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Honoring Civil Rights Heritage: Public History Class and Professor Recognized for Preserving Arkansas History

Dr. John Kirk and Scott Bradshaw, a public history student at UA Little Rock, show off their awards from the Arkansas Historical Association.
Dr. John Kirk and Scott Bradshaw, a public history student at UA Little Rock, show off their awards from the Arkansas Historical Association.

In a thorough and rigorous investigation of the rich tapestry of Arkansas’s past, a public history class and their esteemed professor have been honored with awards for their exceptional efforts in preserving and promoting state history.

Dr. John Kirk, George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History at UA Little Rock, and the students in his fall 2023 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, have received the Lucille Westbrook Award from the Arkansas Historical Association.

“I started teaching this class three years ago, and it has won an award from the Arkansas Historical Association every year since,” Kirk said. “This is the third award, and second time the class has won the Westbrook Award. It’s quite an achievement for the students.”

The authors received their award, which includes a $1,000 prize and a framed certificate, at the annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association April 26 at the Red Apple Inn in Heber Springs. Along with Kirk, the UA Little Rock student authors include Armando Arellano, Mikaela Bailey, Charles Bonet, Scott Bradshaw, Mary Alice Chambers, Jackelyn Cordova-Romano, Jerry Griffin, Jayla Henderson, Jacob Hicks, Caitlin Robertson, Koria Robinson, Margaret Stone, and Isaac Wolter.

“I’m excited that we won!” said Caitlin Robertson, a public history student from Little Rock. “I think we covered a part of Arkansas Civil Rights history that isn’t as well-known as some of the stuff that came later in the 50s and 60s but is no less important, and I’m glad that our work in that period is being recognized.”

The class received the Westbrook Award for the paper, “Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection: The Arkansas Cases of the Bone Brothers, 1938-1940.”

“The Bone Brothers were working on a plantation in North Little Rock and had an altercation with the owners,” Kirk said. “A shot went off, and the plantation owner’s wife, Mrs. Deaver, was killed. There was a dispute over who fired the shot. Rome Bone was given the death sentence while his brother Moses Bone was given 21 years. Mr. Deaver was never charged.”

The Bone brothers’ case would twice be heard by the Arkansas Supreme Court. The first time, the court reversed the brothers’ convictions and remanded a new trial. On retrial, both brothers were convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 21 years. On the second appeal, the Arkansas Supreme Court reduced their convictions to seven-year sentences.

“It’s quite dramatic for the Arkansas Supreme Court to reverse the decision of the lower courts in two different appeals regarding the same case,” Kirk said. “The overarching significance of the case is that it led to the first Black jurors serving in Pulaski County in over 40 years. Gradually, more Black jurors were appointed to jury panels all over the state.”

Bone v. State was an especially important victory for Scipio Jones, the prominent civil rights attorney, who after many previous attempts, finally successfully argued that excluding Black citizens from serving on juries in local and state court cases violated the constitutional right of defendants.

“It is a really cool experience to have a project I worked on be recognized by the wider historical community,” said Chuck Bonet, a public history student from Derry, Northern Ireland. “Learning about the legal processes of 1930s Little Rock was extremely interesting, and eye-opening in many ways. It was a unique class, and I had a great time. I really appreciated Dr. Kirk’s knowledge and guidance.”

Through meticulous research, dedicated scholarship, and a passion for storytelling, these students and their professor have played a pivotal role in safeguarding the cultural heritage of their community, earning well-deserved recognition for their invaluable contributions.

“During this research, I experienced many moving parts of getting the research done,” said Koria Robinson, a public history student from North Little Rock. “There are many leads to follow that may come up blank in the end. There are also the leads that are a treasure, but the contacts may not follow through with the needed information. This sometimes slows down the process. Dr. Kirk encouraged us not to allow stagnant leads to impede the goals.”

In addition to the Lucille Westbrook Award, Kirk also won the J. G. Ragsdale Book Award in Arkansas History for his 2022 biography, “Winthrop Rockefeller: From New Yorker to Arkansawyer, 1912-1956.” The award is presented for the best book-length historical study of any aspect of Arkansas history. Kirk received a certificate and a $1,000 prize for the award.

“This is one of the top book awards in Arkansas History,” Kirk said. “It’s the second time I’ve won the award. The last time was 21 years ago for my first Arkansas history monograph, ‘Redefining the Color Line: Black Activism in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1940-1970.’ Ten books later, and with my second Arkansas history monograph, it is nice to revisit and win the J. G. Ragsdale Book Award again.”

Kirk’s biography represents the culmination of 12 years of research. It investigates why Rockefeller, scion of one of the most powerful families in American history, left New York to move to an Arkansas mountaintop in the 1950s. The book covers Rockefeller’s childhood and education, his rise in the oil industry, his military service during World War II, his marriage to and divorce from Barbara “Bobo” Sears, and the birth of his only child, future Arkansas lieutenant governor Win Paul Rockefeller. Kirk tied Rockefeller’s New York life to his later work in his adopted state, where his legacy continues to be felt more than half a century after his governorship.