Pine Bluff (Jefferson County)
|Latitude and Longitude:
|44.18 square miles (2020 Census)
|41,253 (2020 Census)
|January 10, 1839
Historical Population as per the U.S. Census:
Like Jefferson County, Pine Bluff is a historical offspring of Arkansas Post (Arkansas County)—the first European foothold in Arkansas, founded in 1686 by the French and built near the mouth of the Arkansas River. The city thrived during the last part of the nineteenth century due to its status as a cotton center and river port. The city was hit hard, however, by flooding, drought, and economic depression in the early twentieth century, although World War II proved to be an economic boon to the city, which opened a munitions arsenal during the war. Despite possessing a rich history and being home to a university, the city was in decline by the beginning of the twenty-first century, facing population loss and crumbling infrastructure.
European Exploration and Settlement
After Spaniard Hernando de Soto had trekked through southeast Arkansas 145 years earlier in 1541, leaving behind death and disease, the French arrived to claim the lower Mississippi River Valley. In 1682, French Canadian René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle boated down the Mississippi with a party of fifty-four and claimed southeast Arkansas and its river. One of his lieutenants, Henri de Tonti, an Italian by birth, erected a group of crude encampments near the mouth of the Arkansas and named it Arkansas Post.
Louisiana Purchase through Early Statehood
In the autumn of 1819, Joseph Bonne, making his way upstream from Arkansas Post, built a crude cabin for his Quapaw wife and family on a “high bluff covered with pine trees” on the river’s south bank. A few years later, James Scull, also from Arkansas Post, arrived and set up an encampment on the north bank across from the future site of Pine Bluff. The encampment soon became a tavern and small inn.
On March 3, 1819, President James Monroe named Robert Crittenden territorial secretary. Crittenden quickly set about exploiting the remaining Quapaw in southeast Arkansas to relinquish their last tracts of land. At Major John Harrington’s lodge, said to be in Jefferson County on the north bank of the Arkansas, the Indians signed away the last of their tribal lands on November 15, 1824. One Quapaw leader, Sarasin, later returned to Jefferson County and is buried in Pine Bluff.
Steamboat travel soon opened the hamlet to expanding settlement, bringing to the area such men as French-born Napoleonic soldier Antoine Barraque (Pine Bluff’s principal east-west street was named for him) and brothers James T. and John Pullen (main thoroughfares were named for them). On November 2, 1829, Territorial Governor John Pope approved an act to establish Jefferson County, named for President Thomas Jefferson. The first county seat was at Bonne’s cabin. Becoming a fledgling cotton bale production center where steamboats could dock, Pine Bluff became the county seat in August 1832. At their first meeting in October, commissioners recommended that the town be named “Pine Bluff Town.” Pine Bluff incorporated in January 1839, and the court authorized in October 1839 the construction of a brick courthouse that would become the city’s architectural centerpiece.
The town’s first Methodist church was established in 1829; two years later, a Catholic church was founded southeast of town. Both started educating children soon after their services began. Land travel was enhanced by the July 1834 construction of the federally financed Columbia to Little Rock Military Road that ran through Pine Bluff. The city’s first newspaper was the Jeffersonian, established in 1847. In October 1844, the first of several floods of the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers devastated the town’s economy. From the 1850s through the post–Civil War years, settlers from east of the Mississippi poured into the city, along with many German immigrants.
Civil War through the Gilded Age
As early as 1861, the federal supplies from at least two steamers were seized and dispersed locally. During the war, the city sent two companies of voluntary militia—the Jefferson Guard, under the leadership of Captain Charles Carlton, and the Southern Guard, commanded by Captain Joseph W. Bocage—to fight for the Confederacy. Camp Lee was used to muster several Arkansan units, and Fort Pleasants was constructed near Pine Bluff in early 1863 to impede any Union efforts to advance on Little Rock using the river. In late 1863, Colonel Powell Clayton’s Fifth Kansas Battalion was dispatched to Pine Bluff by Little Rock-based Commander Frederick Steele at the behest of citizens who were being terrorized by bands of guerrillas. The Action at Pine Bluff occurred on October 25, 1863, when Confederate General John S. Marmaduke ordered a futile attack against Union forces under Clayton. Union forces protected Pine Bluff until the end of the war, although there were skirmishes at Pine Bluff toward the end of the war on June 17, 1864; July 22, 1864; July 30, 1864; and January 9, 1865, as well as the Affair near Pine Bluff on March 4, 1865 and the Pine Bluff Expedition of January 15–18, 1865.
During the Civil War, military farm colonies were established, consisting of abandoned farms and confiscated plantations were leased to Unionists, who, in turn, hired freedmen to work the properties. While originally monitored by the Army, the Freedmen’s Bureau soon took over and encouraged former slaves to work for shares, foreshadowing the sharecropping system that would spread across the South in the years to come. One such operation was located near Pine Bluff.
Historian James Leslie has described Pine Bluff’s entering its “Golden Era” in the 1880s. Because of cotton production and river commerce, the city drew many industries and public institutions to the area. In 1890, it was the state’s third-largest city. It soon had the W. B. Ragland, Samuel Franklin, and M. L. Bell Gas Works, a public school system, and the Buck, Smart & Company Bank. Around 1881, the town’s first railroad, the Little Rock, Mississippi and Texas, (later purchased by the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern), connected the city with Little Rock (Pulaski County), and Major C. G. Newman founded the county’s most successful newspaper, The Pine Bluff Commercial. The Cotton Belt Railroad established its lines and main engine maintenance shops in Pine Bluff in 1894, making it the county’s largest industrial employer until the Pine Bluff Arsenal was built in 1942.
The same period that saw so much economic growth in Pine Bluff also witnessed significant racial violence. In December 1880, a Black man named James Anderson was lynched in Pine Bluff. In 1892, two more African-American men, John Kelly and Gilbert Banks, were lynched. According to an 1892 report in the Arkansas Gazette, “The mob was composed of some of our best citizens, and no masks were used,” but not one was brought to justice for the crime. On February 25, 1897, another African American, Jim Davis, was executed by hanging in Pine Bluff.
Early Twentieth Century through the Modern Era
The Arkansas River was a constant threat to the town, eating away land and, in 1908, lying fewer than 100 yards from the courthouse. In this case, citizens illegally destroyed a levee at Boyd’s Point to protect the downtown, but the Mississippi River Flood of 1927 destroyed tens of thousands of acres of cotton and hundreds of farms and businesses in Pine Bluff. The drought of 1930, followed by the Great Depression, hit the state and the city especially hard, forcing thousands to seek federal subsistence. More than half the population of the town sought some degree of private, church, charitable, and federal assistance during this time.
In 1900, Jesse Chisholm Duke established the Pine Bluff Weekly Herald, an African-American newspaper published on Saturdays.
The Pine Bluff National Guard Armory was constructed in in 1931–1932. World War II brought a federal munitions arsenal to the city, the Pine Bluff Arsenal, which employed 10,000 workers drawn from the county during the war years. After the war, the arsenal became a stable employer and a permanent post for the Army’s production of munitions and chemical agents for the Cold War.
Dove v. Parham was a federal desegregation lawsuit filed in the fall of 1959 on behalf of three African-American students who were denied transfer to the all-white Dollarway School District. It began in 1954 when a member of the Pine Bluff chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), William Dove, along with a small group of African-American citizens, requested that the Dollarway School District desegregate. In the end, the ruling did not order the Dollarway School District to admit the three African-American students, but it did command the school board to end its practice of segregation.
In February 1964, African-American satirist Dick Gregory was jailed in Pine Bluff for attempting to eat at a segregated restaurant. Gregory, an internationally celebrated entertainer who rose to prominence in the 1960s, was also actively engaged in the civil rights movement, and his arrest brought national attention to the city.
Pine Bluff began a decline in the later part of the twentieth century. Pine Bluff’s decaying downtown captured the spotlight after several buildings collapsed along the Main Street corridor, starting in 2014. On February 20, 2014, the former J. C. Penney building, over a century old, partially collapsed and had to be demolished. By March 2015, four buildings (including the former home of the Band Museum at Fifth and Main) had collapsed wholly or partially, and in July 2015, the city closed off part of Main Street out of concern that the Khan Building might also collapse; Main Street between Fourth and Fifth reopened to traffic in October 2016. Many buildings in the downtown area stand empty and in need of repair. One of the most prominent of these derelict buildings is the Hotel Pines on Main Street, which was one of the finest hotels in Arkansas when it opened in 1913.
In 2015, a group of leading citizens met with the aim of turning the city around. In 2019, a report by 24/7 Wall St. ranked Pine Bluff as the top metropolitan area in the nation to experience population loss. Later that year, the city opened the Pine Bluff Aquatic Center, the first public swimming facility in Pine Bluff in approximately forty years. Pine Bluff was one of many Arkansas locations affected by the Flood of 2019. On October 1, 2019, Saracen Casino officially opened in Pine Bluff. A project of the Quapaw Nation, the casino was the first to open following a 2018 ballot initiative to allow full gambling in four Arkansas cities. In 2020, a new, 30,000-square-foot regional library opened in the downtown area.
Education and Industry
The Colored Industrial Institute, one of the first Catholic-supported schools for African-American children in Arkansas, opened in 1899; it was closed by 1913. The Richard Allen Institute was founded in 1886 as one of the earliest Presbyterian schools for African Americans in Arkansas; it operated until 1932. A notable graduate was Pine Bluff native George Edmund Haynes, who was the first African American to earn a PhD from Columbia University. He became a social worker and educator and was the first executive director of the National Urban League.
Congress passed the Morrill Land Grant Act in 1862, creating a school for freed African Americans. Branch Normal College eventually became Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College (AM&N), then the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB). UAPB offers bachelor’s degrees in agriculture, fisheries and human sciences, arts and sciences, business and management, education, and rehabilitation services. The graduate program awards the master of education and the master of science degrees, including aquaculture and fisheries and addiction studies. In 2011, UAPB’s first doctoral program began. Southeast Arkansas College (SEARK College) opened as Arkansas Vocational-Technical School on September 21, 1959. SEARK College provides comprehensive community college education and services, with an emphasis on technical education and workforce development, for the citizens of Jefferson and surrounding counties.
The Pine Bluff School District has one high school, one alternative high school, one junior high, one middle school, four elementary schools, and one Pre-K school.
International Paper Company located its paper production facility just northeast of the city in 1957. The company employed 1,400 at its peak in 1962. Jefferson Hospital, now Jefferson Regional Medical Center, opened in 1960. It is the city’s largest employer, with 1,850 workers. The National Center for Toxicological Research operates about twenty miles north of Pine Bluff and has some 600 on-site workers, 239 of which are federal employees. In November 2016, a Highland Pellets facility in Pine Bluff was dedicated; this plant manufactures wood pellets for the European market.
The Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas, founded as the Pine Bluff Jefferson County Arts and Science Center in 1968, was commissioned by the city and preserves the Arkansas Delta’s arts and heritage. The Arkansas Railroad Museum preserves the last steam-powered locomotive built in Arkansas and includes various artifacts of Arkansas’s railroad heritage. The Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Historical Museum opened in 1980 in the restored 1907 Union Pacific train depot. The Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame is housed at the Pine Bluff Convention Center. The Pine Bluff Film Festival operated from 1994 to 2008 in the Community Theatre and the Saenger Theatre; the Community has been renovated, but the Saeger is in disrepair in the twenty-first century. The Governor Mike Huckabee Delta Rivers Nature Center was established in 2001 in Pine Bluff’s Regional Park.
Pine Bluff has a number of properties on the National Register of Historical Places, including: the Boone-Murphy-Moore House, Du Bocage, the Ferguson House, the Hudson-Grace-Borreson House, Pine Bluff Commercial Historic District, Taylor Field, and a Strengthen the Arm of Liberty Monument. The Jefferson County Historical Society meets in Pine Bluff.
Dexter Harding was one of the first citizens of Pine Bluff; he built and owned the first sawmill in town. Ferd Havis was born a slave in 1846 but became an alderman, state representative, assessor, and county clerk, and was called the “Colored Millionaire” of Pine Bluff. Two of the state’s richest men during their time were Wiley Jones and Harvey Couch. In the 1880s, Jones owned and operated the first mule-drawn streetcar line in the city, built a fifty-five-acre park with a half mile racetrack with stands, stables, and picnic areas; he also owned several bars and dry goods stores. Couch made his fortune after the turn of the twentieth century in the newly emerging telephone exchange industry that became Southwestern Bell, and he founded Arkansas Power and Light Company (AP&L). Ottawa (O. W.) Gurley was educated in Pine Bluff and went on to become one of the most noteworthy Black businessmen in Tulsa, Oklahoma, prior to the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. John Daniel Rust invented the first practical spindle cotton picker. In addition, Pine Bluff has produced a number of Arkansas Black Hall of Fame members.
ACTIVISM & CIVIL RIGHTS
Charles Duke was an architect and engineer who fought for housing rights and educational opportunities for African Americans. Hattie Rutherford Watson and her husband, John Brown Watson, were educators and activists for the African-American community.
Wiley Branton, born in Pine Bluff in 1923, was a civil rights leader in Arkansas who helped desegregate the University of Arkansas School of Law and later filed suit against the Little Rock School Board in a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. C. C. Mercer was an advisor to Daisy Bates and a field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). George Howard Jr. was one of the first black graduates of the University of Arkansas School of Law who went on to become an attorney and judge defending civil rights. George Haley was a politician and civil rights activist.
William “Sonny” Walker was an educator and civil rights activist who went on to serve in positions in local, state, and federal government. Julius Lester was an author, musician, photographer, civil-rights activist, and educator.
Mary Cal Hollis is a liberal political activist.
Henry Jackson Lewis, who was born into slavery, became the first black political cartoonist, and his drawings appeared in publications across the nation. Isaac Hathaway was an educator and artist known for creating more than 100 busts and masks of prominent African Americans. John Miller Howard was an artist and arts educator who founded and taught for the art department at Arkansas AM&N. Geleve Grice was a prolific photographer whose work was exhibited at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and the Old State House Museum. Kevin Cole is an artist whose work is informed by the civil rights movement, as was the work of artist Jeff Donaldson. Henri Linton is an acclaimed artist who has also served as chair of the art department at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB).
One of the nation’s first female pilots was Katherine Stinson, a former resident who flew into Pine Bluff in 1913. John Smith Thach was a naval aviator who came up with one of the most significant tactical advances in the history of aerial combat and which remains a standard of military aviation. Granville Coggs was one of the Original Tuskegee Airmen.
Irene Rosenzweig earned a doctoral degree in classics and tutored members of the family of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Lawrence Davis was president of Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College (AM&N) for 30 years and saw its transition from college to university status when it became University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB). Faye Clarke established the Educate the Children Foundation to help underfunded schools.
The first silent motion picture cowboy star, Broncho Billy Anderson (Max Aronson), was raised in Pine Bluff; a friend of his, Freeman Owens, was a cinematographer for movie studios and a research assistant to broadcast pioneer Lee DeForrest when the method of producing sound on film was patented. Peggy Shannon, a film star of the early 1930s, was born in Pine Bluff. Kay Linaker was an actress and screenwriter who gained notoriety for the 1958 sci-fi/horror classic, The Blob. Kenny Johnson is a television writer, producer, and director. Rodger Bumpass is an actor and voice actor.
John Selden Roane was the fourth governor of Arkansas. David Carroll was a prosecuting attorney and served as a member of the Confederate government during the Civil War. Anthony Astley Cooper Rogers, Oliver P. Snyder, and Samuel Mitchell Taylor were all members of the U.S. House of Representatives at different times. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Clifton Breckinridge was a politician at home and abroad. John Gray Lucas was a member of the Arkansas General Assembly and advocated for the rights of African Americans during his tenure in office. Frances Hunt became the first woman to serve in the Arkansas General Assembly.
Martha Mitchell was a known personality recognized for her outspokenness during the Watergate scandal that forced President Richard Nixon to resign. Jay Dickey Jr. was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Jack Hearn Watson Jr. is an attorney and former government official who served in a number of positions. Pamela A. Smith was the first African American woman to head the United States Park Police. Andree Layton Roaf was a groundbreaking African American jurist.
Chester Himes, author of protest and detective novels, spent part of his childhood in Pine Bluff. Mars Andrew Hill III published his fictionalized memoir as a coming-of-age novel, The Moaner’s Bench, about growing up during the 1920s and 1930s in rural Arkansas. The work was met with local and national acclaim and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Pine Bluff–born author Peter McGehee became well known in literary circles for his first novel, Boys Like Us, published in 1991. Bestselling author Laura Parker Castoro was raised in Pine Bluff and graduated from high school there.
Joseph Corbin was a journalist during Reconstruction who served as the founder and president of the first African-American institution of higher education in Arkansas. John Sorrells was the executive editor of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain.
James Yell was a lawyer, state legislator, and major general in the Arkansas State Militia during the Civil War. Never holding an active field command, he was removed from his position early in the war because of his allegiance to state troops rather than the Confederate government. John Edward Murray was known as the youngest general in the Confederate army. Hercules King Cannon White was a Civil War soldier and guerrilla, a prominent figure in the Brooks-Baxter War during Reconstruction, and a six-term mayor of Pine Bluff. Major General Lewis Elton Lyle of the U.S. Air Force was a pilot during World War II, and John D. Howe of the U.S. Air Force helped establish supply and maintenance operations during World War II as well as the Korean War. James Lamar Stone was a career army officer who received a Medal of Honor for actions in the Korean War.
Big Bill Broonzy spent most of his childhood years in the Pine Bluff area. J. Mayo “Ink” Williams was the first African-American producer at a major record label and the most successful record producer of music by black performers, particularly blues and jazz, from the 1920s through the 1940s. Casey Bill Weldon was a talented blues slide guitarist whose life was shrouded in mystery. Joshua Altheimer was a blues musician in the 1930s. Trumpeter Clark Terry maintained a jazz career that spanned seventy years and included work with some of the biggest names in American music. The Browns, who were born in Sparkman (Dallas County) but were raised in Pine Bluff, were three siblings who toured together singing country music. Bobby “El Charro Negro” Butler was born in Pine Bluff and was the first African American to become an award-winning Tejano musician. Jimmy McKissic graduated from UAPB and went on to become a world-renowned pianist who performed at Carnegie Hall in New York twenty-eight times. Morris Hayes is a musician, producer, and band leader who has performed with a long list of major artists. Smokie Norful is an award-winning gospel singer, while Bobby Rush is an award-winning blues artist.
Joseph Merrill was a philanthropist who founded Merrill Institute and supported better schools for African-Americans. Benjamin Altheimer was a lawyer and philanthropist at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Phoebe Roaf, daughter of Judge Andree Layton Roaf, grew up in Pine Bluff and became the first African American and first woman to be elected as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee.
Zaphney Orto was an army major and surgeon in the Spanish-American War who helped discover the link between mosquitos and malaria. Francis Cecil Sumner, born in Pine Bluff in 1895, was the first African American to receive a PhD in psychology in the United States and was a recognized leader in the field. Cleon Flowers, a physician for 59 years, was the first in the country to deliver viable conjoined twins successfully during a home birth. Jane Rita Ellenbogen Stern was a conservationist and environmentalist. Malcolm Bowman was a chemist and researcher. Kathryn Hall-Trujillo is a public health expert and advocate best known for founding Birthing Project USA.
Track star Bill Carr is the state’s only Olympic double gold medal winner; he broke a world record in the 400-meter dash and won two gold medals at the 1932 Los Angeles Games. Don Hutson was an NFL star. Charles Edward Greene was an Olympian athlete, as was Dallas Cutcher Long III. Joe Barry Carroll was an NBA player. Willie Roaf has been one of the greatest football players in Arkansas sports history. Baseball star Torii Hunter recorded the most home runs by an Arkansan in major league history.
For additional information:
Bearden, Russell E. “Pine Bluff’s Golden Era: 1890–1920.” Jefferson County Arts and Science Center Publication (July 2004): 6.
Explore Pine Bluff. https://www.explorepinebluff.com/ (accessed March 16, 2023).
Leslie, James W. Pine Bluff and Jefferson County: A Pictorial History. Virginia Beach, VA: The Donning Company, 1981.
———. Saracen’s County. Little Rock: Rose Publishing Company, 1974.
McGee, Holly Y. “‘It Was the Wrong Time, and They Just Weren’t Ready’: Direct-Action Protest in Pine Bluff, 1963.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 66 (Spring 2007): 18–42.
Nelson, Rex. “Pine Bluff: A Reclaimed Regional Center.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 14, 2021, pp. 1H, 6H. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2021/feb/14/pine-bluff-a-reclaimed-regional-center/ (accessed March 16, 2023).
Russell E. Bearden
White Hall, Arkansas
My father was born in Pine Bluff in 1908, going on record as the first Italian American to be born there.
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