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In 1957, Little Rock rose to the national stage after their governor mobilized the National Guard to prevent desegregation in schools. President Eisenhower responded by federalizing the troops and ordering them to facilitate integration. The Governor of Arkansas responded by closing all schools—white and Black—for an entire year. Voters, who at the time would have been mostly white, supported the closures to prevent integration in a referendum.

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A Black writer who calls herself “Granny” remembers this time and place in a 2004 essay published in the prolific prison newspaper titled the Long Line Writer, which is part of Reveal Digital’s American Prison Newspaper collection. “Granny” was born in the small town of Gould, 79 miles southeast of Little Rock. She would have been 15 at the time of the historic turmoil that garnered infamy for her state and its political support of racist policies. Decades later, she would find a stable career as a correctional officer at the nearby state prison.

The Long Line Writer was produced at the Arkansas Department of Corrections Cummins Unit, tucked away in unincorporated Lincoln County just north of Gould in the verdant Arkansas Delta. The region is known for having rich cotton lands, inspiring author Willard Gatewood of the 1993 book The Arkansas Delta: Land of Paradox to call it, “the Deepest of the Deep South.” The prison where she works is itself a farm. Arkansas is one of only a few states that does not pay even a nominal wage for prison labor, permitting outside observers to draw close parallels with slavery. Those who refuse to work are sent to solitary confinement. (See Granny’s essay for her account of Delta cotton, sharecropping, and children’s participation.)

A young boy picking cotton in a cotton field, c. 1935
A young boy picking cotton in a cotton field, c. 1935 Getty

Like many others, the prison draws its staff from residents who live nearby. In 2020, half of Gould’s residents, 89% of whom are Black, were employed by the government in some form. The Delta is one of the poorest regions of the United States.

This essay published by a correctional officer known affectionately to incarcerated people and staff alike as “Granny” displays the complexity of life, and employment, in the area.  She is celebrating the fact that at age 62, she finally earned the college degree she had always dreamed of. She recounts portions of her life story—from picking cotton to segregated schools to her involvement with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee—to show both the hostilities the world presented her and her triumphs despite it all.

Congratulations on your degree, Granny!

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The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 70, No. 3 (Aug., 2004), pp. 603-636
Southern Historical Association
The Arkansas Delta: Land of Paradox, pp. 98-121
University of Arkansas Press
The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 1 (Spring, 1993), pp. 44-77
Arkansas Historical Association
The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 3 (Autumn 2011), pp. 225-257
Arkansas Historical Association
The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 2 (Summer, 2006), pp. 116-137
Arkansas Historical Association
Long Line Writer, Volume 24, Issue 5 05-01-2004
Arkansas Department of Correction, Cummins Unit