George Pool Ballard (1882–1951)
George Pool Ballard published poems in newspapers in Fayetteville (Washington County) as well as a poetry collection, unusual feats for an African-American poet in the 1920s. Although he has been nearly forgotten, Ballard is a significant figure in the literary history of Arkansas, as his life and poetry provide insights into the history and culture of Fayetteville and into the era of segregation in which he lived and wrote.
Details about George Ballard’s life are severely limited. Ballard was born on January 4, 1882, on his parents’ small farm near the rural community of Cincinnati in western Washington County. Since no public schools were available to African Americans in this area of Arkansas, Ballard probably did not receive a formal public education. Little else is known about his early years, but by 1902 he had moved to Fayetteville, where he married Rosetta Dart on March 6, 1902. The couple lived on East Mountain Street in the traditionally black area known as Tin Cup.
Ballard held a variety of jobs in Fayetteville, serving as a janitor in the county jail, operating a shoeshine parlor, and working as an auto mechanic. In the early 1920s, Ballard’s poetry began appearing in the Fayetteville Daily Democrat, which was at that time edited by Lessie Stringfellow Read. Ballard gained considerable public attention and praise when Read published his poem “Woodrow Wilson—A Tribute” on February 6, 1924, three days after Wilson’s death. The poem was reprinted in several newspapers, and Ballard received complimentary letters from readers around the nation. Read continued to edit and publish Ballard’s poetry, and in 1928, in an effort to raise money to pay the mortgage on Ballard’s home, she oversaw the publication of his collection Ozarks “Ballards.” Although Read encouraged and promoted Ballard, she made several condescending remarks about his work in her foreword to the collection, such as stating that “there is claimed for his work no serious literary worth” and that Ballard “knows nothing of the techniques of writing.”
Most of the poems in Ozarks “Ballards” are rhymed verses in which Ballard comments on timely events and issues of interest to general readers, such as the centennial of Fayetteville, the marriage of the mayor, Prohibition, and the seasons and holidays. Although Read disparaged Ballard’s seeming lack of literary technique, he was targeting a general newspaper audience, an audience that probably would have rejected more-literary forms of verse. Ballard’s newspaper platform was undoubtedly precarious, and the editors of the Democrat almost always identified him with a race label, such as “Negro Singer,” “Negro Poet,” or “Colored Versifier.” But even under these cultural and social restrictions, Ballard demonstrated effective use of rhyme schemes, verse forms, meter, and other poetic devices, and some of his poems, especially “The Toiler Speaks” and “A Broken Promise,” offer veiled yet biting comments upon issues of race.
After Ozarks “Ballards” was published, Ballard continued to publish poetry occasionally in the Daily Democrat and Northwest Arkansas Times and to be involved in community activities. Ballard often attended sessions of the University-City Poetry Club hosted by Rosa Zagnoni Marinoni, and on May 21, 1936, the library of Fayetteville’s new Lincoln School for African Americans was dedicated as the George Ballard Library. In later years, Ballard shined shoes at Camp Chaffee (now Fort Chaffee) during World War II and made trips to Los Angeles, California, to visit family members.
George Ballard died on December 3, 1951, and is buried in an unmarked grave in Oaks Cemetery, a racially segregated graveyard south of the Fayetteville National Cemetery. The most extensive study yet published of George Ballard and his poetry is J. B. Hogan’s 2013 article “George Ballard: Forgotten Poet of the Hollow.”
For additional information:
Ballard, George. Ozark “Ballards” of a Negro singer: being a collection of verse. Edited by Leslie Stringfellow Read. Fayetteville, AR: Democrat Publishing, 1928.
Hogan, J. B. “George Ballard: Forgotten Poet of the Hollow.” Flashback 63 (Winter 2013): 147–159.
Neal, Joe. “Remembering an Arkansas Poet.” Grapevine, March 16, 1977, pp. 5–7.
Missouri State University
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