Black Women’s Activism in Rural Arkansas
Cherisse Jones-Branch, Ph.D.
Arkansas State University-Jonesboro
For the past few years I have been working on an ever evolving book project on African American women’s activism in rural Arkansas and it has taken me in some very interesting directions. I had never before heard of home demonstration agents until I was working on my first book on interracial activism in South Carolina, my home state. One of the women I chronicled, Sara Z. Daniels, had been a home demonstration agent who had lost her job due to her civil rights activism. I did not learn enough about the important work she performed as an agent until the book was nearly completed. However, I did wonder about black home demonstration agents and their work in Arkansas and increasingly about women’s activism in rural spaces. What occurred to me was that most of the research on black women spoke to their experiences in urban northern and southern spaces. Often highlighted were women who were part of the migratory process out of the rural South. Rare was the occasion that I encountered a study that probed the lives of black women who remained in the rural South. I knew there was a story there and so I began asking questions. How did they craft lives on terrain that was fraught with racial and sexual discrimination? How did they unearth silences surrounding black women’s sexual exploitation? How did they perceive and sustain family structures? How did rural black women cultivate a sense of community between World War I and the modern Civil Rights movement? My research increasingly revealed that black women were patently strategically and organizationally positioned to address these community issues.
This project began as a paper on black home demonstration agents in Arkansas for a 2011 conference on race and ethnicity in Arkansas. To be honest, I was not entirely sure what I was writing about, let alone what I would discuss at this conference, but I knew this work was important and I believed that this was the proper forum for me to test my ideas. I was wrong. No one seemed to know what I was talking about. I presented another version of my talk at an African American history conference. Wrong again. It was not until I attended my first Agricultural History Society and Rural Women Studies Association conferences that I connected with scholars who were producing scholarship on rural women in other parts of the country and the world.
My interactions with these fine folks was both encouraging and enlightening. The depth and breadth of their scholarship led me to rethink and refine my own study on rural black women in Arkansas. I began probing the silences surrounding black Arkansas women’s lives by examining cooperative extension services records. Women who had been faceless and nameless with stories that had never really fully registered on scholars’ radars, started to emerge from the background. Women like Mary L. Ray, a Tuskegee Institute graduate who in 1918 became Arkansas’s first African American home demonstration agent (Figure 1). Or Lula Toler, an agent in Jefferson County who assisted destitute blacks during the 1927 Mississippi River flood and then established the first convalescent home for African Americans in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Or, Phillips County agent, Annie Zachary, the owner of a 1200 acre farm who, in 1965, ran for the Arkansas state senate (Figure 2).
When I attended my first Rural Women’s Studies Association biennial meeting in 2015, I first heard Jennie Barker Devine’s sage advice to not “equate rurality with ignorance.” This brief but profound statement informed my research and analysis as I sought to better understand the ways in which black women in rural spaces employed native intelligence to comprehend their circumstances. Black women did not act alone as home demonstration agents or members of home demonstration clubs. The extent of their activism demanded inter-organizational and at times, interracial cooperation. Poor and rural black Arkansas women were members of and leaders in segregated home demonstration clubs, yet at times they cooperated with white women to meet community and family needs because they understood that they often possessed access to critical political and economic resources. Middle class black women, including home demonstration agents, were members of the Arkansas Association of Colored Women which deployed its limited political agency to press white local and state politicians to address such rural black community needs as increased access to quality health care and an industrial school for black girls.
Black women’s self-advocacy, to be clear, was an incredibly dangerous pursuit in the Jim Crow South. Home demonstration agents and black community leaders were always mindful of the importance of cultivating and maintaining positive relationships with local whites. Black women’s rural activism occurred within a temporal and spatial context where racial and sexual violence were very real and omnipresent threats. They necessarily engaged in stealth activism by carefully monitoring the spaces in which they travailed.
Black women’s activism was a crucial part of the self-advocacy and efficacy necessary to improve conditions in Arkansas’s rural black communities. Although this occurred under difficult and often dangerous circumstances, I maintain that black women of all stripes understood well that because of their gender they were best situated and empowered to understand and navigate deeply entrenched racial and class boundaries in order to extract their homes, families, and communities from the difficult circumstances in which they lived.