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Harrison fights racist reputation 

Local task force and high school diversity council lead the way.

click to enlarge Members of the Harrison High School diversity council image
  • Cheree Franco
  • Members of the Harrison High School diversity council.

Harrison, population 13,000, nestles among the hills of the Ozarks. The economy is bolstered by industrial jobs, beef farming and tourists passing through to more entertaining destinations. Median income is just over $34,000, nearly 60 percent of families own their homes, and social events center around school, church and family. The surrounding country is flush with trails and river outposts. In town, there is the usual sprawl — fast food restaurants, banks, a newly renovated hospital, the second Walmart ever, a community college and a large Fed-Ex operation. There's a restored 1920s Spanish Revival hotel and a courthouse square ringed with consignment shops, a boot store, a diner and an old theater.

But Harrison's reputation is tarnished by a tragic past and a current post office box. Harrison has long had a reputation for harboring racists. It's a reputation that many residents are working to change.

A century ago, Harrison was one of several Southern "sundown" towns, places where signs warned non-whites to get out by dusk. Since the 1990s, Thomas Robb, the self-proclaimed leader of the Ku Klux Klan, has operated his white power paraphernalia website from Zinc, about 10 miles up Highway 7 from Harrison. Zinc is too tiny to support its own post office, so Robb uses a Harrison P.O. box. It's a hapless association for a city where everyone knows everyone, and yet most residents wouldn't recognize Robb if they saw him. Some wouldn't even recognize him by name.

A decade ago, Harrison's then-mayor, Bob Reynolds, and other city leaders formed the Race Task Force. According to founding members Layne Ragsdale and Patty Methvin, the Task Force was spawned by a letter from a Fayetteville attorney to the editor of the Harrison Daily Times. On Halloween in 2002, the Fayetteville Middle School football team played the Harrison Middle School in Harrison. Afterwards the Fayetteville team went to the local McDonald's, which had a tradition of doling out free ice cream to anyone in costume. A group of teen-agers was there, draped in sheets, and some of the Fayetteville players worried that these "ghosts" were actually Klan members.

"The letter was about how sad it was that the Klan was at McDonald's, or something to that effect," said Methvin, who now heads the Chamber of Commerce. "That was when we realized there was a reputation out there that we weren't aware of internally. We rarely see anybody from the Klan, and so to know that some people think that was the standard, that most people in Harrison are racist, that was a shock for us."

Ragsdale worked for the Chamber back in 2002. She remembered how upset Reynolds was about the attorney's letter and how angry local ministers were over a statement Robb had made to national press: "I represent the white Christians of the area." Reynolds and a group of ministers held the first Task Force meeting in early 2003.

"I was there because the mayor asked me to attend, but I didn't see it as a big deal," said Ragsdale. "I thought, every town has a history, we're not racist now, why are we doing this?" The first meeting was advertised in the paper. Five elderly men, strangers to the other attendees, came. "They were very adamant," Ragsdale said. "They kept saying we didn't need any such organization [as a race task force], we were going to ruin the community, and on and on. I walked into that meeting thinking, OK, I have to do this, and I walked out thinking, unless we do something, that's our public image out there. That's going to attract people like these men. They retired here because they had that image of Harrison. We needed to do something for the future of our community, so that 10 or 25 years down the road, we will portray the Harrison we know, instead of allowing those negative forces to be the only ones talking about our town."

Now the Task Force meets monthly, with an attendance of about 20 and a mailing list of 70. The first year of the Task Force, the Board of Education spontaneously decided that students should have Martin Luther King Jr. day off, and several businesses organized service projects for that day. Because Harrison once had an African Methodist Episcopal church, in 2004 the Task Force reached out to an AME congregation in Helena. Harrison residents raised enough money for the church to repave its parking lot, and about a dozen residents spent a weekend in Helena, helping the congregation renovate their church. As a thank you, the church choir performed a concert on the Harrison Courthouse bandstand.

In 2004, the Task Force began sponsoring an annual scholarship for a minority student at North Arkansas College, a community college in Harrison. Then in 2007, the Task Force created Central High 50th Anniversary posters that were placed in local businesses and sponsored a full page commemorative notice in the newspaper. It also sponsored a handful of public screenings of "Banished," a documentary about sundown towns, and a screening of "Mississippi Innocence," a documentary about two men freed through the Mississippi Innocence Project, followed by a question and answer period.

The Task Force has put together a traveling exhibit on the history of Harrison that includes prominent black families and homesteaders. One member has made contact with a black Harrison descendant — a retired AT&T worker living in New Jersey, whom they hope to bring to Harrison for a visit. In February 2011, students were bused in from all over the state to participate in the Task Force-organized Nonviolence Youth Summit, part of Arkansas's Martin Luther King Jr. Commission's annual conference. Right now, preparations are underway for the 2012 Youth Summit.

There have been independent efforts, as well. In 2006 a music producer named Scott Hoffman collected nearly 1,200 signatures on a public declaration that read: "We the undersigned citizens of Harrison, Arkansas, and surrounding areas do hereby denounce the blatant racism and bigotry of a very small minority in our community. We stand for respect, harmony and acceptance of all people." Hoffman ran the declaration as a full page ad in the Harrison Daily Times.

Harrison's minorities are growing in visibility. According to the 2010 census, Harrison is 0.3 percent black (about 34 residents), 0.6 percent American Indian, 0.7 percent Asian and 2.2 percent Latino. The Task Force has two black members, transplants who retired in Harrison and regularly attend meetings. The president of North Arkansas College, Dr. Jacquelyn Elliott, is Native American, and Dr. Ali Abdelaal, an oncologist and one of North Arkansas Regional Medical Center's most prominent staff members, is Egyptian. Last year the School Board developed a minority staff recruitment plan, as mandated by Arkansas law, because the number of minority students rose to 5 percent. And in 2008, Anne Millburn, the Harrison High School counselor, started a diversity council. To join, students must fill out an application specifying why they want to be a part of the council. Last year the council had 52 members, including two minority students. This year, there are 35 members and three minority students.

FedEx, the largest employer in Harrison, has a national diversity council with an active Harrison chapter. FedEx sponsored the 2011 Nonviolence Youth Summit, and for the first few years, FedEx representatives trained the high school diversity council. Now Millburn handles this on her own, tackling issues like bullying, cliques and respect for people of all ethnicities, genders, religions and sexual orientation.

Members of the diversity council say they encounter negative perceptions of Harrison when they participate in events with other schools. This summer, senior Maggie Langston attended Arkansas Governor's School. "One guy wrote in my yearbook after Governor School, 'Sorry I called you a Klan member, you're an awesome artist,' so apparently I changed his opinion. ... He called me a racist because I lived in Harrison, and I defended it. Then the next day, he said he talked to somebody who went through Harrison and saw a ton of Confederate flags. And I said, 'You must have missed Harrison, then.' I just kind of let it go, but I attempted to subtly change his mind."

The diversity council said that the 22 minority students at Harrison High are as accepted as anyone else, with plenty of party invitations and dates to prom. Last year, a black senior named Isaiah moved in with a white family when his family left town. He wanted to finish his sports seasons and graduate with his class.

"If anything, maybe [minorities] are even a little bit more popular, because we're trying not to show that we're racist," Maggie said.

Seth Chaney, an 18-year-old, dark-skinned Brazilian studying to be a paramedic at North Arkansas College, has lived in Harrison since he was a toddler. His adoptive parents are white, and his mom is a bilingual doctor. Growing up, he was the only non-white kid at his private school. "All my buddies are white. Two of my buddies are half-Mexican. They all went to Harrison. Of course, you get the backwoods, redneck hillbillies that don't know anything, but I haven't really experienced anything [like racism]," he said.

Another student, Eric Spradlin, leads Chi Alpha, a Christian student organization. He said he's never met Thom Robb, but that Robb "used to go to church with my grandma, till she told him he was wrong in his viewpoints, and she never spoke to him again."

"The KKK, they're not really a threat. They kind of disbanded from how the movies portray them," Chaney added.

A few months ago, Elliott moved from Missouri to accept her position at North Arkansas College. Both her church and her Rotary Club are multi-ethnic, and she's spearheaded a new minority recruitment plan at the college. Even as overall enrollment is shrinking, minority enrollment is growing. She refuses to mention the KKK by name. "A lot of people judge Harrison that have never actually set foot in Harrison. And I think that's unfair. You're entitled to your opinion, but come visit the community, come talk to the people and then make up your mind. I'm passionate about it, because I chose to live here. I wouldn't choose to live and work in a community that's racist. ... From what I can tell, our minorities are much more involved and much more a part of this community than Mr. Thom Robb, or whatever his name is," she said.

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