Traveling through time in Northeast Arkansas
The distance from my home in Conway to the Eddie Mae Herron Center in Pocahontas is 145.3 miles, a drive of approximately two hours and 24 minutes. It’s not the farthest I’ve traveled to get somewhere in Arkansas, for sure, but somehow it feels like the most important trip I’ve made so far. Not only is my destination a museum, a community center, and an education center, but also a culture and heritage center that celebrates almost two centuries of African-American history in Randolph County. Today, I’m looking forward to seeing a history that, for many, has been unseen. I’m looking forward to a journey, not just of physical distance, but also one of time and culture and … significance.
After passing “Rock ’N’ Roll Highway 67” signs, fallow fields and a tin-roof building with five or six Narnia-like lampposts towering over a tall chain-link fence, I finally enter Pocahontas, population 6,608. But I have to drive past the Randolph Memorial Gardens, the Cottonwood Inn Motel and Haley’s Lumber and Metal (its changeable sign boasting a single word: SLEDS) and into a residential neighborhood to find the Eddie Mae Herron Center, an old clapboard schoolhouse quietly tucked away on Archer Street.
When I walk in, a beautiful lady who I swear looks no more than five years older than me (I’ll go ahead and reveal I’m in my early 40s) is sitting at a folding table to my right. She stands up and walks to greet me, hand extended. “I can’t thank you enough for coming!” Pat Johnson, the center’s leader of preservation (and my guide for the day), exclaims. “We’re in a residential area and we kind of get overlooked.”
While the building might get overlooked because of its location, Pat would never get overlooked, no matter where she was. Her hair is stylishly cut, her wine-colored tunic, black leggings and boots are hip, and she has the most beautiful dark eyes, which positively emanate kindness. “There’s nothing I like better than to talk about this center,” she tells me, gesturing around the one-room schoolhouse. “I got my start here.”
“You went to school here?” I ask, eyeing the potbellied stove standing upright against the wall.
“I sure did,” she replies, smiling.
Turns out Pat is actually the same age as my mother. Born in 1948, Pat grew up in the age of Jim Crow and attended segregated schools until she graduated. In fact, she went to school in this very building—back when it was known as the Pocahontas Colored School—from first through eighth grade. And her teacher? None other than the building’s namesake, Eddie Mae Herron.
“She was very educated, very creative,” Pat says of Eddie Mae. “She was a good teacher to the whole community. Really cared for families.”
In fact, Eddie Mae taught Pat’s mother to read, and ended up naming Pat when she was born. “She was studying Louis Pasteur at the time. My mother’s name was Lurine, so Eddie Mae put the two together and gave me the name Pasturine. I hated that name because the kids made fun of me.” Pat’s mom and dad called her Patsy for short, which eventually led to her being known as Pat. And while she didn’t love her name when she was a child, she had nothing but respect for the lady who gave it to her.
“When we get together,” Pat says of the many gatherings that occur in this center, “Eddie Mae is always amidst us. Her name always comes up—things she taught us, quotes we still have.”
“You gonna give me one?” I ask. “A quote?”
Pat smiles. “‘Do you want me to talk to your parents?’ Of course we didn’t!”
The Eddie Mae Herron Center has been so many things to so many families, Pat goes on to tell me: St. Mary’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, Pocahontas Colored School, McDonald Head Start/Day Care Center, a senior center. But after a while, as so often happens with even the most cared-for of historical buildings, the upkeep by volunteers became insufficient. As the new millennium approached, Pat would drive by and see the deterioration, and she couldn’t stand the idea of the African-American community losing part of its history. She happened to hear on the radio that Randolph County Chamber of Commerce Director Wayne Gearhart had received a grant for the local airport, and Pat decided to go talk to him to see what could be done about her old school. “This could be a place where we could tell about our history,” Pat remembers thinking at the time.
Gearhart pointed her in the direction of Black River Technical College professor Dr. Jan Ziegler, who helped Pat convince the Pocahontas School Board (who owned the building) to donate the facility, which they voted to do unanimously. With the help of grants and fundraising, the Eddie Mae Herron Center became a reality, opening its doors in the fall of 2001 with the mission “to help individuals, communities and organizations to identify, protect and preserve the history and to foster widespread appreciation of and respect for the African-American culture.”
I look around at pictures of alumni on the walls, the African-American dolls from years past sitting on wooden benches, the faded cake-walk numbers still visible on the original wood floors. Just as the mission states, the Center is protecting and preserving African-American history. And, just as the mission states, I stand in this sacred space, appreciating and respecting the culture that history is honoring.
Pat drives me past St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church, an awe-inspiring stone building with an impressive stone grotto featuring an icon of Mary. “This actually had the first black school,” Pat tells me. “But people didn’t want it here.”
The black education provided by St. Paul’s ran from 1887 to 1909—over 20 years. But after St. Paul’s closed, it was another 20 years before local African-Americans found a new off-and-on home for learning: St. Mary’s African Methodist Episcopal Church.Then, in 1948, the St. Mary’s Board of Trustees entered into a formal agreement with the Pocahontas Special School District to accommodate for the education of local “colored children.” Pocahontas Colored School hired Eddie Mae Herron, a graduate of Philander Smith College, and she taught—in the one-room building—all children enrolled in grades 1-8, from the time the school came under the purview of the school district until Civil Rights legislation forced school integration at the end of the 1964 school year.
It’s strange to me, the idea of segregation. There were plenty of kids of all ethnicities in my classes from kindergarten through college, but just one generation ahead of me, it was a way of life. “After I finished eighth grade, I was bused to the colored high school in Newport,” Pat tells me.
“How far is Newport?” I ask, uncertain of my northeast Arkansas geography.
“About 50 miles,” Pat tells me.
“One way?” I ask, incredulous.
“One way,” Pat nods.
These extreme measures to enforce segregation are especially confounding to me considering the history of Hoxie, a town only 14 miles from Pocahontas. In 1955, two years before the crisis at Little Rock Central High School, the Hoxie School District decided to integrate, making it one of the earliest school districts in the state to do so. But it took another 10 years and the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 for integration to travel the 14 miles to Pocahontas.
Now the Eddie Mae Herron Center is on the National Register of Historical Places, and is a place where people of all colors can congregate openly. “The building is for everyone,” Pat says. “That’s what I love about it. Everyone can come together and sit elbow to elbow and express their views.”
The Randolph County Heritage Museum, with its awning low-slung over its front walkway, looks to me more like a saloon than a place of learning. The lights are low, if they’re even on, and Pat is worried that it’s closed.
“Let me talk to these ladies,” she says, approaching two women sitting in a van parked out front.
Diane Kincade and Margaret “Jean” Lambourn escort us to the front door and let us in. They’re with Experience Works, a national nonprofit that puts seniors to work. Jean is originally from Idaho, having come to Pocahontas just two years ago to be with family, while Diane has been here her entire life. Both work here at the museum and really seem to know their Randolph County history. Jean shows me the tiny building that used to house the Crosby Button Factory, which has been moved inside the museum. Diane shows me a 6-foot gar caught in one of Pocahontas’ five rivers and a display honoring the Brown Shoe Company, the first shoe company located below the Mason-Dixon line. And while there are many other interesting artifacts—a square grand piano, a medical exhibit room, a tombstone taller than my husband—it’s the clothing of, and the book chronicling the history about, Pocahontas citizen Cora Hebner that fascinates me most.
“She would—kind of like these mail-order brides—she’d get a groom like that,” Diane tells me. “Then she’d kill them for their insurance.”
My eyes grow wide. “How many husbands did she kill?”
“Three!” Diane replies.
“I shouldn’t laugh out loud,” I say, laughing out loud, “but that’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard.”
“She poisoned them,” Diane adds.
In the Randolph County Museum, I see dainty antique salt cellars, Freemason and Eastern Star memorabilia, Miss Randolph County crowns towering a foot high. I can’t help but note that at the Eddie Mae Herron Center, the artifacts were just a tad different: quilts that detailed directions through the Underground Railroad, burlap sacks for gathering picked cotton, a “Colored Only” sign for the restroom. The two histories displayed in these museums existed simultaneously, without always being simultaneously visible. “So many people in our community didn’t even know this building was here,” Pat said of the center. “Then so many more didn’t know we had to go to school there.”
I was one who didn’t know. I’m glad that I do now. The differences between the two journeys of folks in Pocahontas is obvious. And it’s nice that with the town’s focus on history, hospitality and home, both can be remembered and respected and celebrated.
The smell wafting from Don’s Steakhouse is nothing short of heavenly. I’m on a cockamamie low-carb diet, but today is my cheat day, and I plan to take full advantage of it. I order fried chicken tenders and a Dr. Pepper and both French fries and hush puppies, and my mouth salivates while I await my plate.
Pat sits across from me in the booth, waving at every single person who walks in. She introduces me to Linda Newsom, retired from the USDA Farm Service Agency, who tells me “Pocahontas is a good place to raise a family.”
“Where do you know her from?” I ask Pat when Linda walks away.
“Even though we were segregated,” Pat says, “we knew each other.”
One of the places kids of opposite races got to know one another was the historic Imperial Theatre, where African-Americans sat in the balcony to watch movies, a spot where white kids often sneaked up to enjoy the show. Kids also played ball together down at the park. Pat’s known Linda so long she can’t even remember how they met.
Pat says the community has always felt wholesome to her. “I love the atmosphere. I love the friendliness that we have. I feel like if I needed something or my family needed something, I could go to somebody and they’d help. I hope it’ll always stay that way.”
The programming at the Eddie Mae Herron Center goes a long way to preserving that sense of connectedness and tradition. Each year on the second weekend of February, they host an old-time hog butchering, where members of the community come out and bring a side dish. The men of the community butcher and smoke the hog, and the Boy Scouts even put on a program. When the hog is ready, they sit down to a community dinner and have an auction benefiting the center. “Kids find out their bacon doesn’t come from Walmart,” Pat says with a smile.
And for Juneteenth—the celebration of the Emancipation—the town blocks off the street in front of the center and the day is spent with activities like a cakewalk, lots of games for children, and even a little pageant. They usually have a big entertainer come for the evening and, again, there’s a big dinner. “People are lined up in the street, all around the block,” Pat says of Juneteenth’s popularity.
The hush puppies were just the carb I was hoping for: crisp on the outside, bready on the inside. But I can’t help but wonder what that hog is going to taste like in February. Or what’s on the menu in June.
Gary Tribble, the local sheriff, in his camo sweatshirt and ball cap, enters the restaurant. He’s just been re-elected to his sixth term in office, and he greets Pat with a smile. “I like the quality of the people,” he says of life in Pocahontas. “Their genuineness. They’re caring people. I’ve been a lot of other places, and you won’t find a higher caliber of people than what you have here.”
Pat and I leave Don’s, and I am amazed at how long it takes us to get to the car with her stopping and greeting everyone she sees. “Is there anybody you don’t know?” I ask her.
“I do know a lot of people,” Pat agrees. “But if there’s somebody I don’t know, I’ll try to get to know them.”
High-caliber person indeed.
Pat has so much she wants to show me: Black River Technical College, one of only three institutions in the state to offer police academy training; Sanitary Barber Shop, Arkansas’ oldest, continuously operating barber shop; Randolph County Quilt Trail, a collection of almost-full-sized reproductions of heritage quilts (and the first quilt trail in Arkansas). But it’s Davidsonville Historic State Park that she chooses for our final stop.
The town of Davidsonville was established in 1815, and it was the home of the Arkansas Territory’s first post office, land office and courthouse. Charles Ruberson, an interpreter usually working out at Powhatan Historic State Park, happens to be at the visitor center when we arrive. Even though this isn’t his usual station, he’s such a good sport he shows us the model of the type of boat that used to go out on the Black River—significant because, from there, traders could get to the Mississippi and float up to St. Louis or down to New Orleans. He tells us about the “ghost structures” at Davidsonville, those steel-beam outlines of the buildings that once stood here that show visitors what life used to be like.
I think it’s good that visitors can see what life used to be like in Randolph County. You can go to Davidsonville and see how settlers lived and worked. You can go to the Randolph County Heritage Museum and see what the majority of the county wants to be remembered for. And then you can go to the Eddie Mae Herron Center and see a part of history that, while certainly more painful to look at, is every bit as important to remember.
Because what people go through matters. Their journeys count, right? How people improve themselves, and how people are going to continue to improve, and how they’re going to love and respect and depend on people like the folks in Pocahontas sure seem to. I see it in the esteem the sheriff shows Pat—an esteem that she returns. I see it in the histories being preserved and celebrated in both museums. And I see it in the smallest of exchanges between the high caliber of people here. The march of humanity may not be in a straight line, but, I hope, it is ever forward.
Pat drives me back to my car. Instead of shaking hands, we hug.
It just feels right.
“You be careful driving home,” she tells me.
“Yes, ma’am,” I reply, getting back into my car.
I get back out in the cold and run back to her.
“Do you want me to text you when I get home safely?” I ask.
“I sure do,” she says.
And I do.