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Mary Elizabeth Smith Massey (1900–1971)

Mary Elizabeth Smith Massey—businesswoman, public official, and civic and political leader—was a woman with an average, middle-class, mountain background, meaning her family neither depended upon subsistence farming, sharecropping, or seasonal labor in the Arkansas River bottoms, nor did they have a big store in the county seat or hundreds of acres let to sharecroppers. She became an early Arkansas female success story in the period from 1920 to 1930, when Arkansas women were just beginning to assume prominence in state and national life. In the 1950s, she reaped the results of her early endeavors by serving as Worthy Grand Matron of the Arkansas Order of the Eastern Star and by being admitted to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mary Elizabeth Smith was born on August 21, 1900, in Marshall (Searcy County) to Martin Charles and Rebecca Jane Heard Smith. Martin Charles Smith, Union Civil War veteran, and his third wife, Rebecca Heard, came to Searcy County in 1885 from Overton County, Tennessee, following his wife’s family. Her father was a farmer, trader, storekeeper, and a staunch Republican, which influenced Smith’s political persuasion.

An agriculturist by background, Smith’s first business venture was at age fifteen, when she raised and sold garden produce to miners and their families at the Evening Star Mine, ten miles north of Marshall. She graduated from Marshall High School about 1917 and taught school in 1918 at the Nubbin Hill community for the Caid School, Searcy County School District No. 59; she later attended business school in Harrison (Boone County), using the money she saved from selling produce and teaching. This was her only post–high school formal education.

Smith’s first marriage on November 25, 1919, to James Albert Henley Jr. ended in divorce due to his alcohol problem. In 1921, she moved to St. Louis and became Searcy County banker and entrepreneur Edmund M. Mays’s secretary and office manager at the newly opened Grand National Bank.

Ready to strike out on her own, Smith returned to Marshall in 1923 and, with her savings, bought the Guaranty Abstract Company, with offices in the courthouse. On October 14, 1923, she married Aud Tillman Massey of Bruno (Marion County), who was living in Marshall. She had no children by either marriage. Aud became her business partner in the Guaranty Abstract Company and many other subsequent business ventures. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Massey also served as deputy county and circuit clerk, chair of the county board of education, and commissioner of Searcy County accounts.

Tutored by her nephew Benjamin Charles Henley, a graduate of the University of Arkansas School of Law, and through self study, she passed the Arkansas bar examination, was admitted to the Arkansas bar in 1928, and argued and won her first court case in 1929. In 1934, she ran for Searcy county and circuit clerk on the Republican ticket, won, and served three terms. As appointed city attorney in 1935, Massey completed plans for the city of Marshall’s water system, drafted the ordinance, and steered a bond issue to completion to finance the installation.

As a result of the Great Depression, Marshall and Searcy County had lost all its banking facilities in the early 1930s. In 1937, to fill that need, Massey formed and became manager of the Citizens Banking Exchange, principally a check-cashing facility. Later, the Citizens Banking Exchange completed the requirements for a state bank charter, and on March 4, 1940, it opened its doors as the Citizens Bank, with Massey as president and cashier. The Arkansas Banker in 1942 commented, “There are few lady bank cashiers in Arkansas, and still fewer lady bank presidents. And a combination of the two is almost unheard of.” She served as the Citizens Bank’s president and chief executive officer until 1956.

Massey’s small size did not deter her from using her strong personality to dominate her surroundings, to the effect that there became local “Mary Massey lore” based on her accomplishments. For example, Massey was deputized by the local sheriff, strapped on her gun, and repossessed a car in Hot Springs (Garland County) after learning that the car, in lien to her bank, had been lost in a gambling game. A grand nephew reported that, as a young man, he was sent to protect Mary Massey when she was counting votes at a bitterly contested election. The nephew went into the vote-counting room and found that he was the only one there without a gun. Soon Mary Massey entered the room, pulled a big pistol out of her purse, laid it on the table, and said, “OK, you SOBs, let’s count votes.”

As a civic leader in the 1940s, Massey supported the Corps of Engineers’ Gilbert Dam project on the Buffalo River. She saw the great benefit it would bring to the area by creating tourist and vacation resorts, providing electrical power to develop the local zinc mines, and bringing a new prosperity during construction. She was a key player in the local and state Republican Party, becoming fast friends with the wife of Frank McGillicuddy, who was for many years leader of the Republican Women of Arkansas.

In the 1940s, through the Citizens Bank, she was instrumental in securing Federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) and other government assistance to develop Searcy County resources and boost economic development in the county. By 1948, the bank, in conjunction with the RFC, had financed the construction of more than $200,000 in new business buildings in Marshall and Leslie, including a new theater, tourist courts, business blocks, and more than $100,000 in residential construction. The bank under her management was active in developing natural and agricultural industries, including strawberry and tomato growing and livestock and dairy expansion.

Massey’s second husband, Aud, died on July 15, 1949, and is buried at the Bruno Cemetery. She continued with their business ventures—lumber yard, freezer locker plant, and cattle farm—for a few years before selling them and following her interest to become a Worthy Grand Matron for Arkansas of the Order of the Eastern Star. She lived in Little Rock for a few years during the 1960s with her friend, McGillicuddy, before deteriorating health brought her back to Marshall, where she died on December 24, 1971. She is buried in the East Lawn Cemetery there.

For additional information:
“Our Lady Bankers: Mrs. Mary Massey.” The Arkansas Banker 25 (January 1942).

“Woman Bank President Also Heads Chamber of Commerce, Business Enterprises and Ranch.” Arkansas Democrat Sunday Magazine. March 14, 1948, p. 3.

James J. Johnston
Fayetteville, Arkansas

This entry, originally published in Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives, appears in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture in an altered form. Arkansas Biography is available from the University of Arkansas Press.

Last Updated 1/27/2014

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