A group of historians from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock have won the Lucille Westbrook Award from the Arkansas Historical Association for the best article manuscript on an aspect of local Arkansas history.
Dr. John Kirk, George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History, co-wrote the paper with his students in the Seminar in Public History class, a capstone course that focuses on collaborative research for students who are earning a Master of Arts in public history at UA Little Rock.
The authors will receive their award, which includes a $1,000 prize and a framed certificate, at the annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association on April 22. Along with Kirk, the UA Little Rock student authors include Kathleen Burell, Brittany Fugate, Christiane Hendricks, Ellis Eugene Thompson, Michael White, and Logan Yancey.
The article, “Criminal Justice in the Age of Segregation: Race, Law, and Politics in the Arkansas Cases of Robert Bell and Grady Swain, 1927-1935,” will be published in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly.
“It’s amazing to see the work we did last semester pay off,” Fugate said. “We developed this project through every step and now our work is about to be published. It’s a great feeling that I still can’t wrap my head around. The Public History program is one of a kind, and I’m so thankful to the opportunities I’ve had because of this program.”
The piece examines the criminal cases of Robert Bell and Grady Swain, two African American teenagers who were convicted of the first-degree murder of Julius McCollum and sentenced to death. Bell and Swain confessed to the crime, but later said their confessions were forced. The Arkansas Supreme Court overturned their conviction, concluding that there was not sufficient evidence to show that McCollum was murdered.
“This is a complicated case,” Kirk said. “They were two African American youths who were implicated in the death of a young white boy in 1927 in Greasy Corner, Arkansas. They survived a lynch mob only to be taken into custody where they were whipped to force a confession. The whole episode takes us step-by-step through the criminal justice system in the age of segregation.”
Bell’s and Swain’s cases continued with many twists and turns. Both were retried after the original conviction was overturned. They both received legal assistance from local attorneys and the NAACP. They eventually took a plea deal with a lighter sentence and the promise of early release through parole, a deal that was subsequently not recognized by the parole board. They were finally released after spending seven years in prison when Gov. Junius Futrell granted them clemency.
“Surviving the lynch mob was just the first hurdle,” Kirk said. “What we see with Bell and Swain is two young people who managed to surmount many of the obstacles in Arkansas’s criminal justice system and, against all odds, gain release. It illustrates just how difficult it was for African Americans to escape that system once they were trapped in it.”