Louis Sharpe Dunaway (1870–1959)

Sharpe Dunaway may be the most famous traveling salesman in Arkansas history, a distinction only partly due to his sidelines—politics, writing, and state promotion. For nearly fifty years, Dunaway was a sales agent for newspapers, mainly the Arkansas Gazette, which earned him the sobriquet “Mr. Gazette.” He was a friend and supporter of many Arkansas politicians, notably Governor and U.S. Senator Jeff Davis and U.S. Senator Hattie Caraway. Dunaway wrote two books, one about the life and speeches of Jeff Davis, and the other a collection of observations about Arkansas and its people titled, What a Preacher Saw Through a Key-Hole in Arkansas. The short book, published in 1925, would become an important contribution to Arkansas history for a chapter titled, “The Blackest Page in State History,” which argued that the so-called race riot at Elaine (Phillips County) in 1919 had actually been a massacre.

Louis Sharpe Dunaway was born on January 10, 1870, at Beryl (Faulkner County) into a family steeped in history. His grandfather, Isaiah Dunaway, moved from North Carolina to Old Austin (Lonoke County) in 1819, the year that Arkansas became a territory. His father, John Dunaway, joined the Confederate army, was wounded in the Battle of Murfreesboro, spent part of the war in a hospital, and afterward married a Tennessee woman, Emma Blackwood. They moved to Faulkner County, where he became a planter and community leader. He was a delegate to the 1874 constitutional convention.

Sharpe Dunaway was the third of his parents’ eight children. He attended Conway High School and Hendrix College in Conway (Faulkner County) but dropped out in his third year to travel. At Mineral Wells, Texas, he was a reporter for a small newspaper and then spent a period reporting for newspapers in Dallas and Fort Worth. He moved back to Conway, buying local newspaper the People’s Advocate and changing its name to the Faulkner County Times. In 1899, Dunaway married Lela Witt, whom he had met at Hendrix. They would rear three children. He shortly went to work for the Arkansas Gazette, not as a writer or editor, but as a circulation manager, soliciting subscriptions. For a short spell, he did the same for the paper’s afternoon competitor, the Arkansas Democrat, but then rejoined the Gazette for the rest of his career.

As Dunaway traveled the state as the Gazette’s agent, his salesmanship became legendary. He was heavily responsible for the newspaper building a statewide readership. Fred W. Allsopp, whose career as a business manager and writer for the Gazette was equally legendary, described a few of Dunaway’s spiels about the necessity of a good citizen’s reading the great newspaper and his promise to barter a Gazette subscription for almost anything. Among the items he collected, according to his obituary, were “nine steeltraps, three raccoon hides, a large beef hide, two cords of cook wood (three miles from the railroad), and two hives of bees.” He traded Gazette subscriptions for a small alligator, a bear cub, and a wolf cub. The wild animals were traded for either three-month or six-month subscriptions with the proviso that the animals would be delivered to his home in Conway by parcel post with the full postage paid.

Dunaway knew Jeff Davis when both were youngsters, and they remained friends until Davis’s death in 1913. Dunaway would attend Davis’s campaign speeches (he claimed to have heard 850 of them) and sell Gazette subscriptions in the crowd, although Davis sometimes attacked him from the podium. Dunaway said he had sold a number of subscriptions at one of Davis’s rallies, but when Davis yelled that he would rather be caught with a dead polecat in his pocket than with a Gazette in his possession, several men found Dunaway to get their money back. All his life, however, Dunaway insisted that Davis was one of the state’s greatest governors and senators. His book on Davis’s life and speeches, published soon after Davis’s death, collected a number of Davis’s most colorful diatribes and his taunts of opponents, critics, and newspaper editors, particularly Dunaway’s employer.

During his travels for the Gazette, Dunaway met a young soap-and-pencil salesman named Huey P. Long at the Gleason European Hotel in Conway. When Dunaway’s friend Hattie Caraway was running for reelection in 1932 and seemed headed for defeat, he telephoned Long, by then a populist U.S. senator from Louisiana, and suggested that he come to Arkansas and campaign for her. Dunaway claimed that he organized the weeklong speaking tour of the state, which brought out huge crowds and helped Caraway easily defeat four prominent men in the Democratic primary, although she fell short of a majority, which was not required then.

Although Dunaway frequently passed news tips to the Gazette newsroom from his travels around the state, he rarely, if ever, reported or wrote for the paper. He was a promoter and very rarely a critic of anyone. That was what made his 1925 book, What a Preacher Saw Through a Key-Hole in Arkansas, unusual. As he explained in the book, it was intended to be an antidote to the bestselling joke book in American history, On a Slow Train Through Arkansaw, written by Thomas W. Jackson, a brakeman for the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company, and his wife. Dunaway called Jackson “that ill advised and uninformed gentleman” and referred to his jokes as “slanderous.” Jackson’s book was a collection of minstrel jokes and racial and sexual puns that relied on familiar stereotypes about Arkansas “darkies” and women. It would sell seven million copies by 1950.

What a Preacher Saw painted a different picture of the state. It profiled communities, tourist sites, and people all over Arkansas, including local and state leaders and politicians. All were characterized as marvelous. Then came the chapter about the slaughter of Black people in Phillips County in October 1919. Outside a union organizing meeting at a rural Black church near Elaine, shots were fired, killing one of the white men sent by the county sheriff to break up the meeting and wounding the other. Although Dunaway’s account at first followed the usual theme of Arkansas newspapers that the white leaders, including Governor Charles Hillman Brough, were honorably motivated to stop “meddlers” from inciting ignorant Black locals to riot and kill white plantation owners, he concluded—after considerable investigation, he wrote—that what actually happened was far different. He said that local white leaders, including armed vigilantes from surrounding counties deputized by the sheriff, had acted honorably and legally, but that the soldiers sent from Camp Pike ostensibly to preserve the peace, including veterans of World War I, had not acted with honor—rather, they got drunk and committed violent acts.

While he only implied, occasionally, the sources of his information, Dunaway pinpointed what he believed was the exact number of Black men, women, and children slain in the fields and canebrakes, along the roads, or in their shanties: 856. Nearly all of them, he said, were innocent of planning to harm anybody. Nearly a century later, historical research has verified Dunaway’s outline of events, although not such specific details as the number of murders. Dunaway identified no sources by name but reported that a teacher from Miller County had witnessed the murder of twenty-eight Black people in one bunch. They were shot, dumped into a pit, and set on fire. The same person seemed to have witnessed the hanging of sixteen Black people on a bridge four miles from Helena (Phillips County).

Dunaway said it was “chivalrous” of whites to want to avenge the death and injury of the two white men who had been sent to the union meeting and of the three or four other white locals and soldiers who died from gunshots in the hunt for Black rioters. It was unforgiveable, however, that “Federal soldiers, aided and abetted by a collection of low-lived creatures who call themselves WHITE MEN, march down among the ramshackle homes of good old innocent, hard-working Darkeys, and then and there unlimber their guns on those poor old servants of the rebellion, finally snuffing out their lives before passing on to the next house, where the same cruel scene was enacted.”

His account did not appear in his own newspaper, the Gazette, whose editorials—and whose coverage of the massacre and trials—adopted the account of the local whites in power. Without identifying certain “news hounds,” Dunaway’s chapter disparaged Arkansas reporters who gave the standard account of Black rioters intent on killing white plantation owners and of professional soldiers and lawmen restoring order. But Dunaway’s story would embolden historians like Grif Stockley seventy years later to search for the evidence. Historians have concluded that hundreds probably died, but no one has a more reliable figure.

Dunaway’s book claimed that Governor Thomas McRae, who pardoned the last six Black men unfairly sentenced to die for the “rebellion,” had told him that he was the only person who ever gave a full and correct account of the massacre.

Dunaway died on September 3, 1959. He is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in Conway.

For additional information:
Dunaway, Sharpe. Jeff Davis, Governor and United States Senator, His Life and Speeches. Little Rock: Democrat Printing & Lithographing Co., 1913.

———. What a Preacher Saw Through a Key-Hole in Arkansas. Little Rock: Parke-Harper Publishing Co., 1925.

Mears, William Curtis. “L. S. (Sharpe) Dunaway.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 13 (Spring 1954): 77–84.

“Veteran Newsman L. S. Dunaway Dies.” Arkansas Gazette, September 4, 1959, p. 10B.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas


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