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Little Africa (Polk County)

Little Africa was an all-black community that lay near Board Camp Creek in Polk County east of the county seat of Mena. For a few decades, it was home to many of the county’s African Americans, but the community did not survive the changing economy and growing racial hostility of the county’s white population. The name “Little Africa” was common among informally organized all-black communities in the state and nation.

The first African American to stake out a homestead in the area that would become Little Africa appears to have been Nelson Ray in 1875. He was followed by others such as Thomas Moore (who filed for a homestead in 1884), Cicero Cole (1899), William Ray (1901), and Frank Hill (1904). The overwhelming majority of the black residents of Center Township, where Little Africa was located, give their occupation as farmer or farm laborer on the 1900 census, but like many farmers of the time, they not only worked their own land but also hired themselves out as labor to some of the other nearby landowners. Their wives took on odd jobs of their own, such as doing laundry and housework for white families. The Moore family operated a sorghum mill, while the Rays were renowned blacksmiths whose shop attracted clients, both black and white, from miles around. The community had a church that also served as a school.

Many writers have linked the decline of the black community of Polk County to the 1901 lynching of Peter Berryman in Mena. Local historian Inez Lane, for example, reports the following: “In a short time the families had left their farms and Polk County, some moving south to locate near Texarkana, others to Caddo Gap.” However, economic considerations likely played as prominent a role, if not more prominent. In 1910, the Kansas City Southern Railroad began the process of removing its division shops from Mena, a city that the railroad had essentially built. Rumors of the railroad abandoning Mena had been circulating in one form or another for a few years at that point, and with the departure of the railroad, there also departed many black workers from Mena. The 1900 census had recorded 177 African Americans in Polk County, most of them concentrated in Mena, but the 1910 census recorded only forty-six, most of these in Center Township. In addition, the damage to the local economy probably made it harder for the black population of Little Africa to augment farm income with outside work.

By the 1920 census, there were only nine African Americans recorded in the whole of Polk County, six of whom were in Center Township, including Cicero Cole and his wife, Ella Cole, along with their two granddaughters. During the 1920s, the county became increasingly hostile to the presence of African Americans, with the Mena Star openly advertising that city as “100% white” in 1920 and the Ku Klux Klan holding a massive organizational rally in 1922. Inez Lane, writing in 1977, reported that the Coles “were still living on their tiny farm near Nunley when we came to Polk County some fifty odd years ago” but, due to their age, soon moved away to be closer to relatives. By 1930, there were only three African Americans listed on the census in the entire county. Little Africa had vanished.

For additional information:
Lancaster, Guy. “‘There Are Not Many Negroes Here’: African Americans in Polk County, Arkansas, 1896–1937.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 70 (Winter 2011): 429–449.

Lane, Inez. “Little Africa.” Looking Glass: Reflecting Life in the Ouachitas 3 (May 1977): 22–24.

Guy Lancaster
Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture

Last Updated 10/11/2016

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