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."

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