Growing Up on Yellow Bayou Plantation: A Conversation with Mr. Robert Fulford
Mr. Robert Fulford (Dermott, AR)
Thursday, May 24
Refreshments & Conversation @ 5:30 pm
Program @ 6:00 pm
Lakeport Legacies for May 24 features Mr. Robert Fulford of Dermott with “Growing Up on Yellow Bayou Plantation: A Conversation with Mr. Robert Fulford.” Fulford grew up on Yellow Bayou Plantation, just north of Lake Village, in the 1950s and 1960s. He has written three self-published books about his childhood and experiences on the plantation
Both of Mr. Fulford’s books will be available for purchase (cash or check only):
A Collection of Anecdotes During my Childhood While Living on Yellow Bayou Plantation: Book 1 — $12
A Collection of Anecdotes During my Childhood While Living on Yellow Bayou Plantation: Book 2 — $12
Dark Days of the South: Before & After Segregation — $12
601 Hwy 142 · Lake Village, AR 71653
Lakeport Legacies · Rev. Green Hill Jones: From Slavery to the State House · Blake Wintory (Lakeport Plantation)
Rev. Green Hill Jones: From Slavery to the State House
Blake Wintory (Lakeport Plantation)
Thursday, April 26
Refreshments & Conversation @ 5:30 pm
Program @ 6:00 pm
Rev. Green Hill Jones was one of over a dozen African-American men from southeast Arkansas who served in the Arkansas General Assembly between 1868 and 1893. Born a slave in Maury County, Tennessee in 1842, Jones was brought four years later to Kenneth Rayner’s Grand Lake cotton plantation in Chicot County, Arkansas. A young man when the Civil War began, Jones joined the Union Army at Memphis in 1863. After the Civil War, he became an ordained minister and received an education in the North. He returned to Chicot County in 1873 and was soon elected county treasurer (1874-1876), county assessor (1876-1878), and to two terms in the Arkansas House (1885, 1889).
Wintory will tell his story from church and school records, and interviews with Jones and others contained in his Civil War-era pension file.
Wintory’s talk is based on his research on Jones and Arkansas’s eighty-six other 19th century African-American legislators. His essay on the subject will be published in May 2018 in A Confused and Confusing Affair: Arkansas and Reconstruction. Edited by Mark Christ, the book will be published by Butler Center Books, a project of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System.
601 Hwy 142 · Lake Village, AR 71653
April 26 · Rev. Green Hill Jones: From Slavery to the State House · Dr. Blake Wintory (Lakeport Plantation, Arkansas State University Heritage Sites)
May 24 · Growing Up on Yellow Bayou Plantation: A Conversation with Mr. Robert Fulford · Robert Fulford (Dermott, AR)
June 21 · Yankee Mistress of the Old South: Plantation Life in the Arkansas Delta, 1847-1866 · Dr. Gary Edwards (Arkansas State University-Jonesboro)
26 19 · Old Houses of Blanton Park: Greenville’s Lost Downtown Neighborhood · Princella Nowell (Washington County, MS)
August 23 · Fixed and Fleeting: Some Arkansas State Symbols and Why they Matter · Dr. David Ware (Capitol Historian at Arkansas Secretary of State)
September 27 · Casqui and Hernando de Soto’s Cross: Is Parkin the Place? · Dr. Jeffrey Mitchem (Parkin Archeological State Park/Arkansas Archeological Survey)
Last year, I heard an odd story: the Washington County Courthouse’s belfry tower was originally a “hanging tower” used to hang convicted criminals. The sources were adamant but could only say they had heard it from others.
My first instinct was this was recent bunk history–people seeing an unfamiliar and altered architectural feature and drawing a wild conclusion. For a building built in 1891, this is not ancient history. If the courthouse’s tower was really a “hanging tower”–a gruesome public spectacle–there should be amble written evidence.
After researching the problem, my initial instincts proved to be correct. Newspapers from the early 20th century describe executions in the yard of the county jail behind the courthouse….and NOT in the courthouse itself. However, I was a little surprised to find one source that did describe an execution in the tower. I’ll examine that later, but first some background on the courthouse and jail
In January 1890, the Mississippi Legislature authorized the Washington County Board of Supervisors to issue bonds, not to exceed $100,000, to build a new courthouse and jail. In July, the Board selected plans for a courthouse prepared by the McDonald Brothers of Louisville, Kentucky. Meanwhile, the Board selected jail plans submitted by L. T. Noyes, an “agent for the Diebold Safe and Lock Company” (Board of Supervisor Minutes, July 12, 1890). Initially, Charles Dollman of Memphis was selected to build the courthouse and John F. Barnes of Greenville to construct the jail. Barnes would ultimately build both.
The McDonald Brothers’ plans called for an 80 x 100 foot, two-story high building including “a tower about 180 feet high with an open bell niche” (Greenville Times, July 19, 1890). We now call the courthouse’s architecture, popularized by Henry Hobson Richardson, Richardsonian Romanesque. Washington County’s courthouse is one of only two in this style in Mississippi. It also has a striking resemblance to another McDonald Brothers’ project, the 1888 Washington County Courthouse in Salem, Indiana. Today, the courthouse still has an impressive tower, but the bell niche or belfry was likely removed in 1930 when Jackson, Mississipi architect James M. Spain remodeled the building.
Added to the National Register in 2014, the Washington County Courthouse is impressive public architecture to be marveled over. In contrast, the 1891 jail is, at most, an afterthought. The jail appears in Sanborn maps, but 20th-century images of the courthouse give no indication of a jail lurking behind it. [Note: there are at least two 1890s images that show the jail, they are published in Washington County, Mississippi]. In 1950, a new jail was constructed north of the 1930 Annex and, it seems, the original jail was erased from the public’s imagination.
This brings me to a 1990 article published in the Delta Democrat-Times. The article celebrates the 100th anniversary of the courthouse and coaxes the building to tell its stories through oral histories housed at the Percy Library. The author tells us several of the interviews “spoke of hangings at the Courthouse,” but “they were not viewed by the public.” However, the author cites a 1977 interview with Lille B. Parker that does mention a hanging in the courthouse. Parker attended the execution of Eddie B. Weeks on the morning of May 12, 1932 and believed it to be the last in Washington County. “They hung him down where the Court House is at, up there where a big old clock used to be,” she stated in the interview. She continued, “they was boards up there, two by fours or something—you could see it a long time. They done tore it down now.”
Not to disparage Mrs. Parker and her memory, but her account is not supported by the written accounts of Weeks’ execution in 1932.
The DDT on May 10, 1932 wrote, “The gallows have been completed for several weeks and are located in the rear of the Washington County jail.” Two days later the paper reported, “Eddie B. Weeks…was hanged at Washington county jail here this morning…” Weeks walked “from his cell to the rear door of the county jail and ascend[ed] the stairs to the enclosed gallows that were to take him to his death….Near a thousand members of Weeks[‘] race gathered around the jail yard on all sides.”
Parker’s memory is also in conflict with a 1978 interview not mentioned in the 1990 DDT article. Leonard Brown is a solid source. He was born in 1896 and, according to the U. S. Census, was a janitor at the courthouse in 1930. In the interview, Brown recalled his duties as a cook, groundskeeper, and transporting prisoners to Jackson. When asked about hangings at the jail, he described what is most likely the 1932 execution of Weeks:
“Well, I never witnessed but one…they built a scaffold right out in the corner of the jail…the day of the hanging we wanted to go in where we could see it, but they wouldn’t let us go in. We had to stand out…we could see that afterwards…”
Earlier accounts in the Greenville Times support Brown’s memory of executions at gallows constructed in the now forgotten jail yard:
- 1907 — private hanging — “took place in an enclosure on the west side of the county jail” — Greenville Times, Feb 16, 1907
- 1908 — public hanging — “paid the penalty for his brutal crime on the gallows at the county jail” — Greenville Times, Feb 23, 1908
- 1909 — public hanging — “paid the penalty with his life on the gallows…He was led onto the scaffold in the jail yard….” Greenville Times., August 21, 1909
The primary sources clearly debunk the story of the “hanging tower” at the 1891 Washington County Courthouse. While it is debunked, the story very likely has more depth than I initially anticipated. The rumors, perhaps, came to life in 1932 as Weeks’ execution intersected with the courthouse’s remodel. Accounts of the 1930 remodel by architect J. M. Spain don’t specifically mention work on the tower, however, the DDT, Dec 27, 1929, stated, “the upper floor would be repaired [and] new plans will take in the upper floor of the structure.” Mrs. Parker’s recollection seems to mention work being done on the tower in 1932: “they was boards up there, two by fours or something—you could see it a long time. They done tore it down now.”
Mrs. Parker was one of nearly a “thousand people” gathered at the courthouse and jail that morning. Many of them, unable to see the jail yard execution in the enclosed gallows, looked up at the boxed-in tower and assumed the execution was taking place in that public, yet obfuscated spot. With the original jail replaced in 1950 and the yard paved over, the only place for people to attach memories and stories of the 1932 hanging is the mysterious and altered tower.
While people love a mystery or “hidden secrets,” there is no good reason to keep telling the story of the “hanging tower.” It is just not true nor does it lead to deeper understanding of the history of the courthouse or Greenville. Primary sources like newspapers, oral histories, and county records tell us legal hangings in Washington County, from the early 1900s through 1932, took place in gallows constructed in the jail yard behind the Washington County Courthouse.
The real mystery is when exactly was the belfry removed. For such a public building, it is strange that historians and preservationists have not been able to pin down the exact date when the tower was lowered. Bill Gatlin’s 2014 National Register nomination states: “The tower was reduced from its original height in the 1930s, presumably during a renovation project led by architect James. M. Spain.” Local historian, Princella Nowell, makes the same case in an article published in Life in the Delta: [J. M. Spain’s] improvements [in 1930] included plumbing, heating and wiring. He may have been responsible for removing the bell tower.”
The lowering of the tower can be narrowed down to around 1930 when Spain led a renovation of the courthouse. Nowell has confirmed the tower was still intact in 1927, as one photograph from the 1927 flood shows. Newspaper reports of Spain’s 1930 renovations of the courthouse and the Board of Supervisors records are vague, but a 1929 article in the DDT (cited above) mentions the work “will take in the upper floor of the structure.” Mrs. Parker’s 1977 recollection of the events in May 1932 speaks of the tower being boarded up. Finally, photo postcards ca 1940 show the courthouse’s tower reduced.
It’s hard to believe that a major alteration to such a public building went unnoticed and largely uncommented upon. If you know of primary sources that mentions or shows a change to Washington County Courthouse’s tower, send an email to email@example.com.
Brown, Leonard. Oral History Interview, September 20, 1978, Special Collections, Percy Library, Washington County Library System [also online at MDAH].
The Daily Democrat-Times, December 27, 1929; May 10, 12 1932.
Gatlin, William. Washington County Courthouse, National Register Nomination, 2014.
Greenville Times, February 22, July 19, 1890; February 16, 1907; February 23, 1908; August 21, 1909.
Hall, Russell S., Princella W. Nowell, and Stacy Childress. Washington County, Mississippi. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2000.
Nowell, Princella W. Email and phone communications, April 17, 2017-February 26, 2018.
Nowell, Princella W. “Old Courthouses,” Life in the Delta [emailed to the author, February 7, 2018].
Ingram, Deborah, “If walls could only talk … Courthouse could share tales,” The Delta Democrat-Times, May 8, 1990, in “Courts,” Vertical File, Percy Library, Washington County Library System.
Parker, Lillie Belle. Oral History Interview, February 18, 1977, Special Collections, Percy Library, Washington County Library System [also online at MDAH].
Washington County Board of Supervisor Minutes, Book 4.
Washington County Court House, ca 1909
Special thanks to Princella Nowell, Clinton Bagley, Bill Gatlin, Benjy Nelken, and the staff at the Percy Library for their help.
Few people realize that African-Americans continued to be elected in Chicot County into the early 1890s. The Rev. Green Hill Jones (1842-1924) was one of those men.
Jones had been enslaved on the Rayner Plantation on Grand Lake in Chicot County prior to the Civil War. Jones escaped slavery and served in the U. S. Colored Troops during the war. After the war, Jones went north to New Madrid, Missouri and Mound City, Illinois where he taught school and was ordained in the Free Will Baptist Church. From 1870 to 1873, he attended Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. After graduation, he taught in Paducah, Kentucky. Upon his return to Chicot County, he was elected county treasurer in 1874 and then to two terms in the Arkansas House–1885 and 1889.
The Free Baptist Cyclopaedia published a short, but fascinating biography of Rev. Jones in 1889:
Jones, Rev. Greenleaf [sic] H., of Gr[a]nd Lake, Ark. was connected with the Cairo Mission as an ordained minister as early as 1870. The next year he attended Hillsdale College and afterwards taught among the colored people in Paducah, KY., and vicinity, where he also engaged in ministerial work. Subsequently, he secured land in Arkansas and became wealthy. He served in the Legislature of the state and held many county offices. He is at present pastor of the Rising Sun church of the Bon Eagle Q. M. (Miss.), and exerting a wide influence among his people.
Jones pastored several churches in Chicot County:
Rising [Risen] Sun at Grand Lake (1876-1877; 1889-1897; 1899)
Mt. Pisgah at Grand Lake (1898; 1903)
Mt. Olive at Grand Lake (1902)
Sweet Home at Eudora (1906-1907).
Jones died in 1924 and is buried in Mason Cemetery south of Eudora.
Wintory, Blake. “African-American Legislators in the Arkansas General Assembly, 1868-1893: Another Look,” in A Confused and Confusing Affair: Arkansas and Reconstruction, ed. by Mark Christ. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2018. [expected April 2018]
Update February 15, 2018
It appears the Rising Sun Church was still standing as late as 2006. A 1936 Chicot County Highway Map shows a church between Eudora and Grand Lake. This church, as of 2018, still shows up in Google maps as Rising Sun Church. Google Earth’s historical imagery shows what is likely the Rising Sun Church still standing as late as 2006.
For Lakeport’s 10th Anniversary, supporters, Johnson descendants, and authors gathered on Labor Day Weekend.
Since opening in September 2007, Lakeport has become a unique, off-the-beaten-path destination in southeast Arkansas. Tourists bisecting the country or traveling the Great River Road always keep us busy, but we also held a number of events (big and small) in 2017.
On Labor Day Weekend, we commemorated our 10th Anniversary with Lakeport supporters and Johnson family from Canada and the across the U.S. The two-day event was filled with local food and authors who have written about the Johnsons. The authors included Dr. Christina Snyder, Dr. Tom DeBlack, Dr. Blake Wintory, Rex Nelson, and Mike Jordan.
Earlier in the year, Lakeport partnered with Preserve Arkansas for the Behind the Big House. The two-day workshop explored extant slave dwellings and explored ways to interpret the experiences of the enslaved people who inhabited them. The event featured Joseph McGill, an African-American preservationist and founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, and included living history performances, a historic cooking demonstration, and presentations by McGill, Jerome Bias, Angela Walton-Raji, Dr. Blake Wintory, and Dr. Jodi Skipper.
Lakeport continues to host smaller events as well. In 2017, we hosted a book signing with Mike Jordan, author of The Freedom Song (historical fiction about Lakeport) and seven Lakeport Legacies. Our speakers presented on topics like the Civil War in the Delta, African American fraternal organizations, the Delta Chinese Heritage Museum, and the Delta plantations related to Lakeport.
We have also added to local history by publishing on Lakeport’s blog. Here are some posts you might have missed over the past year:
Adolph Meyer Arrives at Grand Lake in 1867 (January 2017)
April 21, 1927 [1927 Flood] (April 21, 2017)
Greenville, Mississippi’s City and Telephone Directories (June 2017)
Greenville’s Elks’ Lodge (October 2017)
This past year, we had a great start on the Lakeport Pillars, our friends’ group and museum membership program. The Lakeport Pillars is an important way you can help support research, outreach, and events at the Lakeport Plantation. Your contribution is tax deductible.
If you are local, consider volunteering some of your time at Lakeport. There is no better way to learn history than by engaging with it through tours and research.
Greenville’s Elk’s Lodge, in the city’s downtown, was completed in late 1906 or early 1907. Once a mainstay of the city’s social scene, today it is facing destruction for a downtown “greenspace” (i.e. empty space).
Built for the local “Cotton Pickers” lodge of Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the two-story, Greek Revival, concrete building was almost complete in August 1906, when the newspaper reported it “is one of the prettiest club rooms anywhere.”
Designated a Mississippi Landmark in 2002, the building is also a contributing structure to the National Register Greenville Commercial District. Contributing resources adds to the historic significance of a district. Despite this significance, the city seems set on a new “greenspace” to replace the Steinmart Square that has been designated for a new downtown Federal courthouse. Smart downtown greenspaces are nice in thriving urban area, but destroying an iconic building in Greenville’s struggling downtown isn’t. It will leave a hole in the historic downtown corridor where there was once a majestic 100+-year-old building. The city’s decision is also troubling given the fact that an out-of-town developer, Joshua Cain, has expressed interest in restoring the building into a boutique hotel. Cain has a proven track record in California and with the 1857 Belmont Plantation at Wayside. Ignoring a potential investment and creating an empty space in Greenville’s downtown is obviously a lose-lose situation for the city.
Sources and Resources:
“New Members for Elk’s Lodge,” Greenville Weekly Democrat, August 16, 1906
Lakeport Plantation to Feature Polk Family Plantations
LAKE VILLAGE — “The Polks’ Plantations and the Creation of Cotton Kingdom in the Old South” will be presented by Dr. Kelly Houston Jones in the latest Lakeport Legacies monthly history talk on September 28 at the Lakeport Plantation, 601 Hwy 142, in Lake Village.
The event gets underway at 5:30 p.m. with refreshments and conversation, and the program starts at 6 p.m. The program is free and open to the public. For more information and to Register, contact Dr. Blake Wintory at 870-265-6031.
Jones will discuss her research on the Polk family’s extensive cotton plantations across Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas. The prominent family moved at the center of the historical processes that created King Cotton in the newest parts of the Old South. James K. Polk himself invested in cotton, while his relatives ran cotton plantations in the Mississippi Delta. The Polks’ and their business network represent patterns of cotton investment that characterized the late 1840s and early 1850s and built the slave empire of the Old Southwest.
James K. Polk, who served as president from 1845 to 1849, purchased a plantation in Yalobusha County, Mississippi in 1834. A nephew, William Wilson Polk, owned a large plantation at Walnut Bend in Phillips County, Arkansas and financed his uncle’s presidential run. George W. Polk, a cousin of President James K. Polk, co-owned the Hilliard Plantation on Grand Lake in Chicot County. Polk with his brother-in-law, Isaac Hilliard, owned 151 slaves and 550 acres of improved land in 1850. In 1845, he built a magnificent Greek Revival home near Columbia, TN he named “Rattle and Snap.”
Dr. Jones is an Assistant Professor of History at Austin Peay State University specializing in the history of slavery. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas in 2014. Her most recent work will appear later this year in Bullets and Fire: Lynching and Authority in Arkansas, 1840-1950, edited by Guy Lancaster.
Lakeport Legacies is a monthly history talk held on the last Thursday at the Lakeport Plantation during the spring and summer. Each month a topic from the Delta region is featured. The Lakeport Plantation is an Arkansas State University Heritage Site. Constructed in 1859, Lakeport is one of Arkansas’s premier historic structures and still retains many of its original finishes and architectural details.
Open to the public since 2007, Lakeport researches and interprets the people and cultures that shaped plantation life in the Mississippi River Delta, focusing on the Antebellum, Civil War and Reconstruction Periods.
Arkansas Heritage Sites at Arkansas State University develops and operates historic properties of regional and national significance in the Arkansas Delta. A-State’s Heritage Sites include the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center, Southern Tenant Farmers Museum, Lakeport Plantation, the Historic Dyess Colony: Boyhood Home of Johnny Cash, and the Arkansas State University Museum.
Attached image: George W. Polk, a Chicot County planter, completed his home, Rattle & Snap, near Columbia, Maury County, TN in 1845. Courtesy Library of Congress
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