After The Civil War Former Slaves Build A Solid Community

Even though freed, former slaves found life difficult. Released without means of support, without education, and without a background that prepared them for life, many found themselves back in virtual servitude as tenant farmers or sharecroppers. Remarkable was the man who could overcome these handicaps and become a valued member of the community in which they lived. Willis Wise is one of those exceptional individuals that overcome adversity and carved out a life for himself in the new South.
Willis was born a slave in Boston, Texas on January 8, 1849. Not much is known about his early life or the reason for him migrating to Logan County, Arkansas after the war. Many slaves fled to Arkansas from Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi during the war and joined Union forces. For whatever reason, Willis found his way into the mountains. In 1870, he married Mary Christopher, a former slave from Clarksville, Arkansas and they bought land and built a log cabin on Shoal Creek near where Hamilton’s horse camp now stands.

Willis was a farmer and found the land along the creek rich in soil but also covered with rock brought down by the creek and with lowland hardwood. Clearing the land would have been a difficult task but one that Willis was obviously successful in accomplishing. He was a skilled basket maker and weaved both large and small baskets from the cane along the creek. He would take his old mule laden with baskets and pedal them throughout the region. Large baskets were used to harvest cotton so there was a good market for his products. Willis was successful enough at his various enterprises that his family was able to start a church and a school and organize a small black community in a predominantly white township. Willis would arrange to have visiting ministers from Memphis, Oklahoma, and other black communities to visit and hold revivals at his church which he called the Home Mission Baptist Church. He loved to play the fiddle and was an accomplished musician.

Willis and Mary Wise

Willis and Mary Wise in the center; Fannie Mae Wise in the middle of the front row, Mint Wise in the hat to the far right, Ella (Wise) Thompson is next to her. Beginning in the second row from the left is Clara (Wise) Lewis holding a baby and Sellars Newton is next to her. From the top right is Frank Thompson holding a baby, and center top is Hardy Wise. (DorthaTerwey)

Around 1890, his wife started working with Dr. B.M. Miller. He taught her many of the herbs and medicines and how to deliver babies. For more than forty years after he left the community, “Aunt Mary” continued tending the sick and delivering babies. Sometimes she would remain at their homes for days and weeks tending to the needs of both white and black patients. Her grandson Sellars Newton drove her around with a fast horse and buggy- way too fast for her taste. He later traded for a T-Model car but it was undependable and, when the creek rose, he wasn’t able to get it across. During bad weather he would beg her to stay home only to be told, “Son, it’s my duty.” She was never known to refuse to assist anyone.
Willis and Mary had ten children: James, Oliver, Ella, Beeda, Sophia, Will, Hardie, Charles, Minta, and Clara. They would hire teachers to come in and teach three month terms to educate their children.
Clara Wise (Lewis) was able to get the minimum eighth grade education required at that time to become a teacher. She taught several generation of students at Shoal Creek and later, at Gray Rock schools. Because of the scarcity of schools, the preponderance of whites, and the degree that she was respected in the community, she is believed to have taught the first integrated classes in Arkansas.
Willis passed away on January 16, 1933 and Mary lived to the age of 107. When she died, she requested the funeral be conducted by her good friend and white Midway Assembly of God minister, Reverend P.W. Wright to conduct the funeral. Both they and other family members are buried in Mays cemetery at the present day Shoal Creek Methodist Youth Camp.
During the 1940’s, many of the community left in search of work or better opportunities. Clark and Clara (Wise) moved to Gray Rock where she continued working as a teacher. At the time of Mary Wise death, she had acquired 72 grandchildren, 64 great grandchildren, and 6 great-great-grandchildren. Many of the descendants of this family still live in the area.

This story is part of my new book soon to be published.

Curtis Varnell, PhD
Western Arkansas Educational Service Cooperative