Roanoke

Three days before Christmas 1963, James Rice’s phone rang at four forty-five in the morning. The caller on the line said, “We have warned you about your troublemaking in this community. We have asked you to stop. You have continued it.” Rice was an NAACP leader who had moved to Hot Springs a year earlier in order to lead the Roanoke Baptist Church, one of the oldest African American churches in Hot Springs. Since his arrival, Rice had been active in challenging segregation around the resort, and had received many phone calls throughout the year like this one. The most recent call had come a week before, after it was revealed that Rice had written to President Johnson, the interior secretary, and the head of the National Parks Service calling for an investigation into discrimination in the bathhouses along Bathhouse Row. That time, the caller told Rice, “You’ll get the same thing President Kennedy got.”

Earlier in the year, civil rights protesters won the right to integrate public places in Arkansas after sit-ins at lunch counters around the state. But Rice and other leaders had been performing “checks” at the federally owned bathhouses and found that they were still discriminating against African Americans, who for many years had patronized segregated bathhouses. While many white citizens of Hot Springs took pride in their town’s relatively progressive attitude toward the African American community, there were limits. Racist southern social norms were reinforced through segregation. Dane could build a pool at the Webb Center that was even bigger and more expensive than the whites- only pool at the Jaycee Center, and he could have the best of intentions, but the message to the black community would still be the same: Stay out of our pool.

“Now we want you to look out the door,” the caller that early December morning said, “and see what’s happening to your church.” Rice hung up and went outside into the snowy morning, where a crowd had already formed. The church building was engulfed in flames.

***

This is a passage from my book, The Vapors, which comes out in a few weeks (you can pre-order it here). The story of the Roanoke Baptist Church is one that I felt was important to highlight today, since it is Juneteenth, and because currently in Hot Springs there is a rekindling of an old local debate about a Confederate monument downtown and whether or not it should be removed. I made my feelings about it clear in the last Letter from Hot Springs I sent out, but this week I wanted to tell the story of Roanoke, because too many defenders of the monument have said that taking away the statue is akin to erasing history - that it is a form of censorship that would intellectually impoverish future generations of Arkansans who may have descended from Confederate soldiers who gave their lives fighting against northern aggression or whatever. But while the Confederate monument downtown is one of more than 1,500 statues just like it spread across the south, there are no monuments in Hot Springs to the civil rights movement’s impact on that small community. There is nary a plaque or a bust to be found downtown. And there is surely no monument to remember what happened to the Roanoke Baptist Church. In fact, nearly fifty years on, there isn’t even any official acknowledgement of the fire as an act of arson at all. Officially, to this very day, the fire is considered an accident, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

The Roanoke Baptist Church was 95 years old when it was burned in 1963. It was one of the more popular churches in Hot Springs, with over 300 congregants, about as many white as black - an unusual situation for a Baptist church in Arkansas at that time - and its new leader, James Rice, was a big reason why. He and his family made quite an impression on the community when they moved to Hot Springs to take the helm of the NAACP branch and the church. Prior to his arrival, Hot Springs had a reputation as being far more liberal and tolerant than many other cities like it throughout the deep south. But despite the presence of a large and politically powerful black professional class, segregation and Jim Crow policies persisted. James Rice arrived in Hot Springs with a mandate to take on what all de facto segregation remained in the country’s smallest National Park. Under his leadership, the local NAACP were able to challenge segregation in movie theaters, lunch counters, restaurants and even the Federally-owned bathhouses. It was this final one that Rice believed was the last straw. The week prior he had wired the Interior Department to let them know about an investigation he had conducted in the bathhouses, where he and other black residents attempted to use bathhouses that, while not officially segregated, were considered to be off-limits to black people. He had received a return telegram from Interior Secretary Stewart Udall promising a full investigation into the bathhouses less than 24 hours before the fire. He had also recieved both letters and phone calls threatening violence towards him and his family if he kept up his organizing, the latest coming the night before the blaze began, followed by the “we want you to look out the door” call he got early that morning.

In September of that very year, perhaps the most notorious act of terrorism of the entire civil rights movement occured in Birmingham, Alabama when the KKK bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church and killed four little girls. In the summer of 1964 alone there were more than 40 black church fires across the south during Freedom Summer. Even taken all on its own, the Roanoke fire was highly suspicious. But when you consider the fact that there had been bombings and burnings of black churches throughout the south during that period of time in retaliation for civil rights work, the Roanoke fire is impossible to dismiss as simply an accident.

James Rice was convinced the fire was arson, but he also knew there was no way the local police would do anything about it. Earlier in 1963 the city had been rocked by a different kind of campaign of terror - bombs had been detonated under the hood of Prosecuting Attorney David Whittington’s car, as well as in the lobby of The Vapors, the crown jewel of the city’s lucrative and booming gambling business. There are a number of reasons why those bombs were planted, all of which I delve deeper into in my book. But no matter the reason, the effect of the bombings was increased attention by the FBI, who were soon crawling all over Hot Springs, looking for an excuse to shut the gambling business down. And because the Hot Springs economy depended so heavily on the illegal gambling business, there was a concerted effort across the city to keep the FBI at arm’s length. That effort even extended to the burning of the Roanoke.

After the local police and fire departments all declared the Roanoke fire an accident, Rice turned to David Whittington, who conducted his own investigation. Whittington also said the fire was accidental. So Rice hired his own out-of-town experts to investigate. They found evidence the doors of the church had been broken into. They took charred remains of the building to laboratories in Tuskegee, Alabama and Washington, D.C. The results came back positive for accelerant. He took these reports to the FBI and pleaded with them to get involved with the investigation. The FBI dismissed Rice’s report and sided with the local authorities. Yet nobody could point to a cause for the supposedly accidental fire. There were no problems with the wiring or the heating elements. There was no explanation for it whatsoever. There were simply steadfast denials that any man could have started the fire, end of story.

Ironically, James Rice’s efforts to draw attention to the fire rubbed some members of the city’s black community the wrong way. In an editorial of The Citizen, the state’s African American newspaper (which was published in Hot Springs), they cautioned Rice against taking the fight too far, writing that “if it had been declared arson, the FBI would have taken charge of the investigation . . . With our strange set-up here, who wants the FBI looking?”

In my research for The Vapors, I came across a number of FBI and Department of Justice documents at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland that were related to the investigation of the bombings of The Vapors and David Whittington’s car earlier in 1963. In those files, I found reports from as early as May of 1963 that informants had warned the FBI that a plan was afoot to burn down the Roanoke Baptist Church. True to form for Hot Springs, the motive for the plot wasn’t to stop James Rice’s civil rights organizing. The informants alleged that rival gambling factions wanted to punish Roanoke’s congregation for their political support of the gambling establishment’s slate of candidates - candidates who had shut down those rivals casinos and handbooks. The informants told the FBI that the rival gamblers hoped that by burning the Roanoke Baptist Church they would stoke racial unrest that would provoke the local ministers to call for the shutdown of gambling.

Whatever the reason behind the burning of the Roanoke Baptist Church, it was still an act of terror directed at the city’s black community, and it was still ignored by every level of government, despite the mountain of evidence that the fire was purposely set, and the complete absence of any evidence or reason to believe that it wasn’t. The FBI in particular seem derelict here, since they had recieved warnings about the church months before the fire, then refused to consider it was arson when what was warned to them actually came to pass. Sadly, in time, the official story that the fire was an accident took root and became historical fact.

Here’s how firmly those roots had set in: In 1996, President Bill Clinton, who grew up in Hot Springs and was 17 years old when Roanoke burned down, was giving a public address about another rash of black church fires that had spread across the south in the mid-1990s. In that address he claimed that he had "vivid and painful memories of black churches being burned in my own state when I was a child." Historians pushed back on Clinton and claimed that there were no church burnings in Arkansas during the civil rights movement. In response, the White House released a statement that "The president's recollection is that there were burnings of some black community buildings in the '50s when he was a child.” They included in the response a list of three churches that burned in Arkansas during that time. None of the churches were declared arsons, however, and none of them were the Roanoke Baptist Church.

It’s almost certain that Bill Clinton was thinking of Roanoke when he made his comments. At the time of the fire, the entire community was debating and speculating who was behind it. Newspapers across the country were reporting on the fire and on James Rice’s attempts to get the FBI to declare it arson. But when pressed on the question, Clinton’s staff found no official record of the fire that met the standard they were looking for, so they left it alone.

This is how history works. There’s an old cliche that it is written by the victors, and to a large degree that’s true. The burning of Roanoke is an important moment in the history of Hot Springs, yet there is no monument, there isn’t any statue of James Rice, there isn’t even a mention of it out of the mouth of an American President who was there to witness its smoldering ashes. It’s no accident that there is a monument to the Confederacy, to the cause of slavery and white supremacy, to the losing side of a war that left Hot Springs abandoned, plundered and destroyed. They say the monument is history, that it teaches an important lesson from way up there on its pedestal. But what it really does is cast a long shadow, one that extends all the way down Central Avenue, hiding so many other important stories from the light of day. Hopefully one day, when that statue is long gone, we can finally learn the rest of the story that has been hidden from us for all these years.

With love and solidarity,

David

P.S.

If you’d like to sign a petition supporting the removal of the Confederate monument from downtown Hot Springs, you can do that by clicking this link.

If you’d like to preorder my book, you can do that by clicking this link. I hate that I have to promote it during this particular moment in America, when stakes are so high for so many people across the country and around the world and people are focused on issues much more important than my little book. However if you subscribe to Letter from Hot Springs I’m assuming you’re someone who may be interested enough in The Vapors to care to preorder it. I suspect that I’ll be blowing up your inbox in the next few weeks with more direct appeals to preorder it, to tweet about it, to tell all your friends, whatever. I suppose this is my apology in advance for the deluge of self promotion that is fixing to come your way. It ain’t pretty but at least it’s an honest living.