The 2016 honorees represent a cross section of African Americans in Arkansas that contributed to economic advancement. Economic advancement has been a crucial part of the African American struggle for freedom and equality. The honorees have pursued this goal in a variety of ways. William Wallace Andrews, although born enslaved, became a prominent leader and institution builder before, during and after the Civil War. African American business interests are represented by Scott Winfield Bond, a landowner; John E. Bush and Chester Keatts, founders of the fraternal and insurance organization the Mosaic Templars of America; John H. Johnson, a publisher; Walter “Wiley” Jones, a nineteenth century entrepreneur; and Josephine Pankey, a realtor. Robert Lee Hill represents African American union activism; Sue Cowan Williams represents teachers’ and professional association activism; and William “Sonny” Walker represents the War on Poverty and federally sponsored activism.
William Wallace Andrews was born an enslaved person in antebellum Little Rock. He emerged as a prominent leader and institution builder in the city before, during and after the Civil War. Andrews’ owner Chester Ashley granted Andrews permission to marry Caroline Sherman in 1848. The couple was also allowed to live in their own quarters away from their owners. Shortly after his marriage, Andrews became one of the first black Methodist pastors in the South. In 1854, Reverend Andrews and the black members of the Cherry Street Methodist Church in Little Rock built the new Wesley Chapel M. E. Church. In 1863, Rev. Andrews organized the first school for children of freedmen in the chapel, which in 1877 became Walden Seminary and then later in 1882 Philander Smith College. Wesley Chapel also offered nursing care and financial assistance for those in need. Andrews died a free man in Little Rock in 1866.
Scott Winfield Bond was born an enslaved person in Livingston, Mississippi, in 1852. After his mother’s death, Bond moved with his stepfather to Madison, Arkansas. In 1875, he started renting a portion of the Allen plantation and became a black farmer and businessmen. In 1877, Bond married Magnolia Mash. The couple had 11 sons together. While working on the Allen farm, he bought his own farm in Madison. In 1889, he left the Allen farm to manage the Madison farm full time. In the following years, Bond bought seven more farms around Madison, as well as a store and the Madison Mercantile Company. By 1915, Bond owned twenty-one farms. He was a member of the National Negro Business League (NNBL), which was founded by Booker T. Washington in 1900. Washington visited Bond in Madison in 1902, after the NNBL held their annual meeting in Little Rock. Bond died a free man in 1933.
John E. Bush was born an enslaved person in Moscow, Tennessee, in 1856. Their owner brought the Bush family to Arkansas in 1862. In 1875, John Bush started working for the Railway Mail Service, becoming the first black person to be recommended for the chief clerkship of the division. In 1879, he married Cora Winfrey. In 1882, Bush and Chester W. Keatts founded the Mosaic Templars of America, a death and burial insurance company for African Americans. In the following years, the Mosaic Templars of America opened a nursing school, a newspaper, and several other businesses, which were located in the Templars building at the corner of Broadway and West Ninth Street. Bush also served as an executive committee member of Washington’s National Negro Business League and as chair of the Arkansas Republican Party. President William McKinley nominated Bush as the receiver of the U.S. Land Office at Little Rock in 1898. Bush died a free man in 1916.
Robert Lee Hill was born in Dermott, Arkansas, around 1890. In 1916, Hill married Hattie Alexander, and in 1917 he started working at the Valley Planting Company. Hill was a grand counselor in and a founder member of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union that sought to win fair prices and conditions for black sharecroppers. He also offered legal representation to sharecroppers. On September 30, 1919, during a meeting of the union in a church close to Elaine, Arkansas, the shooting of a white deputy policeman began the Elaine race massacre that lasted until October 2, 1919, during which possibly hundreds of black men, women and children were murdered by white mobs. Hill was in Little Rock at the time of the shooting, but reached Elaine the next day to collect the stories of the sharecroppers involved. During the following months, Hill had to hide with friends for fear of being lynched. Starting in 1922, Hill worked for the Santa Fe Railroad. He died in 1963.
John H. Johnson was born in Arkansas City, Arkansas, in 1918. In 1927, Johnson and his family had to relocate to the Mississippi River levee camp following a flood, and there he witnessed the importance of cooperation between blacks and whites and started developing a passion for telling people’s stories. In 1941, Johnson married Eunice Walker while working part time at Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company and attending the University of Chicago. After rising to editor of the insurance company’s newspaper, in 1942 Johnson obtained a loan that allowed him to publish the first issue of Negro Digest. Together with Jet and Ebony, the Digest became part of the Johnson Publishing Company, the largest African-American owned and operated publishing company in the United States. Johnson received several honorary degrees and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President William Jefferson Clinton. He died in 2005.
Walter “Wiley” Jones was born an enslaved person in Madison County, Georgia, in 1848. He and his family were purchased by Richard Byrd’s plantation in Arkansas in 1853. Shortly after, Jones and his family were purchased by the Yell family, and relocated to the Yell plantation near Pine Bluff. During the civil war, Jones served as a camp servant for his owner, and when the war ended in 1865 he returned to the Yell plantation as a paid worker and then became the plantation manager. In 1869, he worked as a barber in his brother-in-law’s barbershop, and after ten years he invested the money he had saved in real estate. In 1886, Jones was the first African American to receive a franchise to operate a mule-drawn streetcar system, which he named Wiley Jones Street Car Lines. Jones died a free man in 1904.
Chester W. Keatts was born an enslaved person in 1854 near Little Rock. Keatts worked as a farmer until 1875, when he joined the U.S. Railway Mail Service as a clerk, a position that he kept for seventeen years. In 1876, Keatts was appointed U.S. Deputy Marshal for the Eastern District of Arkansas, and in 1881 he married Mary Warren. During his years at the Railway Mail Service, Keatts met John Bush, and in 1882 they founded the Mosaic Templars of America, an African American death and burial insurance company. During the early 1890s, Keatts was elected as circuit clerk of Pulaski County and was later appointed as messenger and crier in the U.S. Court of Appeals under Judge Henry C. Caldwell. In 1895, Judge J. A. Williams of the U.S. District Court appointed Keatts receiver of the Little Rock Traction and Electric Company. Keatts was the National Grand Master of Mosaic Templars of America until his death in 1908.
Josephine Pankey was born in 1869 in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1892, Pankey moved to DeValls Bluff, Arkansas, where she began her teaching and missionary career for the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She became the principal of a number of African-American schools in the White River area. In 1898 Pankey married Eugine Harris and they moved to Pine Bluff, where she taught and gave music lessons. After their divorce, Pankey moved to Little Rock, where she continued teaching and married Samuel Pankey. Josephine Pankey began her real estate career in 1907, when she bought eighty acres of land along what is now Cantrell Road, which she started developing two years later. In the following years, she bought more land in the same area, some of which is known today as the Pankey Community. Pankey also helped to establish an African-American school in Pankey on land she donated, and started her own lending library. Pankey died in 1954.
William “Sonny” Walker was born in Pine Bluff in 1933. After graduating from Arkansas AM&N College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff), Walker moved to Little Rock where he helped prepare the Little Rock Nine for the desegregation of Central High School in 1957. In 1966, Walker managed the campaign of T. E. Patterson, the first African American elected to the Little Rock School Board. Walker served as president of the Department of Classroom Teachers from 1964 to 1965. In 1969, he was appointed by Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller to head the Arkansas Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) that coordinated the state’s War on Poverty programs. Walker was the first black person to head a state OEO in the South and the first black cabinet member of a southern governor. Walker moved to Atlanta in 1972 when President Richard Nixon appointed him regional director of the Office of Economic Opportunity. In 1974, Walker began serving as director and chief operating officer for the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and in 1994 he became a speechwriter for King’s widow, Coretta Scott King. In 1995, Walker formed his own consulting firm, the Sonny Walker Group. He died in 2016.
Sue Cowan Williams was born in Eudora, Arkansas, in 1910. After completing her graduate studies in Chicago, Williams returned to Arkansas, and began her teaching career in 1935 at Dunbar High School in Little Rock. In 1942, Williams became the plaintiff in a lawsuit aimed at equalizing the salaries of black and white teachers in the Little Rock School District. The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, including its director-counsel Thurgood Marshall, assisted in the case. The trial ended after a week with a verdict against Williams, and her teaching contract was not renewed for the 1942-43 school year. Other black educators left the school as a result of their involvement in the lawsuit. In 1945, Williams successfully appealed the verdict to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeal in St. Louis, which ordered equal pay for black and white teachers in Little Rock. Dr. Christophe, the new principal of Dunbar High School, demanded Williams’s reinstatement in the fall of the same year, but it was not granted until 1952. Williams taught until 1974, when she retired. She died in 1994.
Thank you to our event sponsors for 2016: Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, City of Little Rock, Clinton School of Public Service, East Harding Construction.
Thank you to our student researcher for 2016: Paola Cavallari.
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