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Driftwood is a historic African-American community located in Morgan Township on Highway 361 about four miles east of Strawberry (Lawrence County) and about two and a half miles south of Lynn (Lawrence County). The Black River and its alluvial bottomland are about two and a half miles to the east. In its early days of settlement, Driftwood was referred to as Morgan Creek; it was also often referred to as “Little Africa,” as it had an estimated fifty farm families, mostly African American, living there at one time in its history.
The black farmers in the area, most of whom worked on the Sloan Plantation near Black Rock, were given the proverbial “forty acres and a mule” by James F. Sloan after the Civil War following emancipation. They settled as tenant farmers on the Sloan farm at Sloan Town, just south of what would become Driftwood. The black tenant farmers labored alongside the white tenant farmers in the Driftwood and Riverview areas in the cotton fields of the Strawberry River and Black River bottoms.
Racial conflict seldom arose, with the tenant farmers working the cotton fields together in relative harmony. But segregation was strictly adhered to in housing, worship, general social activities, schools, and burials. The African Americans lived in Driftwood, and the whites lived in Riverview and Lynn. The black cemetery in Driftwood is known as Oaks Little Africa Cemetery, named for the Oaks family who lived nearby. It is located in a wooded area somewhat reclaimed by nature over the past century and has an estimated 100 to 200 graves. The white cemetery is located to the north between Driftwood and Lynn and is called Dry Creek Cemetery (a.k.a. Pleasant Hill Cemetery).
A few of the early black families to arrive in Driftwood during Reconstruction were John and Rachel Cravens and their children; the Clay Steadman family; and the Hunt, Raney, McCarroll, Sutton, Oaks, Smith, and Taylor families. Members of these families are known to be buried in the Oaks Little Africa Cemetery. Grave markers for John Hunt, Retha J. Sutton Raney, and Mary Smith Taylor have been identified.
Driftwood was noted for its skilled baseball team, which often played teams from the other communities in the area in the 1920s. One of its main rivals was the “Punkin Center” team of Dowdy (Independence County), a town about eight miles to the south-southwest. When the two teams faced each other, there was always a big turnout from both farm communities. A summer highlight was the July 4 picnic at Driftwood attended by both whites and blacks, which included a dance on an outdoor dance floor.
The Driftwood community had segregated schools: the Driftwood School for black children and the Penn School at Riverview for white children. Both were still active in 1937, but Penn merged with the Lynn Public School System in the 1940s. The Hillcrest School District was created in 2004, serving remote parts of Lawrence, Sharp, and Independence counties. The elementary school is in Lynn, and the high school is in Strawberry. The Driftwood school building was used as a church on Sundays for the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The general store and other businesses of the Driftwood area were owned and operated by white landowners. A post office was established as part of the general store on April 10, 1905, with Samuel Pleasant Goodwin—a prominent landowner, ginner, and merchant—appointed postmaster. The Driftwood Post Office remained open until the Great Depression, with Charlotte Erzilla Warnick Penn serving as its last postmaster in 1935. The name Driftwood is derived from the African-American farmers who “drifted” into the community, analogous to the driftwood on the Strawberry and Black rivers; the policy for the drifters was “no questions asked.”
In some respects, the Driftwood community was similar to a commune. Many times, work was swapped in lieu of wages. The community also once bought a Model T Ford for everyone to use.
One prominent family of Driftwood was headed by the Montgomery brothers. Savoy Montgomery and his three brothers farmed 138 acres of cotton land. Other families owned smaller pieces of land and would often hire family members out to the Sloan and Penn families to work their plantations. Savoy Montgomery was a leader in Driftwood and was well respected in Batesville (Independence County), where he managed the Marvin Hotel on Main Street (once called the Arlington Hotel). He was also in the employ of Charles Barnett, a prominent businessman of Batesville. His son Arthur Montgomery was head of the Independence County Employment Security Office for thirty-seven years.
Postmaster Samuel P. Goodwin’s father, Mark Goodwin, was an early settler. As a child, he arrived in Independence County with his family from Birmingham, Alabama. By 1850, he and his family were living on Reed’s Creek in Lawrence County; his father died in 1852. Mark and his brother, George Goodwin, purchased a gin on Morgan Creek in 1887 and, according to the Goodspeed history, “ginned 160 bales of cotton, with marked success” the first year of operation. Besides being a prominent farmer of Lawrence County, Mark Goodwin was a noted cabinet maker and had a shop on Morgan Creek. Goodspeed continues, “Mr. Goodwin is a member of A. F. & A. M. Lodge No. 453, and also of the Missionary Baptist Church. He has creditably filled several offices on the school board and local positions, and is a man of great popularity in his vicinity.”
Driftwood is an abandoned community in the twenty-first century. Nearby Lynn has a city library called Driftwood to honor the memory of this once vibrant community.
For additional information:Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Northeast Arkansas. Chicago: Goodspeed Publishing Company, 1889.
Coleman, E. R. A Life on the Black River in Arkansas: The Memoir of a Farmer, Rural Entrepreneur, and Banker. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2008.
“Driftwood.” Lawrence County Historical Quarterly 14 (Spring 1991): 5–7.
“Driftwood Letter.” Lawrence County Historical Journal 9 (Spring 2004): 11–12.
Huskey, Frankie. “Driftwood Evokes Pleasant Memories.” Lawrence County Historical Journal 9 (Spring 2004): 9–11.
Lawrence County, Arkansas: 1815–2001. Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing Company, 2001.
Kenneth Rorie Van Buren, Arkansas
Last Updated 9/14/2016
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