Busting the Myth and the Responsibility to Relevance!
The Fort Smith Museum of History has created "UnMasked": Fundraising From A Distance, a virtual fundraiser that actively seeks donations to recover from our COVID-19 closure and aspires to lay the groundwork for 2021 as we move toward a mission that includes greater virtual accessibility and a vision that expands the museum and carries our mission outside the museum's walls.
How does that relate to myth busting and relevance, you ask? Let's take a look at one of the most familiar stories in Fort Smith, the origin story of the legendary Judge Isaac C. Parker. Locally, Parker is second nature to anyone who grew up here or has knowledge of Fort Smith history. He's like the ancestor your grandparents talked about; the one you feel like you know through stories, familiar images, and the hand-me-down remarks about his greatness. Maybe he's even the ancestor you tire of hearing about; is he the only subject that comes up when you talk about the history of that side--Fort Smith's lasting legacy? Judge Parker holds his own in the era he dominates in our history. Regional visitors, old-west enthusiasts, and guests dropping in from greater regional areas know Parker. He's the one, the icon of Fort Smith history. Many visitors even comment that they long for a return to frontier justice, that if Parker's style of punishment was still part of judicial system today, we'd have less problems with criminals. That's a big statement and where the myth of his legacy begins. It's also where the mission of the Fort Smith Museum of History as stewards of history, begins.
You may know Judge Parker's story? He arrived in 1875, appointed by President Grant, and tasked with the job of cleaning up a corrupt court and establishing law and order in the State of Arkansas and in Indian Territory. Parker was a federal judge, with an expansive jurisdiction, his word and decisions final. Only the Supreme Court or the President could overturn his sentences. Judge Parker became synonymous with the moniker, "The Hangin' Judge", a sensational headline splashed across east coast newspapers and given to the man who imparted death to those who had committed heinous crimes, capital crimes. A well-known quote of Parker's is, "I never hanged a man, the law did." That statement seems to indicate that Judge Parker's decisions were backed by the law of the land at the time, not a decision based on his personal beliefs as so many who visit our museum assume. Parker presided over this area for 21 years, until his death in 1896. His legacy is often given as, "Judge Parker tried 13,490 cases. In more than 8,500 of these cases, the defendant either pleaded guilty or was convicted at trial. Parker sentenced 160 people to death; 79 were executed." The myth that Judge Parker was a hard-liner death penalty supporter who watched the executions from his office windows is a story that is re-told with frequency, often times by a well-meaning visitor who fancies the ideal of frontier justice as a modern day solution. And not to forget, more Deputy U.S. Marshals were killed in the line of duty during Parker's tenure than at any other time during the history of the Marshal's Service. Fort Smith will soon see the opening of the US Marshal Museum partially because of that association. The idea of that strength in law and order carried out so boldly was retold as a type of western myth in western books, movies, and in the early tourist industry of Fort Smith. And, it stuck.
The above tale of Judge Parker is the very brief story of Parker's job and a perception of who he was in that occupation. His background speaks of more varied goals. He arrived in Fort Smith as a former Representative from Missouri, elected to the House of Representatives as part of the Republican Party in 1871. He served during the Civil War, in a pro-Union home guard unit, eventually rising to the rank of Corporal. Parker's record during his time in office reflects a man attempting progressive changes. During his first term, Parker helped secure pensions for veterans in his district. He sponsored a failed bill designed to enfranchise women and allow them to hold public office in United States territories. He also sponsored legislation to organize the Indian Territory under a territorial government. In his second term, Parker concentrated on Indian policy, including the fair treatment of the tribes residing in the Indian Territory. His speeches in support of the Bureau of Indian Affairs gained national attention. His court at Fort Smith worked to employ woman in the courtroom and African-American men as Deputy U.S. Marshals. Judge Parker was a proponent of reform, sending young men to training schools as opposed to serving jail time.
Family life was their stability while community life was also incorporated daily into both their lives. His wife, Mary O'Toole Parker arrived in Fort Smith shortly after her husband, a new born son in tow. They would go on to have two children, both boys, James and Charles. Mrs. Parker was a staunch Catholic. Her husband Isaac was raised in Methodist family within a Quaker community. Those influences shaped his beliefs, including his personal belief that stood against the death penalty as punishment. History of the area reflects the notion that hired German labor was taboo. Mrs. Parker quickly hired German housekeepers, presumably to make a statement. Parker served on the Fort Smith School Board and at teh tail end of the 1800s, presided over the first graduation ceremonies of Lincoln High School, the only school for Black students. He served on the local Fair Board where he and his wife helped establish the local "Fair", the same one still operating today each September. He was an "Odd Fellow" and took time to umpire local charity baseball games. Mrs. Parker, a member of the Fort Nightly Club and the club's first president helped establish the first library in Fort Smith, the same library system still operating today. "The Hangin' Judge" was known locally as "The Candy Man", his daily walk to work taking him past an ice cream shop where he held a charge account. Parker's sweet tooth and daily enjoyments racked up the charges and it was a duty of Mrs. Parker to pay off the charge account after his death. Children were the happy recipients of candy handed out by Judge Parker as he passed by on daily constitutions.
Which story do you know? How do we separate the myth of the man from the reality of the man? And, do we? That question is what drives our relevance. We tell both stories, both histories. We offer universal connections such as, work, family, play, education, justice, diversity--all those dynamics are as important and relatable today as they were in Parker's time.
Those are the stories and relevance we carry forward, how do we give that to you, our visitor, our public, and our audience? Fort Smith was established in 1817. We have more than 200 years of history in this town and in this region. It is our responsibility to tell the myriad of stories within that timeline. We want to tackle those stories and present them to you through updated technology, online platforms, immersive in-house experiences, expanded collections access, digitally accessed collections and photographs, greater research opportunities, more exhibitions, and utilizing larger display areas throughout our 62,000 sq. ft. 1906 original hardware warehouse.
The job of our mission is to collect, share, and preserve the history of Fort Smith and the region. Our region is Sebastian, Crawford, and Franklin counties in Arkansas, and Leflore and Sequoyah Counties in Oklahoma. We carry out that mission through education, exhibitions, programs, and outreach. For years now, education has been at our fingertips through online resources and interaction. But lately, that education has moved to an even more intense online platform, at times, isolating. Many students and the public at large have considered new avenues of outreach for their own conveniences and safety. Most likely, these changes will become a part of the "new normal" and a natural progression for us, as a museum, to incorporate seamlessly, without deciding whether online education is separate from in-house visits and how can we mingle the best aspects of the two to create an experience that gives our visitors the optimal visit, still tangible, still emotionally and intellectually stimulating, but with variety and the ability to address the various needs of our public.
Please consider making a tax deductible donation to "UnMasked": Fundraising From A Distance. Funding from "UnMasked" will assist in our recovery from COVID-19 closure and will set plans in motion for the future of our history.
The Fort Smith Museum of History is a private non-profit 501 (c) 3 organization.