Black History Month is an annual celebration during the month of February to highlight the achievements by black Americans. The event grew from a weeklong celebration which historian Carter G. Woodson began in 1926 as a way to use history to show the important roles African Americans played in the creation of our country.
During this month, the Arkansas House has been highlighting the accomplishments of African Americans in the Arkansas legislature through our website and social media.
Less than three years after the end of the Civil War, six African American men were elected to serve in the House.
From 1868 to 1893, 85 African Americans served in the Arkansas General Assembly. An article from the Arkansas Historical Association summarizes the diverse background of the historic delegation:
"Between 1868 and 1874, leading members of the black legislative delegation included William H. Grey of Helena, a merchant and lay minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church; Richard A. Dawson of Pine Bluff, who claimed to be the first black law graduate of the University of Chicago; Ferdinand Havis, a barber from Pine Bluff who directed Republican politics in Jefferson County for more than four decades; and James T. White, a Baptist minister from Helena and one of the wealthiest black legislators of his day. But the ranks of black legislators also included men such as Monroe Hawkins, a soft-spoken, itinerant farmer from southwestern Arkansas who reported only forty-four dollars in taxable property in 1875, and John Rollins, an Ashley County farmer who claimed nine dollars in taxable property in 1873."
The first piece of legislation sponsored by an African-American to become law in Arkansas was House Bill 65 "An act to define qualifications of jurors." This guaranteed that anyone who could vote had the right to serve on a jury, therefore allowing African Americans to serve.
But the state's progress took an extreme turn in 1891. An election law passed making it much more difficult for illiterate voters to cast their ballot. And in 1893 a poll tax was adopted. As a result, the black vote dropped from 71 percent to 38 percent in just two years.
No African Americans served in the Arkansas General Assembly from 1893 to 1973. Since 1973, 61 African Americans have served.
We invite you to learn more about black history in our legislature by visiting our Facebook page www.facebook.com/arkansashouse and on Twitter @arkansashouse
And if you are in Little Rock this month, be sure to stop by the Capitol where a display can be found on the first floor featuring all African Americans who served in the General Assembly since 1973.