West Memphis, with its dog racing track/casino and industries obscures the fact that Crittenden County, Arkansas was once Delta country, with plantations and sharecropper shacks. The road toward Waverly, south of West Memphis reminds you of that fact, and in fact resembles the long, flat roads of the Mississippi Delta. Here and there a silo or white-frame church is visible across the flat fields, divided by occasional bayous lined with trees and brush. To the right about four miles south of West Memphis, however, I came upon the ruins of a church that looked historic. A modern Pentecostal church had been built beside it, and presumably the new church owns the building and grounds, but there was no sign of the name of the older church, or when it had been built. With the sun going down, the old white structure looked majestic, despite its deteriorated condition, and I would have liked to have investigated it more closely, but I soon found that bees or wasps had made a nest in the structure, and were literally pouring out of it. With discretion being the better part of valor, I beat a hasty retreat.
The mystery as to what church it was I ultimately solved by looking at the Fletcher Lake Quadrangle map from 1966 of the United States Geological Survey. It showed that the church was called St. John’s Church, and that there was also a cemetery on the site. When the map was reprinted in 2010, only the cemetery is shown.
As the event at Waverly I was on my way to had started at 5 PM, I decided it was best to be on my way, but I captured some photos of the church, as it will likely eventually collapse from neglect. The community where that church was is shown on the 1966 map as Amanca, Arkansas, but there seems little of that community either nowadays. Evidently, it is just a name.
Segregation of the races was the law in most of the Southern United States from around 1890 on, but as the Progressive era dawned in the early 20th Century, attitudes hardened even further. As developers planned new townsites in the South, they began to conceive of the concept of building entirely separate towns for Blacks, rather than having them live in a particular neighborhood of the same town that white people lived in. So Harlem, Florida was built for the Black community outside of Clewiston, Florida, and West Amory, Mississippi was built for the Black community of Amory, and North Gulfport and North Tunica were built for Blacks who lived near Gulfport and Tunica respectively. Likewise, when developers started platting the Sunset Addition to the town of Marion, Arkansas, as a place for Blacks to buy land and build homes, the city officials in Marion decided to exclude the new subdivision from the city limits. Although the developers showed their intentions to build a community destined to be part of Marion when they chose the name “Sunset Addition”, the city excluded the community, and that decision had long-term impacts on the availability of electricity, water and city services in the Sunset area. Sunset was never a big place, and in fact was only three streets wide, but it had a number of churches, a gin, a few stores, and perhaps its most important institution, the James Sebastian Phelix High School, founded in 1946 and named for a local undertaker. The Phelix School provided education for a Black community desperate for learning, but while white students in Marion were provided a free public education, parents of Phelix students in the high school grades had to pay tuition when the school first opened. In 1970, Phelix High School was closed under court order, and its students transferred to Marion High School. Despite the importance of Phelix High School in the history of Marion and Sunset, the buildings have been abandoned, and the oldest building is deteriorating rapidly and being reclaimed by the wilderness.
After many years of Marion refusing to annex Sunset Addition, and fed up with the lack of public services, the people of the community voted in 1971 to incorporate Sunset as a town. Although they were hopeful about the opportunity for Black self-government, the new town faced many hurdles. Its small size, the relative lack of retail business, the lack of any employers or jobs, and the low property values within the city limits all reflected the fact that Sunset was intended to be a subdivision within Marion, not a separate town. The years since 1971 have seen scandals, financial problems, and a rapidly dwindling population. It seems likely that Sunset will eventually become part of Marion.
For reasons lost to history, at some point, there was a little wide place in the road north of Marion, Arkansas called Harvard. It wasn’t exactly a town, but the Frisco railroad had a large switching yard there, which they predictably named Harvard Yard. In the late 1970’s, a local developer decided to build a community there, which he also named Harvard Yard. He envisioned his subdivision as meeting a need for poor, working families, and built homes and apartments in angular, modern designs with a weathered wood finish. The subdivision was interspersed with parklands and pavilions, and the streetnames reflected something of a British flair. Home prices were low, and houses were small, but the community really didn’t look all that different from similar subdivisions elsewhere in Crittenden County.
The seeds of a problem occurred, however, in the fact that Harvard Yard was not part of any incorporated town. Located just to the north of the tiny, cash-strapped town of Sunset, Harvard Yard received no city services from Sunset, nor from the larger city of Marion. Sunset had always been an all-Black community, and over time, Harvard Yard also became all-Black. Many of the houses had become owned by corporations or absentee landowners. When people moved out, houses were often abandoned. Fires were common, and the burned-out ruins were left standing, until the trees and undergrowth simply grew up around them. There was no trash pickup in unincorporated Crittenden County, and some people began throwing their trash into the abandoned houses dotted throughout the community. With so much abandonment, drug dealing and violent crime became a problem in the community as well.
Nowadays, Harvard Yard is a bizarre landscape, a former suburban community that has become a disaster area, not through any weather event, but through the toll of poverty, absentee ownership, lack of services and crime. The streets show a handful of inhabited dwellings surrounded by wrecks and ruins, but children play exuberantly in the streets. In the dead center of the community is a small foreign-owned grocery store that seems popular with the local residents and children. It is the only business in the community.
What to do about Harvard Yard is a subject that has bedeviled the leadership of Crittenden County for many years. Many of the houses need demolition, but the county’s annual fund for demolitions is easily depleted each year, as one house costs $3000 to demolish. The county managed to arrange for garbage pickup in 2016, and residents have praised that step, but a July tour of the community showed that a lot more needs to be done. Perhaps Harvard Yard and Sunset would be better off as part of the nearby city of Marion.
The small town of Turrell, Arkansas in northern Crittenden County is yet another victim of Arkansas’ vicious school-closing law. Because Turrell’s school enrollment fell below 350 students, its district was shuttered by the state and ordered merged with Marion, despite the objections of citizens of both towns to the merger. Although Turrell is located a reasonable distance from downtown Memphis, and in theory could become a suburb of Memphis with proper planning and a forward-thinking town government, nobody will move to a community that has no schools. Since the school closure, Turrell has gone steadily downhill. No businesses on its broad main street downtown seem to be open at all, and one building has completely collapsed, possibly threatening the integrity of others. Particularly poignant are the abandoned high school on Highway 77, and the abandoned elementary school on School Street in a residential area north of the downtown district. Closing public schools seems a perverse thing to do to towns that are already struggling. Surely Arkansas’ state officials could come up with a better solution.