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Birdsong (Mississippi County)

 

Latitude and Longitude:

35º27'30"N 090º15'45"W

Elevation:

220 feet

Area:

0.090 square miles (2010 Census)

Population:

41 (2010 Census)

Incorporation Date:

May 31, 1984

Historical Population as per the U.S. Census:

1810

1820

1830

1840

1850

1860

1870

1880

1890

1900

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

1910

1920

1930

1940

1950

1960

1970

1980

1990

2000

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

104

40

2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

41

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Located in the extreme southwestern corner of Mississippi County, Birdsong is an African-American community that gained national recognition in 1935 due to the plight of sharecroppers in northeastern Arkansas and southeastern Missouri. There, local planters and sheriff deputies threatened the life of Norman Thomas, leader of the Socialist Party, forcing him out of town after dispersing a crowd of some 500 men, women, and children.

Birdsong is located in the Mississippi River Delta; at 220 feet above sea level, Birdsong at its founding was in a swamp. The community is about eleven miles from the Mississippi River on the east. To the west, about four miles away, is the Tyronza River, with Right Hand Slough (Little River) and the St. Francis River each about ten miles away. All of these streams seasonally overflowed. The area became a pond, as the overflow never completely drained. Not until after Little River Drainage District in southeastern Missouri was organized in 1907, and the Dead Timber Drainage District No. 13 was organized in Mississippi County on June 30, 1916, were the 26,000 acres suitable for habitation.

Only a few hunters and trappers lived in the area before 1928, when the federal government built Highway 63, only about two miles away from Gilmore (Crittenden County). That year, the Springfield and Memphis Railroad Co. also began operating through Gilmore. Chapman and Dewey Lumber was also operating a large sawmill there. As Chapman and Dewey clear-cut the acreage near Gilmore, they started working northward toward Birdsong. Birdsong became the terminus of the short line railroad. As such, rough buildings were constructed for the men cutting the trees and loading the railcars, and a village took shape, initially named Hubbard. Two churches—African Methodist Episcopal and Baptist—and the now defunct school were located on land donated by Mamma Lee Cummings.

A post office had opened with the name of Cuble but had quickly changed to Bubble in 1907. In 1931, it became Birdsong. (The origin of all the names has been lost to history.) One of the few white families ever to live in Birdsong was that of postmaster John Mitchell. In the twenty-first century, mail is directed to Tyronza (Poinsett County).

Most of the early black settlers came into the area as tenant farmers. One such family came from Hernando, Mississippi, in 1935. Their son, George Phillips, born on January 2, 1918, grew up on the Banks plantation near the Whitton-Birdsong communities. He volunteered for the U.S. Army on September 25, 1941, and served as a truck driver in Africa, Italy, and France for four years. After World War II, he returned to live in Birdsong.

Most of the first generation of Birdsong’s settlers faced Jim Crow–era inequities. On March 15, 1935, about 500 members of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU), which had been organized in Tyronza, along with their families, gathered at Birdsong to hear a speech by Norman Thomas, a nationally known member (and occasional presidential candidate) of the Socialist Party, who had played a role in organizing the STFU. As Thomas rose to speak, about forty angry armed planters, their riding bosses, and lawmen broke up the crowd. The planters made threats of imprisonment against the sharecroppers’ families, as well as threats against their incomes and lives. Afterward, the planters took Thomas to Memphis, Tennessee, with a gun pressed against him. Before he was released, they promised that if he returned to Arkansas, he would not leave alive.

H. L. Mitchell, cofounder of the STFU, threatened to lead a mob and lynch all the planters. The planters reacted with violence. People supporting the STFU were put on trial on trumped-up charges, and mobs roamed the area. Night riders terrorized union members. Houses were burned and people went missing. Machine guns were fired into homes at night, and attempts were made to blow up homes. This reign of terror lasted two and a half months.

As the notoriety surrounding these events faded, so did the public memory of Birdsong. The community was not mentioned in Mabel Flannigan Edrington’s 1962 History of Mississippi County. While the 1971 Mississippi County, Arkansas Directory did not list it in its index, Birdsong was shown on the land-ownership map.

W. B. Harrison purchased the school building, a two-story brick and cinderblock structure, in 1968. Students were then transported to the East Poinsett County Schools. Harrison’s plan for the building was to turn it into a nursing home, but instead he donated the building, rent free, for a neighborhood service center. As of 2013, the building stands empty. A smaller cinderblock structure serves as a community center.

In November 1976, James Cortese, a Commercial Appeal reporter, went to Birdsong. He wrote that the community was not on the map and had no name marker, but that he had found it at the end of a gravel road. Cortese described it as a “ramshackle little Arkansas community with very friendly people who loved the place,” adding, “There were perhaps several dozen houses scattered haphazardly up and down the two unmarried roads that crossed in the center of town.” At the time, there was a red asphalt-shingled building designated as “George Tucker Café.” The Big Apple Club, the most modern building in town, was open on Fridays and Saturdays.

In the 1970s, an effort to incorporate Birdsong was led by a home economist, Callie Perry, along with Jim Seitz of James B. Seitz and Associates, a civil engineering firm in Osceola (Mississippi County). The aim was to raise money to build a municipal water and sewer system. On May 31, 1984, Birdsong was incorporated.

The first census to include Birdsong counted 104 people in 1990, but that number had dropped to forty-one by 2010. Birdsong remains a rural community surrounded by farmland but with no businesses within the town.

For additional information:
Branum, Jim. “Water for Birdsong.” Blytheville Courier News, June 13, 1976.

Conrad, David Eurgne. The Forgotten Farmers: The Story of Sharecroppers in the New Deal. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965.

Cortese, James. “Birdsong Folk Rate it Better than Bubbles.” MemphisCommerical Appeal, November 11, 1976.

Demillo, Andrew. “Birdsong Lost Blues, Holds onto its Hope.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 30, 2002, pp. 1A, 11A.

“Home Economics Brings Help to Birdsong Women.” Blytheville Courier News, June 12, 1971, p. 5.

Woodruff,Nan Elizabth. American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Norman Vickers
Marion, Arkansas

Last Updated 11/14/2016

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