In “Race Relations in the Natural State” (The Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, $30 in cloth, $15 in paperback), Grif Stockley introduces us to William Pickens. Pickens was a black laborer living in South Carolina in 1888, so an Arkansas farm recruiter's pitch must have sounded pretty good: Our state was “a tropical country of soft and balmy air, where cocoanuts, oranges, lemons, and bananas grew.” Pickens took the bait, only to find a world of cotton and poverty where paradise was supposed to be.
Most ex-slaves didn't suffer from such extreme trickery, but they were similarly teased by Reconstruction's promise of freedom and equality. “Race Relations” describes how the state's African Americans have fought to turn that promise into a reality. From admission to the Union in 1819 to the present day, Stockley shows, Arkansas has a history of slow racial progress marked by notable setbacks.
Although the book is divided into sections that touch upon major political movements, it is at its best when it invokes specific characters and situations. Stockley, who's previously written books on Daisy Bates and the Elaine race massacres of 1919, uses individual portraits to show the concrete effects of race on daily life. William Pickens provides an example of how debt peonage beset blacks after Reconstruction; other individuals show the brutality of lynching and the divide that separated black landowners and black laborers.
The book is intended as an introductory text, and at 198 pages it allows only a glance at themes and movements that impact the broader history of Southern race relations. For example, Stockley writes that the Housing Act of 1949 enabled segregation to spread across Little Rock, but he only gives a cursory explanation of what the federal policy was and how it worked. Unfortunately, the book lacks a bibliography, so the curious reader will have to do extra searching to find the authors Stockley quotes throughout the text.
Stockley amends a brief final chapter that discusses immigration in Arkansas, primarily through the lens of a recent Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation study that has been frequently cited. I don't think that this is a totally logical shift in topic, and I'm skeptical of the sort of reductionism that mentions slavery, peonage and segregation alongside a policy that bars state college scholarships from the children of undocumented immigrants, dubious as that policy may be. Still, Stockley's wider point is well-taken: An awareness of Arkansas's callous racial past might teach us to use a bit more compassion in the future.