Arkansas is well known for its location on the Trail of Tears, the pathway the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole tribes traveled through the state in the 1830s to new lands in the Indian Territory in modern-day Oklahoma.
Few people, however, know about Arkansas’s history as the first and only state in the country to legally evict its entire free black population. In 1859, the state passed legislation that required all free blacks and mulattos to leave the state by Jan. 1, 1860. Any who chose to stay would be captured and sold into slavery.
Dr. Brian Mitchell, professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, refers to the forced migration of free blacks and mulattos as “Arkansas’s other Trail of Tears.”
“It’s an interesting piece of Arkansas history that we know very little about,” Mitchell said. “Most people know about forced migration in Native American history, but very few people know that there was a forced migration of free blacks. Arkansas has its own homegrown African-American Trail of Tears that nobody talks about.”
Mitchell’s research was aided by EAST Scholarship Program students, including Evan Alden, Larry Dicus, Ian Thompson, and Cheyenne Shelton. The project is an effort by EAST Scholarship Program students and the College of Arts, Letters and Sciences to highlight the use of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in the humanities.
The legislation was passed in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Scott v. Sandford decision in 1857, wherein the court essentially ruled that a black person could not be a citizen of the United States. An article written for theEncyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture points out that period newspapers estimated that approximately 800 out of a population of about 1,000 free blacks left the state because of the law.
However, Mitchell believes that the number of those expelled exceeded 1,000. He notes that the legislature placed a prohibition on the migration or introduction of free blacks into the state more than 10 years prior to the expulsion. As a result, Mitchell speculates that “free blacks, aided by friends and family already residing in the state, snuck through the state’s porous borders and merely evaded being counted enumerations.”
In order to discover what happened to the exiles, Mitchell and a group of UA Little Rock students searched the U.S. Census records of 1850, identifying many of the free blacks who resided in the state prior to the Expulsion of 1860. They next scoured the federal census records of 1860 and 1870 to discover where the exiled free blacks found sanctuary. To complement the information recovered from the census, Mitchell also collected hundreds of newspaper articles and letters relating to the forced migration.
“Once Arkansas passed this legislation, a number of other states start blocking the migration of free blacks. Many people moved from state to state looking for a home,” Mitchell said. “There were predominantly two areas that accepted more of them than anyone else, Kansas and Ohio. Many of the free blacks also hid along the border in Missouri, but there are other fascinating and unexpected things that we discovered.”
In Fort Smith, Mitchell found that white neighbors protected a small community of interracial families that had come to Arkansas to escape the prejudice of the bigger cities.
“This community was comprised of expanded families, so they were not going to tell on their family members,” he said.
The law forced those who had difficulty finding a new home to make an impossible decision. In a newspaper article, Mitchell found an account of a woman who chose to return to Arkansas and become a slave because she could not find a new home for her family.
“There is one lady who returns with her children, and it appears she had nowhere to go,” Mitchell said. “She resigns herself to going back to Arkansas and signing herself over to be a slave for someone else she knew.”
On the opposite end of the story spectrum, Mitchell also found an exciting tale of a man who risked everything to save his family from slavery.
“One of the more exciting episodes is a free black man who steals away his family from slavery,” he said. “They go to California and never return. It’s a particularly dangerous time to be a free black. A lot of people kidnap them and sell them as slaves in the South and make a lot of money doing this.”
Students working with Mitchell are partnering with the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies to develop a website that will help people learn more about free blacks, forced migration, and the fate of the exiles. The website will include a searchable database, maps, primary resources, and lesson plans for middle school and high school classes.