- White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894–1909
Between 1894 and 1909, racial tensions reached a crescendo in the Ozarks. Often studies of racial violence focus on regions where blacks were an important part in the local economy, yet in the Ozarks blacks’ role in the economy was insignificant. Subsistence farming and an available white labor force in the region limited the role of African Americans in the local economy. Kimberly Harper argues that the economic insignificance of African Americans led whites to expel them from the region. “For whites in such areas,” Harper explains, “the goal of discipline could give way to disappearance” as whites expelled blacks rather than trying to control them (xxv).
Harper firmly grounds her study within the framework of the current historiography. Her examination of lynching in the region follows the arguments put forth by previous scholars of lynching—specifically the idea of “rough justice” argued by Michael Pfeifer in Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874–1947 (University of Illinois Press, 2006). Lynching in this region, Harper argues, resulted from perceived weakness of the local legal system. Harper’s study on lynching is not groundbreaking, but her examination of black expulsions is important. Scholars have studied the expulsion of blacks from the individual cities in the region, yet Harper places each individual case in the broader context of a regional study.
Harper’s regional approach has strengths and weaknesses. The author’s examination of Pierce City, Missouri, and Harrison, Arkansas, best illustrate her argument. She provides a brief background of the cities under study, uses local newspapers and statistics from the state penitentiary to illustrate the perceived increase in black crime, and shows how whites expelled the black community from those cities. Harper illustrates the interconnectedness of the region through newspaper accounts that show each city in the region understood the implications of the expulsions from other regional cities.
Although isolated instances of local expulsions occurred, state authorities eradicated the threat of a region-wide, black expulsion. The region’s history of black expulsions forced state authorities to act aggressively against the threat of mob violence, especially as the threat of mob action escalated in the early 1900s. Mobs expelled blacks from Pierce City in the 1890s, but by the 1906 lynching in Springfield, the governor quickly sent in the state militia to quell any further group violence against blacks.
The idea of a conscious, region-wide expulsion therefore has flaws. While the black population decreased in places like Pierce City, in other cities in the region, such as Springfield, Missouri, there remained “vibrant black communities” (253). Even in areas where the black population decreased over time, there remained a number of blacks in many of the counties under study. According to the author, the black population in Jasper County, Missouri, fell from 1,428 to 1,094 between 1900 and 1930. She found a similar occurrence in Lawrence County, Missouri, where the black population fell from 364 in 1890 to 74 in 1930. Although the author demonstrates a decrease in the total black population over time, limited [End Page 224] economic opportunities available to African Americans suggest that other influences outside of racial violence encouraged emigration.
In spite of the book’s shortcomings, Harper highlights the vulnerability of the black population in a region that did not rely on cheap black labor. Her extensive use of primary source material, including court records, newspaper accounts, and state reports, is impressive. Her argument holds up for some of the cities under study, but her proof of a region-wide attempt to establish a “white man’s heaven” falls short.