A group of historians from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock have won the Gingles Award from the Arkansas Historical Association for their exploration of the criminal case of two African American Arkansans who were executed for the alleged rape of a white woman in the 1930s.
Dr. John Kirk, George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History, co-wrote the paper with his students in the fall 2022 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 received their award, which includes a $500 prize and a framed certificate, at the annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association on April 14. The Gingles Award is presented to the authors of the best manuscript article on any Arkansas history topic.
Along with Kirk, the UA Little Rock student authors include Dora Bradley, Revis Edmonds, Emily Housdam, Kristen Miller, Harrison Mitchell, Britney Reding, and Kellie Solomon.
The article, “From Lynching to Legal Lynching, Mob Justice to Courtroom Justice: The Arkansas ‘Scottsboro’ Cases of James X. Caruthers and Clear ‘Bubbles’ Clayton, 1935-1939,” will be published in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly.
The paper examines the criminal cases of James X. Caruthers and Clear “Bubbles” Clayton, two African American farm laborers who were convicted of the rape of a white woman, Virgie Terry, and executed in 1939.
The case drew national attention and became widely known as the Arkansas “Scottsboro” Case for its similarities to an Alabama case that resulted in rape convictions of nine Black teenagers. The Alabama convictions were twice reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court because prosecutors hurried the case to trial without giving the defendants adequate time to prepare a defense and for excluding African Americans from juries. It’s a legal move that might have made all the difference in the Arkansas case.
“The case took place in the shadow of the Scottsboro case,” Kirk said. “The defense attorney in the Arkansas case, Arthur Adams, never objected to the all-white juries used to convict Caruthers and Clayton, which might have saved their lives. It gives us an interesting look at the criminal justice system in Arkansas during the age of segregation.”
Kirk had read about the case in an Encyclopedia of Arkansas article written by Stephen Smith, a professor emeritus of communication at the University of Arkansas. A full journal article has never been written about the case, so Smith provided the class with his sources and encouraged them to pursue the details further.
“I spent quite a bit of time in the area where all of this took place,” said Edmonds, a UA Little Rock student as well as department historian for the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism. “I was a teacher at Blytheville High School for over 10 years. Many years later, things like this are often not discussed in the community.”
Kirk and the students found the details of the criminal case to be complicated and at times dumbfounding. The two men were originally arrested on suspicion of armed robberies of couples in parked cars and an incident in which Sheriff Clarence Wilson was injured in an attempted robbery near the Blytheville Country Club, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
While they were never tried for robbery, Caruthers and Clayton were later convicted of raping Virgie Terry. She was allegedly assaulted by masked men on Dec. 21, 1934, while out with her boyfriend, Wiley Bryant.
During their research, the students found that articles in the local newspapers were highly inflammatory against Caruthers and Clayton.
“The newspaper pinned names on them, called them bandits, killers, and rapists,” said Bradley, who is an adjunct professor of history at University of Arkansas – Pulaski Technical Institute. “Each of these articles would taint the minds of the jurors before they were selected as jurors. A lot of the stories were copied and spread across the nation.”
“The media tried to drive the narrative of these men’s guilt even before they had been charged,” Edmonds agreed. “Most of the articles in the Blytheville Courier News were largely slanted toward the prosecution. It almost seemed like the publisher was in an alliance with the prosecutor, who was extremely politically ambitious.”
Although their conviction was appealed on multiple grounds for four years, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear their case. Caruthers’ and Clayton’s last chance would have been clemency granted by then-Gov. Carl Bailey.
“The entire case on appeal would end up in the political realm,” Edmonds said. “The governor had promised to hold a commutation hearing for the two men, but he was out of state attending the world’s fair. The lieutenant governor, Bob Bailey, refused to convene the hearing that the governor had promised.”