Hidden History: Chicot County Massacre of 1871


CHICOT COUNTY, Ark.- They say it takes a village to raise a child.

“Everybody in town calls me Momma Ella,” says lifelong Chicot County resident Ella Edwards

At 92, Edward’s family tree is still growing.

“I’ve got 60 grands, and 45 greats and 11 great-greats,” says Edwards.

You can feel the love inside her Lake Village home, but just a few blocks away you’ll find empty storefronts and signs of what used to be.

“There ain’t nothing down there but a bank and a drug store. If you don’t go to church there’s ain’t nothing else to do,” explains Edwards.

“So what you see in Lake Village is neglect, years, decades of neglect,” says native Vincent Tolliver.

It’s a narrative the writer, activist and filmmaker is familiar with. But five years ago, he accidentally stumbled across something in a book that blew him away.

“I was really insulted that I didn’t learn about it growing up in my own hometown. I discovered that there was a massacre in Chicot county,” Tolliver says.

Like Tolliver, we found not many in town know either and it’s not being taught in Arkansas history.

“Most of the students have no knowledge about what happened in 1871,”  says Sam Brock, a teacher at Chicot County High School.

Tolliver is absorbing everything he can about December of 1871 for a documentary.

“This hidden history that I was not aware of hit me like a bolt of lightning and I thought ‘Wow, this story has got to come out,” Tolliver recalls.

The civil war had ended and slavery had been abolished. Lake Chicot was lined with huge cotton plantations, and front and center was James Worthington Mason.

“He had all of these political connections, not only in Arkansas but in the White House,” says Tolliver.

Mason was a former slave, but the son of Elisha Worthington, Arkansas’ wealthiest planter. He was the first African-American postmaster and also served as a state senator and county sheriff. At the peak of Mason’s political career, his best friend, Wathal Wynne, was murdered.

“What was fascinating to me about that was the murder of a black man in a grocery store by a prominent white businessman with his two buddies, who were also white, they were jailed,” says Tolliver. “And that was not typically the case in the 1800s when a white killed a black.”

What happened several days later would be the reverse of the mass racial violence we have come to know in this country.

“Several hundred black people from across the county came into Lake Village, marched into Lake Village, rode horseback into Lake Village, broke these three white men out of jail, took them to nearby woods and riddled them with bullets,” says Tolliver. 

News of the trouble in Arkansas would make headlines for months. One Chicago Tribune article dated February 6, 1872, alleges that the Ku Klux Klan was responsible for Wynn’s murder, while another describes buildings going to decay, livestock being killed, and almost every white woman in the county fleeing.

“So there was cold-blooded murder, not whites killing blacks but blacks killing whites in the county that also prompted the fleeing,” Tolliver says.

Mason was eventually arrested for instigating the violence, but the case was dismissed.

“Is it possible some of your ancestors participated in the massacre?” asks KARK’s Ashley Ketz.

“Oh, absolutely it’s possible. I just don’t know,” says Tolliver.

Tolliver hopes this hidden history won’t be buried any longer.

“We have to be honest about where we are and how we got there. And unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of honesty as it relates to our history,” Tolliver says.

Flipping through old photos, Edwards remembers the wise words of her mother. 

“She always told me you’ve got to crawl before you walk,” Edwards recalls. 

And for Lake Village, it’s the past this town can’t seem to erase. 

“I believe we’ve crawled long enough,” says Edwards.

Tolliver’s documentary “Chicot County Massacre” is still in the early stages of production. AETN and the cinematographer of Dream Land, Gabe Mayhan have shown interest.

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