June 25, 2021
A Personal View
In 2018, Hope, AR had a population of 9.85k people with a median age of 35.5
and a median household income of $35,677. Between 2017 and 2018 the population
of Hope, AR declined from 9,923 to 9,847, a -0.766% decrease and its median
household income grew from $32,609 to $35,677, a 9.41% increase.
The racial makeup of the county was 63.28% White, 30.36% Black or African American, 0.42% Native American, 0.17% Asian, 0.02% Pacific Islander, 4.17% from other races, and 1.59% from two or more races. 8.25% of the population were Hispanic or Latino . Source: US Census
The town and I have both changed since my leaving in the autumn of 1955. I did return for family visits, thus avoiding a major shock upon resettling here after retirement. When driving around, the town remembered is dated 1955, my senior year in high school. I ran a stop sign at 2nd and Pine, because it was not supposed to be there, but neither the policeman nor the driver of the pickup I hit seemed to understand. Many of the old downtown businesses are gone; only a shell or a vacant lot mark the spots where they stood, but Main Street (pictured above) looks pretty good. Bob's Antiques occupies one old building; once Haynes Department Store, where the clerks wore suits and ties and asked politely, "May I help you?". There were numerous grocery stores, an A&P, a Kroger, many independent establishments (I worked for Moore Brothers, a grocery that slaughtered their own beef.), and mom and pop establishments in every neighborhood. Now there are two large grocery stores, plus a few convenience stores selling gas and fried food. There were several black owned business then; a movie theatre, a hotel, and corner grocery stores... gone. Only the black owned funeral home is still in operation. I quipped to an old friend, when we were kids there were two banks and a grocery on every corner and now there are two grocery stores and a bank on every corner...not quite true, but close.
|This is the town I remember.|
Another big change has been in education. In the '50s there were inferior public black schools, and fairly good white public schools in town. The five or six country schools were poor to fair and the students were considered unlike us by the better dressed town students; we were polite, but there were cliques. Many country girls wore dresses home made from flour sacks or hand-me-downs. The privileged town kids wore white starched shirts, played golf at the country club, and knew better than to say "ain't" or chew tobacco. Today well off families build homes in Spring Hill or Blevins for the better schools. Those living in town, who can afford it, send their children to the private Christian school. The public schools mostly enroll working class blacks, browns, and poor whites. The Hope schools usually earn a grade of "F" or "D" from the state, while Blevins and Spring Hill are awarded "B". The local community college is, in the words of one instructor, "a fairly good high school", that also offers much needed vocational and technical programs; a favorable vista in an otherwise dismal educational landscape.
The elites who once sent their children "back east" to school, employed minions, and shopped in Dallas have evaporated. A few wealthy families once controlled the town, with a small hat-in-hand middle class, and a host of poorly paid workers taking what was offered or else moving on to greener pastures in Texas, California, or up north. This morning I posed the question of power to the old guys at morning coffee. They all agreed that a few families once, but no longer, controlled the town and the county, but they could not agree where that political power now resides. From the lack of consensus, I assume political power is dispersed among various interest groups.
The churches of the old elites fade. Episcopalians and Presbyterians are nearly gone; their handsome old buildings are intact, here is the church and here is the steeple but open the door and where are the people? Even the middle class main line First Methodist and Baptist are hanging on with a dwindling number of white haired attendees. The lively Evangelicals attract the young. One old Presbyterian quipped, "We are all rednecks now." The young white males who eschew college and remain here drive expensive pick-ups, chew tobacco, and say "ain't" with pride. The middle class kids attend state colleges or universities and then settle far away.
Another change since WWII is the arrival of Spanish speakers. They are very much appreciated as they work hard, pay their bills, attend church with their families, and have improved the local cocin. I am still puzzled by cactus and some other unidentified offerings in the grocery produce department. (One day I plan to hang around the meat department to see who buys chicken feet.) The president of a local bank recently said, "Without the Hispanics the county economy would collapse."
The economy has also changed. Hempstead county was once famous for long staple cotton. Most small towns in the county had a cotton gin, the Union Compress in Hope shipped thousands of bales of cotton, and one street was called Cotton Row for all the cotton buyers who had offices there. With WWII many black share croppers moved north for factory jobs and the white share croppers and farmers with small holdings moved to California. I remember a cousin and his wife who owned a cotton plantation telling the story of the 1944 yearly settlement; to "settle up" was when the share croppers paid their debts, collected their remaining share of the cotton money, and signed on for another year. All the workers took their money and none signed up for the next year, as they had plans to move to Detroit or Chicago. She said, "Johnny and I sat down, looked at one another, cried, and wondered what in the world we would do." Beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly. Cotton was moving west to irrigated land with water compliments of federally financed dams. There was nothing to take cotton's place and farmers were left looking at pine trees and worn out land.
The few manufacturing business (a handle factory, a basket factory, and a garment factory come to mind) were slowly going out of business. Hard times arrived like a destitute relative. The city population decreased by several thousand. A visiting cousin, a plump rosy cheeked choir director at a big church in Richmond, had never seen a cattle auction. My father took him to the old wooden sale barn on East 6th street and I tagged alone. The year was probably 1950 or 51. I remember the cousin took a long look at the buyers and onlookers, then in an hushed voice said to my father, "I have never in my life seen so many poor looking men." They just looked like skinny overall clad farmers to me.
Then a lady from the Midwest arrived in a converted school bus and introduced the poultry business to the county. Her company prospered and was eventually absorbed by a bigger company, which in turn, gave way to Tyson. Tyson's processing facility is the largest employer in the county and the old cotton farms now raise chickens. Moreover, the chicken litter revived the worn out cotton land and beef cattle now thrive on lush green grass and excellent hay. Other industries, besides Tyson, moved to the old WWII proving ground and if the county is not booming, it does at least seem to be on firm economic footing.
Looking back, I don't know if the people are better off than in the 50s, drugs are certainly a problem now and the poor are still with us...about a quarter of the population is below the poverty line. A few weeks ago I drove to the Fair Park to use the walking trail, but was blocked by traffic. Some organization was giving away food boxes. I noticed that the poor mostly drive late model SUVs. The clerks no longer wear suits and the undernourished are few and far between. One image in my mind does stand out: at Walmart an obese woman with dyed red hair, wearing shorts and flip-flops, standing by a large sign that read, "Fight Hunger."
So what do I know? Well the Norman Rockwell world that was the center of Hope, with poor whites and blacks on the fringe, is gone. The old leafy streets with comfortable white frame houses are now the dwellings for the less fortunate. Too often yards are trashed and junk is piled on the porches. True, the town looks awful, but at least the old homes are providing shelter for those needing shelter. Some of the grand old single family homes, abandoned by the elites, are now apartments. A hard working kid trained to weld can earn six figures in a year and there are other good jobs for those with technical training. Not bad.
All I can conclude is: Aesthetically the town is atrocious, but it apparently functions quite well.