Founded in 1823, Chicot County Arkansas is a region located deep in the Southeast corner of the state. Lake Village is the County seat with adjacent towns in the county like Eudora, Dermott, Lakeport, Jennie, Grand Lake, Readland, Indian Switch and Sterling.
Chicot county border lines are uniquely entwined with two separate tri-states; Louisiana to the south and the Mississippi River to the east that extends into Greenville Mississippi, a popular town. It is part of the Delta Mississippi culture and it’s long history of soul and blues including one of the Nation’s battlegrounds for the Civil Rights Movement.
A popular scenery area is Lake Chicot, the largest natural lake in Arkansas. With the largest oxbow lake in North America, Lake Chicot allows residents and tourists the exciting opportunities for year-round fishing and boat riding.
A 2010 Census count showed at least 11,800 citizens were residing throughout Chicot County. Those figures dropped significantly as the younger population leave the small towns in the county. The young people look to start a much better life in Texas, Atlanta Georgia, California, among other progressive, higher economic driven cities.
A dark secret hangs over Lake Village Arkansas. A secret so dark, the remnants of the deadly acts are far buried into the annals of history. Until recently the citizens living there never knew or heard about the infamous race riot that plunged the town into chaos. It was the cold blooded murder of prominent white men at the hands of a Black mob. The mob broke into the county jail and killed the white men accused in the murder of a Howard-educated Black lawyer named Wathal G. Wynn.
An Arkansas KARK TV reporter aired a special report about the town. He told the dark secret story of how freed black slaves murdered white men in Chicot County, Lake Village Arkansas. And they got away with it!
Activist and filmmaker Vincent Tolliver who grew up in Lake Village unexpectedly discovered the story about the Chicot County Massacre while reading a book.
“I was really insulted that I didn’t learn about it growing up in my own hometown,” Tolliver said during a TV interview with KARK.
“I discovered there was a massacre in Chicot County,” Tolliver explained.
Nor is the explosive story taught in history classes at Lake Village High School.
“Most of the students have no knowledge about what happened in 1871,” said Sam Brock, a Chicot County High School teacher at Lakeside in Lake Village.
Tolliver adds, “So there was cold-blooded murder, not whites killing blacks but blacks killing whites in the county that also prompted the fleeing.”
“This hidden history that I was not aware of hit me like a bolt of lightning and I thought now, this story has got to come out,” Tolliver concluded.
Prior to the devastation caused by the Civil War, Chicot County was one of the most prosperous in the state with trade. Large plantations thrived economically at the expense of free labor by African slaves who picked cotton, beans, potatoes, corn and fruit, with cotton as the slave masters’ biggest money-making product.
To understand what ignited “bad blood” among the free blacks and the whites which eventually led to the Race War in Lake Village Arkansas almost 150 years ago we have to learn who really was James W. Mason. Mason was the person inititially accused of inciting the riots. Mason was a former black mulatto slave who bloomed into a Chicot county reconstructionist political power house player during 1870s. Mason had political power starting from his own house all the way into the White House.
Did Mason’s heirship of wealth from his father give him access to the powerful political arena?
Not only did Mason serve as a state senator but he had been the county sheriff, probate judge and the first Black postmaster in the United States. With a rich white slave owner named Elisha Worthington as his father, Mason enjoyed more privilege and wealth that other freed slaves could only hope for in the antebellum south.
Historian Willard Gatewood identified Chicot county white slave owner Elisha Worthington “as one of the largest slaveholders in the south.”
One of Worthington’s slave plantations was in Lakeport where the Lakeport Slave Museum sits today. Around 1860, according to Gatewood’s research, Worthington reportedly owned 543 slaves included with 12000 acres of land spread out over four plantations listed as Sunnyside, Redleaf, Meanie, and Eminence. Gatewood’s research further discovered that Worthington’s taxable property was valued at $472,000.00.
James W. Mason’s Rise to Power As a Former Slave
Born in 1841 in Chicot County Arkansas, the life of James W. Mason brimmed with hope and promise that only Black people in the South dreamed and wished for. As mentioned earlier, Mason’s father, Elisha Worthington, was a white Kentucky-born rich landowner. Worthington owned the largest slave plantations in the county that held “hundreds” of black slaves.
As typical in those days when whites owned slaves they often fathered children by black female slaves. Mason’s mother happened to be one of Worthington’s black slaves. Mason’s sister named Martha was also born into the same union in 1846.
Both siblings were mulattos. Showered with privilege and money to boot – Mason’s white father paid for his son to attend Oberlin College in Oberlin Ohio. Mason studied there from 1855 to 1858. Mason finished his education in France.
When the Civil War raged across the south, Mason returned to Chicot County where he and his younger sister operated Sunnyside Plantation. Their slave master father then traveled to Texas with other slaves to avoid the onslaught of the North.
After finalizing the logistics of his livestock and slave operation in Texas, Worthington, Mason’s father, returned to Chicot County when the Civil War ended. Struggling to cope with bad health and money problems forced the old slave-owner to sell off his landholdings in 1867. In the same year, Mason became the first black postmaster at the Sunnyside post office.
More prominence overflowed into the hands of the slave owner’s son when in November 1867, Mason, aged 26, was elected to serve as a Delegate to Arkansas Constitutional Convention. Mason got in on a bigger piece of political success when he served in the Arkansas State Senate during the 1868-69 term. According to the 1870 census, Mason was a planter who owned real estate valued at $10,000. His personal property was valued at $2000.
According to Blackpast.org: Mason married a woman known only as Rachel. The couple had one daughter in 1867 whom they named Fannie Worthington Mason.
On March 29, 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Mason resident minister/consul general to Liberia, a post that would have made him the second black diplomat, after Ebenezer Bassett, to represent the United States abroad.
According to U.S. State Department records, however, Mason never took the position.Mason continued to be active in local politics. He served in the Arkansas Senate a second time in 1871-1872, and at the same time was the probate judge for Chicot County.
During this time, Mason was the central figure in what would be known as the Chicot County Race War of 1871 (also known as the Chicot County Massacre) where a black lawyer named Wathal G. Wynn was murdered by three white men who were arrested and jailed for the crime.
The black citizens of Chicot County went to the jail and killed the three men, prompting many of the white citizens to flee the county.
At that time, from 1872 to 1874, Mason was Chicot County sheriff. The County Court held Mason responsible for the race war. The court indicted him for instigating the violence.
Sheriff Mason was arrested in 1873 and charged with the crime of murder.
Mason was kept in the Drew County jail until the next meeting of the circuit court. A special judge was appointed, Colonel John A. Williams. A grand jury was selected to hear the case.
According to the Arkansas Gazette, local citizens were hopeful a grand jury would punish the parties who were guilty of the murders of the white men during the Chicot County massacre. However, Williams dismissed the grand jury, and Mason was set free.
James W. Mason and his sister Martha received some of their father’s inheritance after he died in 1873 with no will. The two children filed a court case in Chicot County Court. They won the case, but Worthington’s other heirs challenged that decision in a series of appeals. Eventually, the appeals went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court case was long and complex. Mason died in 1875, and the case was settled in 1879.
Blackpast.org notes that “The Supreme Court ruled that since Worthington had taken Martha to the free state of Ohio to be educated, the relationship between master and slave was dissolved. Martha who had returned to Arkansas as a free person was thus eligible to inherit.”
Freed Slaves Murder White Men, Take Over Chicot County
Around 1871, Chicot County was taken over by several hundred African Americans, led by state legislator and county judge James W. Mason. The murder of African-American lawyer Wathal (sometimes spelled as Walthall) Wynn prompted the area’s black citizens to kill the men jailed for their role in the murder and take over the area. Many white residents fled, escaping by steamboat to Memphis, Tennessee, and other nearby river towns.
Like the Black Hawk War that occurred in Mississippi County the following year, the situation arose, in part, from the radical wing of the Republican Party exercising its power in choosing local officials. Both Mississippi and Chicot counties’ populations were primarily black, with blacks outnumbering whites four to one in Chicot County.
The devastation caused by the Civil War, combined with agricultural disasters in 1866 and 1867, profoundly affected the county’s economy, which had developed based upon the system of slavery. The county’s former slaves, after the war, were able to vote and hold office, while former Confederates were disenfranchised.
Indeed, many Chicot County freedmen were active in the Republicans’ rise to power both in the county and in the state. In reaction, the county’s planters backed the state’s Democrats in the election of 1868. Despite their efforts, however, the Republicans controlled the election.
Chicot County managed to escape much of the violence that surrounded the election. The county, however, was home to the strong, well-educated politician James W. Mason, who was backed by both the governor and the Republican establishment.
As a free man, after the historic Civil War, Mason served as postmaster of the Sunnyside Post Office (1867-1871), making him the first documented black postmaster in the United States. He served in the Arkansas Senate from 1868 to 1869 and again from 1871 to 1872. In addition, he had helped his father to reclaim his land after the war, making him not only acquainted with the county’s people and politics, but knowledgeable about plantation operations.
Mason’s abilities, as well as his charismatic personality, made it possible for him to draw a large number of supporters for any cause he espoused. This made many local whites blame him for the violence that erupted in 1871.
The first reports of trouble came in late April 1871. According to an article in the Memphis Avalanche, reprinted in the Atlanta Constitution on May 5, Powell Clayton, former Arkansas governor and newly elected U.S. senator, had appointed state senator James W. Mason as the county probate judge in order to procure Mason’s support for Clayton’s state Senate candidate.Clayton later, however,named a Major Ragland (probably Major E. D. Ragland of Lee County) to the same position and instructed the Senate not to consider Mason’s appointment.
Mason then returned to Chicot County and assumed office, and local African Americans forced Ragland to leave the county. In addition, the governor appointed Conway Barbour as county assessor, “ignoring the claims of all colored residents of that county.” Barbour, a former slave who had most recently been selling insurance in Lewisville (Lafayette County), had represented Lafayette and Little Rivercounties in the Arkansas House of Representatives.
The trouble in Chicot County continued into July. According to the Galveston News, the county court met that month, and when the sheriff refused to obey an order given by Mason, Mason had him put in jail, assembled a militia, and drove Ragland and Barbour out of town.
On July 17, the court met again, Ragland appeared again, and Mason “brought into town four hundred armed negroes and went for the whole crew.” At this point, Ragland left Mason in charge and went to Little Rock (Pulaski County) to confer with acting Republican governor Ozro A. Hadley.
By early August, both Mason and Ragland were in Little Rock, hoping to settle the matter. Nothing had been decided, but speculation was rife that Ragland would withdraw and allow Hadley to make the decision about Mason. This apparently happened, as Mason ultimately became the county judge.
Arkansas History & Culture Provides the Following Account that Led to Chicot County Massacre in Lake Village After James Mason Became Judge:
The rift between whites and blacks worsened when white men murdered black lawyer Wathal G. Wynn at a store in Lake Village owned by John W. Sanders.
During a public meeting at Sanders store in December 1871 where other citizens congregated to discuss whether to spend additional money for two separate railroads under construction the majority were split over the incurring expenses when heated words exchanged between Wynn, the black lawyer, store owner John Sanders, including two other white men identified as Jasper Dugan and Curtis Garrett.
According to historical news accounts, when Wynn called Sanders a liar, Sanders drew a long barreled pistol and fired a bullet into Wynn’s body, killing him on the spot.
Surprisingly, all three white men were charged and put in Lake Village county jail for Wynn’s murder.
Enraged over Wynn’s death, politically savvy freed slave and county judge James W. Mason sent a letter to Ohio congressman A.G. Riddle, a letter which first appeared in the Washington Chronicle and reprinted in the New York Times.
Mason’s letter insisted Wynn was killed by KKK because of Wynn’s allegiance to the Republican party and moreover because of Wynn’s efforts to “uphold the right and speak in behalf of the weak and needy.”
Mason also inferred in the letter that,
“Rebellion were at a fever pitch and that martial law ought to be declared.”
Newspapers nationwide reported various stories about the aftermath of the white men’s arrest for killing the negro lawyer.
“300 or so negroes rode into town, yelling loudly, in a fearful manner; driving men, women and children before them.”
Newspaper accounts sensationalized the violent events, describing how the armed negroes hurried to the county jail and forcibly removed the three accused white men from their cell, then took the prisoners into the woods and shot them to death.
Terrified of the angry free Republican slaves, many whites fled Chicot county, escaping by steamboat to Memphis Tennessee and Greenville Mississippi, effectively leaving the negroes in charge of Lake Village.
Rumors spread throughout the area indicating the free negroes bullied white people into giving them money. Other reports stated the men killed mules, horses and cows owned by prominent farmers in the area.
Republican Chicago native O. E. Moore who was visiting Chicot County area when the riots started blamed Republican Radicals for the negroes behavior. Moore gave a lengthy description of the events published in Memphis Daily Appeal on January 31, 1872.
Moore said, “Homes are desolated, buildings are in decay, livestock gone, land grown up in weeds, almost every white woman in the county gone, white men afraid for their lives and moving away fast as possible, negroes riding in the streets and on roads with their guns.”
Galveston Daily News concurred with Moore’s assertions that Republican Radicals stirred up the negroes by publishing this story, “The instructions and advice that the Radicals have been so long industriously instilling in the negroe mind are bearing their natural fruit.”
Galveston News went on to say, “The outbreak at Chicot County was the legitimate offspring of the advice that such men as Governor Davis and Judge Oliver continuously give the colored people.”
On January 6, 1872, Arkansas Governor Hadley finally ended the unrest by sending State guards and New Orleans Federal troops into Lake Village to restore law and order.
Despite accusations of inciting a bloody race riot, Mason still retained political power.
For example, Mason was elected county sheriff in November 1872. Not too long thereafter, Republican power slowly faded off the circuit.
Around March 1873, Arkansas State Legislature wrote a constitutional amendment to grant “political rights” to all ex-Confederates.
Land of law finally tried freed slave James W. Mason for his involvement in the violence and bloodshed that triggered Chicot County Race Riots.
Tried in court for several weeks, Mason was released on a writ of habeus corpus.
Mason died still young of unknown causes in 1875. Until late 1883, a majority of elective offices in Chicot County were held by negroes.
None of the accused freed slaves who rioted in the town of Lake Village and murdered the three white men were ever tried for murder.
Newsblaze Contributing Writer & Journalist Clarence Walker can be reached at [email protected]
Editor’s Note: Author of this story Clarence Walker was born in Chicot County Arkansas where this little known piece of history called Chicot County Massacre happened.