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Remembering Catcher, Ark: 90 years after the race riot 

The Catcher community lies in the rich bottomland just southeast of Van Buren in western Arkansas, not that far from Hollis Lake, an old oxbow left behind when the Arkansas River changed course long ago. Like that lake, the violent events that happened at Catcher 90 years ago have also been largely left behind by the mainstream of state and local history, though there is a growing movement to tell the story of how the black community was forced, en masse, to abandon their homes and flee for their lives, never to return.

Some 35 to 40 families lived in the Catcher area, most of them African American, before the events of late 1923. Three days after Christmas that year, Effie Latimer, a white woman age 25, was found almost dead by a neighbor who had come to visit her. According to newspaper reports, she was "shot in the back with heavy birdshot from a shotgun" and bruised and cut all about. She regained consciousness briefly after a doctor was called, and before she died, she reportedly identified one of her attackers as William "Son" Bettis, who was swiftly arrested. After Charles Spurgeon Rucks and John Henry Clay, the latter only a teenager, were also arrested as accomplices — not just for murder but also for "outraging" (raping) Latimer — there formed a growing white mob seeking to lynch the three black prisoners, two of whom were spirited away to Little Rock in order to keep them safe.

Denied its chance for revenge, the mob went to the rural community of Catcher, burning houses and tearing up the local black cemetery. Rucks' 65-year-old father, Charles, was shot and died soon thereafter. In response to the violence, a small group of 11 black men armed themselves and holed up inside a cabin, leading Gov. Thomas Chipman McRae to order the transportation of a machine gun to the Catcher area to be used against them. Seeing what they faced, the men in the cabin promptly surrendered, only to be charged — in a grotesque act of irony — with violating the state's act against "night riding," which prohibited any group carrying out clandestine illegal activity done at night, especially in disguise; as the Chicago Defender opined, this law "applies to every member of our Race who is considered disorderly after dark, but exempts the Ku Klux, who have a notorious record in this state."

In the meantime, Bettis and Rucks went to trial on January 4-5, 1924, in accordance of Act 259 of 1909, which provided for a speedy trial in those cases where mob violence was feared. Cases like this show the origin of the modern death penalty in the practice of lynching. As Michael J. Pfeifer observes in "The Roots of Rough Justice: Origins of American Lynching," legislators across the nation "reshaped the death penalty in the early twentieth century to make capital punishment more efficient and more racial," to draw a compromise between due process and vigilante justice. Bettis and Rucks were tried and convicted and sentenced to death with great alacrity, with the jury deliberating 11 minutes for Bettis and 10 for Rucks, while Clay was given a life sentence — his reward for having provided a signed confession (despite the fact that he could not read and may have been tortured). Not even famed lawyer Scipio Jones, who fought successfully to free those sentenced to death in relation in the Elaine Massacre of 1919, could prevent Bettis and Rucks from being electrocuted the following year. They denied their guilt until their last.

In Catcher, meanwhile, unsigned notices were posted on the evening of Saturday, Jan. 13, 1924, "warning the negroes to get out of the county within five days." Similar notices were posted in the nearby town of Shibley, while some warnings were sent through the U.S. mail. Gus Richardson, one of the 11 men charged with night riding, received a letter which read: "It becomes necessary for the safety of the community to ask you to leave it. You will be given a few days to straighten out your affairs. If you are out of Crawford County in five days you will not be bothered; otherwise, you will have to suffer the consequences." By the morning of Jan. 15, only three black families remained in Catcher, and on Jan. 18, 1924, the Van Buren Press-Argus reported that the black out-migration had "continued until that settlement was strictly a white settlement." According to stories collected by Moira Bryant, who did an oral history paper on the Catcher riot in 2010 while a student at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, African Americans were forced to flee Catcher with only what they could carry, many walking across the Arkansas River bridge in the rain until they finally found shelter in Fort Smith, where many settled in the area known as Midland Heights. Others, newspapers reported, went on to Oklahoma.

Wanda Gray, who wrote the entry on the Catcher riot for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, spent five years in the 1990s working with community groups in researching the history of Crawford County but had never heard one word about the riot until 2008, until somebody posted a query about it on the Arkansas History Discussion Group listserv.

"I immediately dropped everything and began my research," she remembered. Likewise, Bryant, who had family in the area, remained unaware of the event until she started casting about for a paper topic in 2010. Both Gray and Bryant are white, but memory persisted among area African Americans. Ray Willis wrote in a 2006 column for the Lincoln Echo, a black newspaper in his hometown of Fort Smith, "I've heard the Catcher story since I was a little boy." He had a personal connection, his great uncle being William Bettis, whose framed portrait "proudly remains in my family's possession."

Willis also has an alternate scenario for the origin of the violence, one in which the victim's husband, Robert Latimer, widely reported to be away in Oklahoma at the time of the murder, was having an affair with the very neighbor who found Latimer near death, Florence Johnson. In fact, Bryant discovered, in her research, that Johnson had separated from her husband by the time of the murder, with their divorce being finalized in September 1924. That is nowhere near enough proof to back any version of events that includes a planned murder by illicit lovers, but until more research is done on the events at Catcher — and on racial violence across the state — black and white communities will likely tell and pass on wholly different stories about what happened in the past.

Two years ago, Linda Griffith of Montana, a descendant of Effie Latimer, visited Fort Smith, where she met Dorothy Jean Smith, a descendant of William Bettis. They are friends now. A picture taken at their meeting shows them both smiling genially. It is, perhaps, a first step to undoing the legacy unleashed by the events of 90 years ago, but only a first step.

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