By Colin Woodward
Last week, I attended the annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association. This year, the meeting was at Historic Washington state Park, which is not too far from Hope, the birthplace of Bill Clinton. I went to the AHA meeting last year, too, in Helena. In 2015, the meeting will be in West Memphis.
What I like about the AHA meeting is that it’s a mix of academics, amateur historians, and the general public. It’s not nearly as formal as a conference like the Southern Historical association meeting of the Society of Civil War historians. Those types of meeting tend to be held in big cities. You give your paper in a hotel conference or ball room. In contrast, I’ve been to two AHA meetings, and both times I gave a talk in a historic church.
Last year, I spoke about Johnny Cash, Winthrop Rockefeller, and prison reform in Arkansas. This year, I chose a very different topic. I did my twenty minutes on Charline Person, a planter from Miller County, who became one of the most prominent citizens in Miller County, which is in the southwest corner of the state.
I had a pretty good turn-out for my talk. The crowd at the AHA tends to be older than at conferences geared toward professors and graduate students. But any crowd is a good crowd, and the people at the AHA meetings are an attentive bunch. I enjoyed the talk.
I was also impressed by Historic Washington, which is much bigger than I thought it would be. The site was the capital for Arkansas once Little Rock fell in 1863. The 1836 Hempstead Courthouse is where the legislature met for the latter part of the war. The buildings at Washington have been painstakingly restored. Friday, the day I gave my paper, was a beautiful springs day in Arkansas. And it as nice to walk around, look at buildings, and take pictures.
I also visited the Bill Clinton house, which is run by the National Park Service. Downtown Hope, unfortunately, has gone the way of many communities in Arkansas. Much like Helena, downtown Hope is a shell of its former glory, where thriving business are the exception rather than the rule. Amtrak still has a line that runs through Hope. But when I was there, things were pretty quiet.
I can now say that I’ve been to all four corners of Arkansas. For me, that means Fayetteville, Hope, Osceola, and Lakeport. I’m not sure what I might present on next year, but it will likely have to do with Johnny Cash. After all, the 2015 meeting will be as close to Memphis as you can get while still being in Arkansas.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.