women and their lives in the 1970s, and what happened to them afterward. It is made possible by a grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a sponsorship from Explore Pine Bluff.
“Women of the Arkansas Delta” is based on a 1976 oral and photographic project of the same name, conducted by the Pine Bluff Women’s Center. Through a grant by the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, the project’s goal was to gather, preserve, and publish information about women of the Delta, their history, and lives.
The Pine Bluff Women’s Center Inc. was founded in 1975, and provided programs against violence toward women and in promotion of gender equality. The programs included career development, education, and assertiveness training. Leaders of the organization sought to have the proposed Equal Rights Amendment in the mid-1970s pass. The group dissolved in 1992 when several of the organization’s members and leaders moved outside the county, according to the University of Central Arkansas Archives. Becky Kilmer, a founder and leader of The Pine Bluff Women’s Center, donated the group’s records to the UCA Archives.
The group interviewed a wide range of women — African American and white— including social justice activists, farmers, and small business owners. They ranged in age from elderly to age 7. The women shared their hopes and aspirations, their stories, and other minutiae of their daily lives. The changing economic and agricultural make-up of small-town Arkansas Delta is reflected in some of the interviews. Women’s changing status in society and increasing rights was also a frequent topic.
The resulting interviews and photographs were collected into a small book and published in December 1976. From the introduction of the 1976 book: “What they told us revealed much about the development of the delta region over the past one hundred years. Many of the women remembered the effects of floods, segregation, hand labor in cotton fields, and introduction of motorized farm machinery, integration, and other economic changes.”
Other women interviewed “unfolded their own individual histories. Their story was important, too, in giving an accurate picture of what makes up a delta native.”
Fast forward four decades later.
Then-curator Dr. Lenore Shoults discovered photographs and original negatives from the project in ASC’s collection, and decided to curate a traveling exhibition surrounding the photographs. The first Women of the Arkansas Delta exhibition went on display at ASC in early spring 2019, and traveled to the Delta Cultural Center in Helena in 2020. Following feedback from the exhibition’s time at the Delta Cultural Center, Chaney Jewell, who succeeded Shoults as curator, began in 2020 to update the exhibition. “One of the consistent feedbacks I received about the original exhibition was, ‘OK, this is great information, these are wonderful photographs, this is a really intriguing piece of history. But what happened to the women?”
A grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a sponsorship from Explore Pine Bluff allowed for the exhibition to expand through additional research. The grant also covers costs for the exhibition to travel, allowing ASC to offer the Women of the Arkansas Delta to venues for free with no exhibition cost.
Cherrise Branch-Jones, Ph.D., of Jonesboro came on board to assist the research as the project’s humanities scholar. She is Dean of Arkansas State University’s Graduate School and the James and Wanda Lee Vaughn Endowed Professor of History. She is also the author of “Crossing the Line: Women’s Interracial Activism in South Carolina During and After World War II” (University Press of Florida, 2014), and “Better Living by Their Own Bootstraps: Black Women’s Activism in Rural Arkansas, 1914-1965,” published in April 2021 by University of Arkansas Press.
Jones-Branch is particularly knowledgeable about three of the women in the Women of the Arkansas Delta project: Maeleen Clay Arrant and Ethel B. Dawson of Pine Bluff, and Annie R. Zachary of Marvell. The three women, who were all activists, are subjects in Jones-Branch’s book “Better Living by Their Own Bootstraps.”
Updates to the Women of the Arkansas Delta project incorporate additional resources, such as the original interview recordings (which are stored at the University of Central Arkansas Archives in Conway) and new research.
“This new exhibition focused around researching the women and how they lived out the rest of their lives, past 1976,” Jewell explained. Finding out what happened to the women in the intervening years was extra challenging in that all but two of the women interviewed in 1976 have died, Jewell said.
Jewell and Branch-Jones used online research tools such as census data and ancestry.com, and interviewed family and friends of the women. Social media was an important tool as well, for locating and contacting living relatives and friends, Jewell explained. In the case of one of the women, Chanah Reid Foti, loved ones had set up a memorial Facebook page for her. “After posting an inquiry on the memorial page, I had about 10 people who responded and were interested in being interviewed,” Jewell said.
“It was interesting to go onto Facebook and find memorial pages and family members who are very eager to talk about these women,” Jewell said. “That’s one of the beautiful things about this project that I wasn’t expecting, family members being told that their mother, grandmother, aunt, sister made an impact, historically. And that their stories still want to be heard and want to be told. And how much that positively impacts not only the family, but the local community has been really great.”
The women from the 1976 project featured in the exhibition are:
- Maeleen Clay Arrant of Pine Bluff
- Ora Brown of Pine Bluff
- Geneva Byrd of Tucker
- Lucyle Cantley of Pine Bluff
- June H. Davis of Altheimer
- O. G. Dawson (Ethel B.) of Pine Bluff
- Chanah Reid Foti (later LaMarre) of Pine Bluff
- Idella Kimbrough of Gould
- Mildred Laureles of Snow Lake
- Emma Merlo of Pine Bluff
- Jessie Tidwell of Pine Bluff
- Annie R. Zachary (later Pike) of Marvell
Jewell had the opportunity to interview one of the two women still alive — Emma Merlo. A video of the interview is included in the virtual exhibition.
The other survivor, Annie Zachary (now Pike), still resides on her family farm in Marvell.
The exhibition includes the original black-and-white photographs of the women, with short bios using information from the 1976 interviews and recent research about what happened to the women afterward.
Photographs taken on the road in 1976 accompany the portraits and capture the places at the time. The locations are almost all unidentified, and many of them are dilapidated. Barns. An old white church. Abandoned houses. An old convenience store. A crop duster.
The exhibition also includes a video displaying photos of the women accompanied by audio of the original interviews.
The virtual exhibition is viewable at asc701.org/women-of-the-arkansas-delta. It includes all of the images and information of the physical exhibition, with additional information and photos of the present-day locations.
A look at some of the women featured:
Mrs. O.G. (Ethel B.) Dawson
Ethel B. Dawson of Pine Bluff worked for the sharecropper program National Council of Churches in Lincoln County, encouraging people to vote and pay their taxes. In her interview, she discussed segregation, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and sex discrimination as a working African American woman.
“I’ve always been accused of being outspoken. I don’t mean any harm. I never meant any harm, but at the same time, I’m just telling the truth.”
She also spoke about women’s changing role in society.
“I’m glad to see that women being independent, because they don’t have to take what a lot of us had to take. When you married, the man was supposed to be the boss. And men weren’t satisfied until they gave you a whipping. … And o course, with a woman not being able to get a job, being depending she stayed and took it. And I am just so happy to see these young girls go on and get an education so if they marry a man and he doesn’t treat them right they don’t have to stay and take it.”
In her later years, Dawson continued to work with the Jefferson County Voters Association and the League of Women Voters. She remained an active NAACP member and continued to strive to get Blacks hired at the Jefferson County Court House. She died in 1984.
Chanah Reid Foti-LaMarre
At age 7, Chanah Reid Foti of Pine Bluff was the youngest person interviewed for the project in 1976.
“She expressed her opinions clearly and vividly on many different topics,” the Women of the Arkansas Delta book noted.
When asked about work, Foti replied, “I’d like to be a carpenter. I’d build a house.”
What do you think a poor person is? “Somebody who doesn’t have any friends and can’t get along with people,” she responded.
She lived in Arkansas throughout her early 20s. She then moved to California and became a drug and alcohol counselor with her husband, Pierre LaMarre.
Foti-LaMarre died in December 2017 at age 48.
Annie Zachary Pike
Annie R. Zachary of Marvell, born in 1931, was a force to be reckoned with.
After her husband suffered a stroke, she took over as manager of their Phillips County farm while raising their young child. She was young herself.
“When I first started, no one had ever heard of women’s lib. I’ve been liberated all the time. I’m not much interested in women’s liberation, because this (responsibility) came to me by no choice of my own.”
Zachary struggled to gain respect in the farming industry because of her gender.
In 1969, Zachary made history when Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller appointed her to a Governor’s board. She was the first Black person — male or female — to serve on such a board.
“When I walked into the building that day (for the first meeting), the building was lined with State Troopers and local officials. They were just afraid that something was going to break out, that here comes this black woman in here. I didn’t even have a bodyguard.”
In 1977, she married Lester Pike, and in 1979, she helped establish National Teachers’ Day. In 1985, the Arkansas Education Association recognized her many years of volunteer service.
From 1999 to 2001, she served on the Arkansas Tobacco Control Board.
In 2002, Phillips County Road 125 (which runs through her farmland) was renamed Annie Zachary Pike Road.
Pike still resides on the family farm in Marvell. Read more about her in her CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas entry at https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/annie-zachary-pike-2841/.
About The Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas
The Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas (ASC), 701 S. Main St. in Pine Bluff, is accredited with the American Alliance of Museums. ASC presents programming in the visual arts, performing arts, and the sciences through exhibits, performances, classes and local partnerships. Gallery admission is free. ASC is open Tuesday–Friday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m.
Support for ASC is provided in part by the Arkansas Arts Council — a division of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pine Bluff Advertising & Promotion Commission, and the City of Pine Bluff. For more information, visit asc701.org or call 870-536-3375.
“Women of the Arkansas Delta” will be on display at the Lakeport Plantation Visitor’s Center from January 3rd, 2022 to April 1st, 2022, Monday to Friday from 9:00 am to 3:30 pm and is free to view. Guided tours of the Lakeport Plantation house start on the hour Monday to Friday from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. Self-guided tours of the house are available Monday to Friday from 9:00 am to 3:30 pm. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for seniors, students, and military. For additional information please call 870-265-6031 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.