Harrison, Ark., works to scrub away a 'whites only' label

Mayor Jeff Crockett and others try to change the image of Harrison, Ark., a town that once told African-Americans they were neither welcome nor safe there.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Samantha Baker/AP/File
Motorists pass a billboard erected in Harrison, Ark., in October that many believe to be racially charged. It reads: 'Anti-Racist is a Code Word for Anti-White.' Harrison Mayor Jeff Crockett and others have been working to reverse the town's image as unfriendly to African-Americans.

Harrison, Ark., Mayor Jeff Crockett faces what some outsiders might view as an unenviable task.

He presides over a town with a murky history, the kind that once told African-Americans they were neither welcome nor safe in the Boone County seat and  surrounding area. 

By 1909, reputedly all but one African-American had left Harrison. The rest – there were 115 in 1900 – had been driven out. The result? The town went down in infamy, branded as a place of rampant racism.

It's a reputation the mayor desperately wants to change.

Those days of discrimination, Mayor Crockett says, are long since past. Today, they make up a sorry chapter in the town's history but nonetheless represent a period long ago. In 2013 Harrison is determined to show a modern face.

But Crockett and other town boosters continue to confront challenges to that new image. A small group still preaches in favor of making Harrison and its surroundings a "white enclave," he says. And there is another stigma the town is facing: A chapter of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) claims Harrison as its national headquarters.

In mid-October Crockett spoke out against a billboard that went up alongside the busy Harrison Bypass. "Anti-Racist is a Code Word for Anti-White," it reads. There is no evidence the ad was taken out by the local chapter of the KKK, but some branded its content as racist.

Yet in the last 10 years, a string of efforts aimed at changing Harrison's reputation have made significant inroads, Crockett says. Despite the latest thorn in Harrison's side, he speaks of its achievements with pride.

The Harrison Community Taskforce on Race Relations, started by a previous mayor, now meets once a month and has about 20 members. At its latest meeting, in early in November, members were hard at work crafting a response to the contentious billboard.

At Harrison High School, Crockett goes on, teachers helped found a diversity council. About 20 schoolkids are involved, he says, dealing both with issues of race and sexuality.

"One time when I was there, the kids expressed discontent," he explains, "because they are not the kids who had anything to do with these [racial] cases, but yet [they] have to deal with it."

Schoolchildren from diverse backgrounds have been brought in from out of town. In 2012, Harrison publicly celebrated Black History Month for the first time. There have been scholarships for minority students, minority members are on the race relations taskforce, and a youth nonviolence summit has been held .

Harrison, with a population of just over 13,000, still has a very low number of minorities. But their presence is said to be slowly increasing.

Crockett wants to counteract the negativity about Harrison that floods the internet, which not only tarnishing the town name but also leadis to an economic disadvantage.

He cites an example.

“We had an employer with a manufacturing factory who was trying to relocate a worker, and the person’s wife did some research on the internet,” Crockett says. “But when she saw the stuff about the hate groups [in Harrison] she said she would not move.

"In the end, he did transfer, and they bought a house in Branson [34 miles to the north in Missouri]. That’s a house that was not bought in Harrison, supermarket shopping not done in Harrison, eating out not done in Harrison, taxes not paid in Harrison.”

Crockett’s assistant, Patrick Hunter, is adamant that the town’s efforts at redemption will not be in vain. He calls the recent billboard “a cowardly display and a state of mind of ignorance that is a century out of date.” Today, Mr. Hunter insists, “Harrison is working to be a diverse community.”

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