Last October I wrote a blog post about how Pocahontas, Arkansas, a small town in the rural northeast area of the state, celebrated its 150th anniversary. The celebration covered three weekends, the first of which was devoted to the town’s early history up to and including the Civil War. Because of the current discussion about how the states of the former Confederacy can preserve their history without also celebrating white supremacy, it might make sense to take another look at that celebration.
Since I only spent one day there, I know nothing about the actual racial climate of the community. But I can say that the celebration’s organizers made a determined, good-faith effort to represent both the good and the bad sides of its history. Sure, there were Civil War reenactors, and the few marchers in the grand parade who were dressed (more or less) as Confederate soldiers received the loudest applause — but the Eddie Mae Herron Center, formerly the A.M.E. Church and school, was also well represented.
The signs on the Civil War River Walk Memorial, dedicated that weekend, relate the town’s traumatic Civil War history without false invocations of nobility and heroism. Along with the rest of northern Arkansas, the area was devastated by the war as control switched back and forth between the Union and Confederate armies. The town itself was burned in a Union raid in 1863. A Union colonel who visited Pocahontas in 1865, quoted on one of the signs, wrote that “I found the country infested by small bands of guerillas, who will not stand and fight, but subsist by plundering the inhabitants, and the swamps and canebrakes of the region afford them secure shelter.” He noted that people in northeast Arkansas were generally friendly to the Union, “because of the oppressions and wrongs suffered by them due to the usurped [Confederate] authority imposed on them.”
The Pocahontas history play, “No History Happened Here,” presented on Friday evening, made the most serious attempt to deal with the complexity of the town’s history. Written by local college professor Jan Fiedler Ziegler, it was structured as a dialogue between a young boy struggling to write an essay about town history for a school assignment, and his grandparents, who were telling him all about it. The dialogue was illustrated by a series of vignettes, and right from the beginning the lives of slaves were part of the story. With each new revelation about the injustice of slavery, the boy expressed his dismay at what he learned. The historical scenes were interspersed with spirituals, performed by singers from the Eddie Mae Herron Center. The play also included a scene about the forced relocation of Cherokees on the Trail of Tears, one part of which passed through Pocahontas.
My ancestor Thomas Drew, who appeared on stage at one point, was a slaveholder as well as the father of at least one enslaved child, a son named Drew Bettis. Drew Bettis, in turn was the son of Martha Bettis, one of seven enslaved daughters of Ranson Bettis’ brother Elijah, and thus the first cousin of Thomas’ wife Cinderella Bettis.
Martha’s descendants, members of a large, close family now centered in Leavenworth, Kansas, are my third cousins. Dr. Ziegler knew nothing of this history when she wrote the play, but in the course of her research she uncovered an important document: a deed by which Elijah Bettis freed seven enslaved women, while keeping their children in bondage. That deed was read as part of the play, with the young boy and his grandfather sharing their distress at the “things that, looking back, we can say were wrong.” I recognized the names—the same names I had already learned from my Leavenworth cousins.
After the play, I told Dr. Ziegler who the seven women were, and that information went into the commemorative booklet of script and photos. And photos of my great-aunt Emma, granddaughter of Thomas and Cinderella, and her first cousin Mary Jane Bettis, granddaughter of Thomas and Martha, went up side by side in the Randolph County Heritage Museum. No atonement may be possible for the crime of slavery, but acknowledging that reality, and its effects on the lives of real human beings, is one small step towards healing.Share