A Short History on African-American Settlers and Communities at Center Ridge, Arkansas
The Sweet Home Church and the Mt. Zion Church, two historically African-American churches in the rural town of Center Ridge, Arkansas, will hold a community homecoming September 1-2. I have been asked to present a history of the Sweet Home and Mt. Zion communities at the Sunday morning service. Please keep in mind this is still a draft and is ultimately meant to be shared orally at the homecoming.
A History of African-American Settlers and Communities at Center Ridge, Arkansas
(prepared for the Sweet Home and Mt. Zion Community Homecoming September 2012)
White settlers arrived in the Lick Mountain Township (a few miles west of Center Ridge) in the late 1830s. Many of these families were staunch supporters of the Union during the Civil War which put them at odds with Confederate rebels in other parts of the county. The city of Center Ridge, Arkansas was founded in 1878. Twelve years later, Center Ridge boasted 250 residents, four general stores, two hotels, a drugstore, a school a mill, and a cotton gin. Most of the African-American settlers made their homes in rural communities outside town.
In the 1870 census, taken a few years after the Civil War, no African-Americans are recorded in the Lick Mountain Township (which included what would soon be Center Ridge). The following decade (1870-1880), the population of African-Americans in Conway County increased over 400%. This mass migration of African-Americans came from many former slave states such as the Carolinas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The following decade (1880-1890), the number of black citizens again doubled. Many of these pioneers were former slaves and their children who sought a better life in and around Center Ridge, Arkansas. They established communities in rural Conway County that thrived for decades. The vast majority of these pioneers were farmers but some also worked as blacksmiths, carpenters, preachers, and teachers. Some received federal homestead grants, and these settlers built schools, churches, and homes around Morris Mountain, Cypress Creek, and Hogan’s Creek.
Churches became the social and spiritual focal point of the communities. Most churches had a large bell to announce special events and deaths in the area. Churches often included cemeteries to recognize those who had passed on. Many early churches services included an Amen Corner and a Moaners Bench. The Mt. Zion Methodist Church was founded in 1879 and is the oldest surviving African-American church in Center Ridge. Early families include the Morris family from Georgia, the Brockman, Clinkscale, Dunbar, Gaylord, Govan, Gilreath, Mayfield, Oates, Roseburrow, and Vaughan families from South Carolina, the Tyus family from Tennessee, and the Foster family.
In early September 1891, eleven Regular Baptist churches in rural Conway County formed the Cypress Creek Church District. This new association included five churches from the Center Ridge area: Cypress Creek Church, Friendship, Hopewell, Mt. Abel, and New Hope. South of Center Ridge, the Cypress Creek Church included the Stevenson family from Georgia, and the Garlington and Payne families from South Carolina. On top of Morris Mountain, Friendship church’s early membership included the Crymes, Dooley, Flood, Kemp, Knox, and Morris families from Georgia, the Green family of North Carolina, and the Govan, Langston, McCrary, and Smith families from South Carolina. Between Center Ridge and the Van Buren County line, the Hopewell community included the McFarland family from Georgia, the McDaniel family from South Carolina, and the Green and McCoy families from Tennessee. South of Center Ridge, Mt. Abel (pronounced A-bell) included the McDaniels from South Carolina and the Brown family. New Hope in Center Ridge included the Stokes family from South Carolina. By the writing of the Cypress Creek District History in the 1950s, Cypress Creek church, Mt. Abel, and New Hope were extinct and Hopewell would follow a short time later. The only original Cypress Creek district church from Center Ridge surviving today is Friendship which holds its own homecoming every other year.
The Sweet Home Baptist Church was established in 1897 and early families included the Cain, Knox, and Stevenson families from Georgia, the Hawkins the family from Tennessee, and the Dials, Hemphill, and Rhodes families from South Carolina. The Sweet Home church bell was borrowed years ago by unknown persons, and the church still awaits its return. A Church of God in Christ was later founded in the community. The COGIC organization boasts over seven million members with churches in over 60 nations, and their founder, Bishop C.H. Mason, actually spent some of his childhood in Conway County at the Mt. Olive community.
In addition to, and often as a part of these early churches, these pioneers set up schools for their children. Friendship School sat atop Morris Mountain, Hopewell School in the Formosa area, and Union Special near current day Hemphill and Sweet Home roads. After some of these early schools closed, African-American students in the area were bused over twenty miles away to school in Menifee. Eventually the county schools were desegregated, and the first black student graduated from Nemo Vista High School in Center Ridge in 1968.
These early families worked, studied, and worshipped in their new communities throughout Northeast Conway County. Their relationships with one another strengthened through marriages and childbirth. The 1920s, 30s, and 40s sent many of these early pioneer families’ children and grandchildren away to seek jobs in urban areas such as Denver, Kansas City, Omaha, and Los Angeles. Whereas in 1890 African-Americans represented around 40% of Conway County’s population, today, they account for only 13%. Though many of these groups are now gone from here, their descendants remain to carry on their legacy.