Pickens W. Black Sr. (1861?–1955)

Pickens W. Black Sr. was one of the most remarkable African-American agriculturalists in northeast Arkansas in the post–Civil War years. Although little has been written about his life, he is rightly entitled to appear in the annals of Arkansas history as an entrepreneur, community developer, philanthropist, and advocate for the education of black children in Jackson County.

Pickens Black Sr. was born a slave about 1861 (no later than 1863) near Gadsden, Alabama. His mother, Mary Johnston, and her first and second husbands (the second was his father) were the slaves of a white plantation owner named Black, and they took the surname of their master. Black had an older half-brother, John V. Lee, from his mother’s first marriage.

Black moved to Arkansas from Alabama around 1875 as a teenager because he had heard of good land that could be acquired in the northeast Arkansas region. He had no money or resources upon relocating and worked for a short period with his brother, who owned land and a grocery store near Newport (Jackson County). Black also worked on the railroad, saving his money to buy forty acres of land, which led to future wealth. He often purchased land abandoned by lumber companies.

Black married Emma Henderson about 1878. Emma was the granddaughter of prominent Jackson County landowner Henry Henderson. Together, the couple built an empire that lasted well into the twentieth century. They had four children: Ida, William Brice, Charles, and Pickens Jr. William Brice Black attended Philander Smith College and later became a noted physician in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and Newport. Pickens Black Jr. was one of the first African-American private pilots. Charles Black remained in Jackson County and was a landowner and farmer.

Black amassed more than 8,000 acres of land and employed 360 families as sharecroppers primarily in the unincorporated town of Blackville (Jackson County), located about fifteen miles southeast of Newport. He hired whites as well as blacks. It is not clear if the town was named for him or the majority black population. The Black family ran a full-service plantation that had a cotton gin, sawmill, and grain elevator. It is also said that Black first operated his farm as a community project.

Blackville was a self-contained community that had everything except a post office. In the early 1930s, inconveniences in the consolidation of Blackville School District with the Newport School District prompted citizens to build a new school with minimum outside assistance. Black donated nearly seven acres of land for the site. The African-American community borrowed $16,000 from the Arkansas revolving loan fund, a loan based on the assessed valuation of the school district, which was composed mostly of Black’s holdings. The building was valued at $150,000 when completed. Black was almost totally responsible for the progress made in the Blackville School District. He was also a member and supporter of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization.

Although Black was highly regarded by area citizens, he was also a subject of scorn by those he called “radicals” or “lower class” whites. His general store in Blackville was burned several times, and he always rebuilt a better one to prove his resilience.

Black’s farming industry began a slow decline in the late 1930s due to mechanization, which resulted in families leaving rural areas and moving to cities. After World War II, he became a major producer of soybeans, which was briefly profitable, but eventually all the laborers left Blackville.

On May 9, 1955, Black died in a Newport hospital after several months of illness. His holdings at the time of his death included nearly 9,000 acres of land in and around Blackville and farming equipment. He is buried at Odd Fellows Cemetery at Auvergne (Jackson County). His son Pickens Jr. once said, “My father was a fine hard-working man and he did something unheard of for a black man, and most white men, of that time or even now days. He actually created something from nothing. He was one in a million.”

For additional information:
James, Phil. “Pickens Black, Planter.” The Stream of History 16 (October 1978): 11–19.

Jones-Branch, Cherisse. “Pickens W. Black, Sr.: The Baron of Blackville, Ark., 1861–1955.” The Stream of History 53 (2020): 90–98.

Masterson, Mike. “Hard Work, Savings Built Empire.” Arkansas Gazette. July 25, 1971, p. 6E.

“A Newspaper Clipping History of Blackville.” The Stream of History 24 (Fall 1987): 4–8.

Jajuan Johnson
Butler Center for Arkansas Studies

Comments

    My father, Lance Massengill, lived at Beedeville in the early 1940s. He knew and became friends with Pickens Black Sr. My father loved to tell stories and had a great memory for details. In 1995, we taped hours of Dad’s stories and recollections of his travels. He recited a long story about Mr. Black and his sons, especially about the one who built and flew planes. He is a good narrator, from the era when oral stories were actually our only form of entertainment as well as history-making.

    Sondra McKelvey

    As told by my father, Lance Warren Massengill (1913-1999): [Editor’s note: This is about Pickens Black Sr.] That was a wonderful old man. He was black, had all those boys. He had his own school, post office, sawmill, general store, church. Had that town built there, on his place. He had enough money to see that his boys did what they needed. One of them was a lawyer. When we lived down there at Beedeville, I went by his place all the time, got acquainted with the old man and some of his boys, grandsons. He had a service station. I ran out of gas, one of the boys, about eighteen, came down to the station. I asked about getting some gas. It was locked up, and the old man had the key, but he was at church. I asked the boy to get the key from him, and he said, “No! I’m not going down there. He will ask, ‘Why ain’t you in church?'” So he went and got another feller and they drew out some gas for me. That old man Pickens went in there and homesteaded 160 acres. He built his cabin there, started working, selling stuff, putting everything in cotton. Any time he could, he would buy land next to him, when other black people tried to homestead and had to sell. They all worked together, the town was known as Blackville.

    Sondra McKelvey

    As told by my father, Lance Warren Massengill (1913-1999): [Editor’s note: This is about Pickens Black Jr., one of the first African American private pilots.] The youngest boy, he wanted to be a pilot. His daddy said, “Just go ahead and die.” But the boy ordered a kit, put his plane together, went out to the field and taxied around, kept on and got his pilot’s license. His father said, “Well, if you’re determined to do that.” Then he bought him a six-passenger plane. The Air Force tried to buy his plane; they said they would either pay him for his plane, or when the war was over, they would give him a better plane. He said, “I’ll sell you the plane.” They wanted him to fly it for them. He said, “I’ll gladly do that if you will write me out a contract that I can be an Air Force pilot. If you can’t, then I will just wait for the draft.” So they bought his plane. He would go out and fly at night. His daddy had this big plantation, was always clearing timber. He would build big log piles at each end of the field. When the boy was flying at night, the old man would go out and fire those log piles. Any time he was flying in at night, he could land by those fires.

    Sondra McKelvey

    As told by my father, Lance Warren Massengill (1913-1999): [Editor’s note: This is about Dr. William Brice Black, son of Pickens Black Sr.] That old doctor in Newport, I went in to see him one time. He looked into my eyes, got to punching around, found out what was wrong. He wrote out a long prescription. I went downstairs into Grimes Drugstore. The druggist kinda grinned, started mixing up a bunch of stuff. The doctor told me, “This is going to taste bad, you take it all the way I said.” That cleared it up. That was Dr. Black. He went to Germany and studied medicine for three years, then came back to Newport and went into business. Pickens Black Sr. had a bunch of them boys, told them, “I don’t care what you do, whatever you want, but you be the best at it.” Well, this feller wanted to make a doctor, and I guess he made one of the best.

    Sondra McKelvey