Race and Ethnicity: African American

Weldon, Casey Bill

Casey Bill Weldon was one of the most talented, yet enigmatic, blues slide guitarists of the early twentieth century. Known as the “Hawaiian Guitar Wizard,” Weldon exhibited a range of material encompassing rag, hokum, and blues, though the majority of his more than 100 recorded songs are considered blues. Though he had a solid body of recordings and played with some well-known performers and bands of his day, much of his life is still shrouded in mystery. Casey Bill Weldon was born on February 2, 1901, in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), according to blues legend Big Bill Broonzy; some sources list his birthdate as July 10, 1909. Little is known of his youth, but as a young man he eventually …

Wells, Elias (Lynching of)

On November 20, 1902, an African American man named Wells was lynched in Wynne (Cross County) for allegedly attempting to cut the throat of Max Campbell, a conductor on the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad. Accounts vary as to Wells’s first name. Several newspapers call him Lige, while others give his name as Isaac. He is listed as Lige at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama. Newspapers reported that Wells was from Augusta (Woodruff County), and there is some information available in public records that indicates that Wells’s first name may have been Elias. The 1900 federal census lists twenty-two-year-old Elisa Wells (male) living in DeView Township in Woodruff County. He was literate, working as …

Wells, Ira James Kohath

A pioneer in education and journalism, Ira James Kohath Wells was a gifted scholar, businessman, and humanitarian with humble rural beginnings. Ira J. K. Wells was born in Tamo (Jefferson County) on July 1, 1898, to William James Wells and Emma Brown Wells. When he was young, half of his leg was amputated after he injured it trying to hop on to a moving freight train. For the rest of his life, he had a wooden prosthetic leg. He finished his secondary education at Branch Normal College in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County)—now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB)—and then went on to earn a degree in business from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1923. Even as a student, …

West Ninth Street (Little Rock)

aka: West 9th Street
West Ninth Street in Little Rock (Pulaski County) emerged as a predominately African-American neighborhood during the Civil War. In 1863, the Federal army, which occupied Little Rock, began constructing log cabins in the area for freed slaves. After the war, many stayed and settled there. By 1870, what was originally known as Little Rock’s West Hazel Street was renamed West Ninth Street. More African Americans settled west of Mount Holly Cemetery between 9th and 12th streets. As the population grew, a five-block section along West Ninth Street, between Broadway and Chester, became the center of the black business district. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, African Americans created fraternal organizations, one of the most prominent of which was …

West, John (Lynching of)

On July 28, 1922, a laborer named John West was shot to death near Guernsey (Hempstead County) after an argument at a work site over a shared drinking cup. The Arkansas Gazette gives the cause for the lynching as “impudence.” According to the Gazette, on the morning of July 28, John West, an African American recently arrived from Kansas, was working on a paving gang in Hope (Hempstead County). He had an argument with the foreman on the job, Andrew Worthing, another Kansan, who was white. According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the Bisbee (Arizona) Daily Review, the argument concerned West’s attempt to use the crew’s common drinking cup. When challenged by Worthing, West declared that “he was as …

Wheeler, Lloyd Garrison

Lloyd Garrison Wheeler was a prominent and trailblazing African-American lawyer, political figure, and businessman in Illinois and Arkansas. Lloyd G. Wheeler was born in Mansfield, Ohio, on May 29, 1848. His father was active in the Underground Railroad, but when Ohio passed a law making the harboring of slaves illegal, the family relocated to Chatham, Canada, where Wheeler received his early education. When his mother died, he returned to the United States, settling in Chicago, Illinois. There, he worked at a variety of jobs, including on the railroad and as a shoe black. Throughout this period, his greatest ambition was a career in law. He became the first black mail carrier in Chicago while studying law in the office of …

Whitman, Essie Barbara

Essie Barbara Whitman was a member of the renowned Whitman Sisters Company. The group of African-American sisters, who were entrepreneurs as well as entertainers, developed their own musical, dance, and comedy performing arts company. From 1901 to 1943, the group performed throughout the United States, becoming the longest-running and highest-paid act on the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) circuit. Essie Whitman was born on July 4, 1882, in Osceola (Mississippi County) to the Reverend Albery Allson Whitman, who was a bishop in the Methodist Church, and Caddie A. Whitman; she was the second of four sisters who included Mabel (1880–1942), Alberta (1887–1963), and “Baby” Alice (1900–1969). Rev. Whitman, later known as the “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race,” is said to have taught …

Wiley, Bill (Lynching of)

In late August 1897, an African American man was lynched in Cleveland County for allegedly killing one man and wounding another at a picnic near Kendall’s mill. Newspaper accounts from the time are confusing as to his identity. Some identify him as Bill Wiley, others as Bill Wiley Douglass, Wiley Douglass, or Bill/Will/William Wyatt. All of these names have been used in various assembled lists of lynching events; public records provide no confirmation of any of them. For convenience, he will be referred to as “Wiley” in this article. The date of the lynching is also in question. The Arkansas Gazette gave three dates in three different articles:, Sunday, August 22; Monday, August 23; and Tuesday, August 24. The Pine …

William (Lynching of) [1836]

In late November 1836, a slave identified only as William was burned to death in Hot Spring County for allegedly murdering his owner, Thomas Huskey (sometimes referred to as Haskey), along with several other victims. Nothing is known about William, but a man named Thomas Huskey married Sarah Ward in Shelby County, Tennessee, in June 1835. A December 10 article in the South Branch Intelligencer of Romney, Virginia, gives details of the crime. Although their report indicated that William had been brought through Tennessee “a few days before,” this date was incorrect, as the Weekly Arkansas Gazette had already commented on the lynching on November 29. Apparently, Thomas Huskey had set out for Texas from Tennessee with another white man …

William (Lynching of) [1846]

On July 4, 1846, an enslaved man identified only as William was hanged by a mob in Columbia (Chicot County) for allegedly murdering Reece Hewitt, who was planter H. F. Walworth’s plantation overseer. In 1840, Reece Hewitt was living in Chicot County with another white male and thirty-seven enslaved people. Much more is known about his employer. Horace Fayette Walworth was an early landowner in Chicot County, having bought land in Point Chicot in 1828. In 1850, Walworth, originally from Mississippi, was living in Chicot County and owned real estate worth $104,000. The Times Picayune and Daily Picayune advertised Walworth’s two plantations for sale in November 1852 and January 1853. According to the 1856 diary of B. L. C. Wailes …

Williams, Albert (Lynching of)

On April 1, 1883, a seventeen-year-old African American named Albert Williams was lynched in El Dorado (Union County) for allegedly attacking the young daughter of John Askew. The only Albert Williams in the area at the time was the son of El Dorado farm laborer Carter Williams and his wife, Lou. He was approximately twelve years old in 1880; contrary to reports, this would have made him fifteen at the time of the lynching. John Askew was also living in El Dorado in 1880. He was a lawyer, and his household included his wife, Sarah, and a number of children, among whom was a five-year-old daughter named Tennessee. Although Williams’s alleged victim is not named, it is probable that it …

Williams, Edward (Reported Lynching of)

In January 1898, the Chicago Tribune reported on the August 26, 1897, lynching of an African American man named Edward Williams near Baxter (Drew County). He was being sought for allegedly assaulting a Black woman. This information appeared in Ralph Ginzburg’s book 100 Years of Lynchings and has more recently appeared on several online lynching lists. The date of this reported lynching is apparently incorrect, as the first news of it appeared in the Pine Bluff Daily Graphic on August 24, 1897. According to the Daily Graphic, “Ed Williams, a negro rapist, was strung up by a mob near Baxter, Ark., Monday morning.” Monday would have been August 23. Also on August 24, the Topeka State Journal published another report, …

Williams, Ernest (Reported Lynching of)

On June 21, 1908, the Arkansas Gazette reported that an African-American man named Ernest Williams was lynched at Parkdale (Ashley County) by a group of Black women. The report, if true, would be a unique event, with female-led mobs being rare to nonexistent, especially among African Americans lynching a fellow Black person. However, there are reasons to believe that this report was false and, instead, part of a larger pattern of slandering local emancipation celebrations. The report in the Gazette is datelined June 20 from Hamburg (Ashley County) and relays the following information: “A mob of enraged negro women dragged Ernest Williams, negro, to a telegraph pole on the outskirts of Parkdale, a town in this county, and lynched him …

Williams, J. Mayo “Ink”

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. The son of Daniel and Millie Williams, J. Mayo Williams was born in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) on September 25, 1894. He left Pine Bluff with his mother at age seven after his father was murdered in a shooting at the local railway station. After moving to Monmouth, Illinois, he attended public schools, where he excelled in academics and football. In 1916, he enrolled at Brown University, where he became a star athlete. In the early 1920s, Williams became one of the first black players in the National …

Williams, John (Lynching of)

On July 4, 1912, an African-American man named John Williams was lynched near Plumerville (Conway County) for allegedly murdering a deputy sheriff who was trying to arrest him. Although the Arkansas Gazette calls the deputy sheriff Paul Leisner, most other sources say he was Paul Nisler. Nisler, whose full name was likely Herbert Paul Nisler, was twenty-one years old at the time of his death. He had been in Conway County since at least 1900, when he was living in Plumerville with his parents, Sherman and Nannie Nisler. In 1910, he was still living with his parents (his father this time listed as Andrew S. Nisler) and working on a farm in Howard Township. He was described by newspapers as …

Williams, Lenny

Soul singer Lenny Williams is an influential rhythm and blues (R&B) artist who is best known for his time as the lead singer of funk band Tower of Power in the mid-1970s. He pursued a solo career after leaving the band. He was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2012. Leonard Charles (Lenny) Williams was born on February 6, 1945, in Little Rock (Pulaski County); his family later moved to Oakland, California. He learned to play trumpet in elementary school. He started singing in church and considered becoming a minister before deciding to pursue a career in secular R&B. Williams made connections with Bay Area musicians, the most notable being Sly Stone (who fronted the legendary R&B …

Williams, Leonard Lee (Killing of)

Leonard Lee Williams, a nineteen-year-old African American man, was killed on Sunday, August 17, 1969, at the Wagon Wheel Drive-In in Benton (Saline County) in an incident sparked by racial strife in the city. The following day, a group of Black citizens marched to city hall to demand justice. Mounting racial tensions were eventually eased through an emergency meeting of the city’s newly formed biracial committee. A grand jury handed down indictments to a number of individuals on various charges for their roles in the killing of Williams and the ensuing violence. According to a report in the Northwest Arkansas Times, published on August 18, 1969, Williams and a “girl companion” went for a late-night meal at the Wagon Wheel …

Williams, Robert Lee, II

Robert Lee Williams II was a leading figure in American psychology known for his work in the education of African-American children and in studying the cultural biases present in standard testing measures, especially IQ tests. He was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2011. Robert Lee Williams was born on February 20, 1930, in Little Rock (Pulaski County). His father, Robert L. Williams, worked as a millwright and died in 1935; his mother cleaned houses. He had one sister. He graduated from Dunbar High School at age sixteen and attended Dunbar Junior College for a year before dropping out, discouraged by his low score on an IQ test. He married Ava L. Kemp in 1948. They had …

Williams, Samuel Woodrow

Samuel Woodrow Williams was an African-American Baptist minister, college professor, and civil rights activist who had a major impact on race relations in the city of Atlanta, Georgia, from the mid-to-late 1950s until his sudden death in October 1970. He was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2009. Samuel Woodrow Williams was born on February 20, 1912, in Sparkman (Dallas County), the oldest of the eight children of Arthur Williams and Annie Willie Butler Williams. As a child, he enjoyed hunting, fishing, and playing baseball and basketball, but nothing gave him as much pleasure as reading; over his lifetime, he amassed a collection of more than 1,000 volumes. Lessons about racism came early for Williams. Before he …

Williams, Sidney Banks, Jr.

Sidney B. Williams Jr. was a pioneering African-American athlete as well as an accomplished businessman and attorney. The first black man to quarterback a Big Ten team when he was at the University of Wisconsin, he later combined his training in chemical engineering with a law degree to become a leading patent attorney. Sidney Banks Williams Jr. was born on December 31, 1935, in Little Rock (Pulaski County) to Sidney B. Williams Sr. and Eloise Gay Williams. He grew up in Little Rock as the only child in a single-parent household, being raised by his mother. Williams graduated from Dunbar High School in 1954. At Dunbar, he was president of the senior class and also starred in football, basketball, and …

Williams, Sophronia Reacie

Sophronia Reacie Williams worked more than forty years as a nurse and nurse educator, becoming one of the first African-American nurses in hospitals and universities in Missouri, Ohio, and Colorado. Sophronia Williams was born on June 19, 1929, in Little Rock (Pulaski County), the second of six children of Leon Williams and Theessa Woods Williams. Her father was a minister at the Church of God in Christ congregation in Little Rock, as well as a school cafeteria cook. Williams attended segregated John E. Bush Elementary School in Little Rock and graduated from Dunbar High School in Little Rock in 1947. As a teenager, she worked at St. Vincent Infirmary in Little Rock as a hospital aide. Williams attended Dunbar Junior …

Williams, Sterling B.

Dr. Sterling Williams was a groundbreaking leader in the field of obstetrics and gynecology (OB-GYN) who served in several important roles in national organizations dedicated to medicine and medical education. In addition, he was a gifted vocalist who performed with numerous choral groups. Sterling B. Williams was born in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on April 3, 1941. He grew up in Little Rock and graduated from Horace Mann High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, followed by a master’s degree in physiology from Northern Illinois University in 1966 and an MD from what is now the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) in 1973. He also completed work toward his …

Williams, Sue Cowan

Sue Cowan Williams represented African-American teachers in the Little Rock School District as the plaintiff in the case challenging the rate of salaries allotted to teachers in the district based solely on skin color. The tenth library in the Central Arkansas Library System (CALS) is named after her. Born in Eudora (Chicot County) to J. Alex Cowan and Leila Roberts Cowan on May 29, 1910, Sue Cowan began life in a small town in Arkansas. Her mother died soon after her birth. Raised until age four by her maternal grandmother in Texas, Cowan returned to Arkansas to live with her father. From fifth grade until high school, she attended Spelman, a religious boarding school in Atlanta, Georgia. She undertook undergraduate …

Williamson, “Sonny Boy”

aka: Aleck Miller
Sonny Boy Williamson first became famous as a blues harmonica player in 1941 on the groundbreaking King Biscuit Time radio program (often credited as the first regularly scheduled blues radio show) broadcast by station KFFA in Helena (Phillips County). Williamson’s fame spread, particularly through Europe, in the 1960s and has continued to grow since his death. The annual King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena-West Helena still features his music. Williamson went to great lengths to mislead would-be biographers, and facts about his life are difficult to verify. His real name was Aleck Miller; he was apparently sometimes called Rice, and he was most likely born in 1912 in Glendora, Mississippi, to Millie Ford. He took his stepfather Jim Miller’s surname. As a very young child, …

Williamson, Corliss Mondari

Corliss Mondari Williamson is a retired National Basketball Association (NBA) player from Russellville (Pope County). During his basketball career, Williamson played for the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) and helped the Razorbacks win the 1994 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) National Basketball Championship. Corliss Williamson was born on December 4, 1973, in Russellville, one of two sons of Jerry and Bettye Williamson. During his career at Russellville High School, Williamson earned all-conference and all-state honors three times. During both the 1990–91 and the 1991–92 seasons, Williamson was awarded the Gatorade National Player of the Year Award. During his senior year, he averaged twenty-eight points and nine rebounds per game. He also holds the record for most points …

Wilson, Alexander (Lynching of)

On October 20, 1919, an African-American man named Alexander (Alex) Wilson was lynched near Marianna (Lee County) for allegedly murdering Ruth Murrah (identified in many newspaper articles as Rosa or Rose), who was about nineteen years old. Wilson had attacked Ruth, who was killed, and a relative named Estelle, who escaped. There was a Murrah family in Lee County as early as 1880. Charles Murrah was working as a farm laborer in Bear Creek Township and living with his wife, Celia, and their one-year-old daughter, Mary. A family member (probably a daughter) named Clara Belle, age fourteen, married thirty-one-year-old William Clifton in August 1893. By 1900 Murrah, age fifty-four, owned his own farm in Bear Creek Township. Also in the …

Wilson, Hog (Lynching of)

On September 1, 1902, an African American man named in newspaper reports as Hog Wilson was lynched in Ouachita County for having “attempted criminal assault” upon a white woman named Lue Drake. According to a brief report in the Arkansas Democrat, Wilson attempted to rape Drake at her home, about six miles north of Stephens (Ouachita County), “while she was in the garden gathering vegetables, the family being away.” She informed her brother of this upon his return, “and soon he, with neighbors, had Wilson in custody.” The account ends this way: “He confessed his crime and they hung him without delay. No excitement.” In an untitled editorial published the same day as it reported on the lynching, the Democrat …

Wilson, Tom (Lynching of)

In late February 1884, Tom (sometimes referred to as Thomas) Wilson, an African-American man, was lynched near Conway (Faulkner County) for allegedly attempting to assault a woman identified only as Mrs. Griffy. Several other newspaper accounts identify her husband as William Griffy. No further information is available on either Wilson or the Griffy family in Faulkner County. According to a report published in the Arkansas Gazette on February 21, the lynching had occurred “several days since.” According to the Gazette and several other national newspapers, including the Little Falls Transcript, William Griffy was away from his farm overnight when Wilson entered the house and attempted to assault Mrs. Griffy. She screamed and attacked him with a fire shovel, whereupon he …

Witherspoon, Jimmy “Spoon”

James John (Jimmy) Witherspoon, also known by the nickname “Spoon,” was a versatile singer who achieved commercial success and critical acclaim in the genres of blues, jazz, and rhythm and blues. His 1947 recording “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” was a hit in 1949 and became his signature song. Jimmy Witherspoon was born in Gurdon (Clark County) to Leonard Witherspoon, a Missouri Pacific Railroad brakeman, and Eva Tatum Witherspoon, a church pianist. The family was devoutly religious. His parents were members of the choir at their Baptist church. His date of birth is usually given as August 8, 1923, but some sources give the birth year as 1920, and more than one source gives the birth date as August 18, 1921, attributing …

Woodman, Joe (Lynching of)

On July 6, 1905, an African-American sawmill worker probably named Joe Woodman (one newspaper identifies him as James Woods) was hanged in Dumas (Desha County) for eloping with a local white girl. According to the Arkansas Democrat, Woodman was the only African American working at a sawmill near Rives, which is on the border between Drew and Desha counties. Woodman allegedly left home on July 5 at the same time the sixteen-year-old daughter of a local man, J. S. Small, was found to be missing. After investigating the girl’s disappearance, authorities determined that a couple fitting the description of Woodman and Small was seen on a northbound train. Authorities notified Jefferson County sheriff James Gould, and he located the couple …

Wordlaw, William

William Wordlaw (sometimes spelled Wardlow or Wordlow) was one of twelve men arrested and charged with murder following the events of the Elaine Massacre of 1919. After brief trials, the so-called Elaine Twelve—six who became known as the Moore defendants and six (including Wordlaw) who became known as the Ware defendants—were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Ultimately, the Ware defendants were freed by the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1923; after numerous legal efforts, the Moore defendants were freed in 1925. William Wordlaw was born to sharecroppers Edd and Georgia Wordlaw on August 19, 1897, in Pontotoc, Mississippi. William and his six siblings grew up helping their parents farm the land. According to his draft registration documents, he …

WPA Slave Narratives

aka: Slave Narratives
The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was the largest agency in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal economic relief, reform, and recovery agenda during the Great Depression, as their “make-work” programs got millions of unemployed people back to work. One component of the WPA, the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), sponsored unemployed writers to undertake assorted research and writing assignments, including conducting oral history interviews of ex-slaves in the Southern and border states. By the time the program ended in 1939, Arkansas had generated the largest portion of the interviews, nearly one-third, now known collectively as the WPA Slave Narratives. The FWP’s national director was Columbia University law graduate Henry G. Alsberg, who was a lawyer, former foreign correspondent, and director of the …

Wright, Richard Nathaniel

Richard Nathaniel Wright was a writer of fiction and nonfiction. His many works, influenced by the injustices he faced as an African American, protested racial divides in America. His most famous work, the autobiographical Black Boy, was a controversial bestseller that opened the eyes of the nation to the evils of racism. Richard Wright was born on September 4, 1908, on a farm in Roxie, Mississippi, the son of Nathan Wright, a sharecropper, and Ella Wright, a teacher. He had one younger brother, Leon. The family’s poverty forced them to move around the South during Wright’s childhood. In Memphis, Tennessee, his father left the family, and in 1915, his mother put Wright and his brother in a Memphis orphanage after …

Wynne Lynching of 1892

On June 29, 1892, an unidentified African-American man was apparently lynched in Wynne (Cross County) for allegedly assaulting a young girl. Although the New York Sun reported that the girl was black and that the mob was made up of African Americans, the Forrest City Times told a slightly different story. According to the Times, passengers traveling south on the Iron Mountain Railroad reported the “loss” of an African-American man in Wynne on the night of the June 29. The unidentified black man had allegedly tried to assault a six-year-old white girl that morning. The two were found in a closet, and the girl reported what had happened to her. The man was jailed, but the next morning the doors …