A REMARKABLE JOURNEY Visual voyage through black history an eye-opener

A REVEIW — There have been several excellent history books compiled on Pine Bluff and Jefferson County, but they’ve primarily outlined the lives and experiences of whites, chiefly those who actually aided and lifted others with their positive contributions to the area’s overall quality of life, but also some who were recognized merely because they achieved status within the circles of the socially and/or financially elite.

Most of the previous accounts of the local past included more limited information on select black achievers while otherwise pointing to the toils of the books’ typically unnamed slaves, sharecroppers and common laborers whose efforts enhanced the wealth of their “masters” and employers. Details on the black community’s businesses, schools, churches, cultural activities and particulars of day-to-day activities in days gone by were rare, in part because so many of those elements weren’t always as thoroughly recorded and maintained.

But that void has been greatly lessened with the recent release of “African Americans of Pine Bluff and Jefferson County,” produced by Arcadia Publishing of Charleston, S.C., as part of its ongoing “Images of America” photo book series.

Mother-and-son co-authors Donna Cunningham and Jimmy Cunningham Jr. combined efforts during a three-year process in capably mapping a splendid journey through Jefferson County’s black past. Donna Cunningham is familiar with researching and outlining a presentation as a longtime, now-retired Pine Bluff social studies teacher. Jimmy Cunningham is a devoted student of area history, skilled at confirming sources as a grant writer and telling a story with his abilities as a Nashville voice-over artist.

Those familiar with black history here will find an abundance of easily recognizable names and sites, but still likely encounter some surprising facts of which they may well have been unaware. The production certainly isn’t intended to represent a complete accounting, but nevertheless provides plenty of intriguing, educational glances.

The 128-page, softcover book features eight chapter topics — early years; music, art and entertainment; businesses and professions; military and civil defense; community life; race, civil rights and civic leadership; education and school life; and religion. The book clearly shows that existence in Jefferson County — as it nears the 175th anniversary of its 1829 establishment — has provided both hardships and opportunities to its black residents, who have persisted in overcoming adversity while achieving remarkable successes.

At one time, Pine Bluff — reportedly the site of the largest mass lynching of blacks in U.S. history — held one of the primary concentrations of black wealth in the entire South.

The book is available at the Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Museum and can also be ordered by telephone from Arcadia at 1-888-313-2665. Purchasers can arrange to have their copies autographed by calling Donna Cunningham at 870-879-3442.

“African Americans of Pine Bluff and Jefferson County” is priced at $21.99, which most would consider a bargain for a fascinating, easy read that can be repeatedly absorbed in pleasant doses in a variety of settings, as well as in start-to-finish peruses by the more studious.

The work would also be an excellent classroom tool for black history studies or a book report.