In this week’s episode of America Outdoors, writer and host Baratunde Thurston visited Arkansas for the first time and saw how Arkansans are reckoning with embarrassing stereotypes and the state’s dark history through the outdoors.
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During the show, Thurston met with some pilots who make their living flying people in and out of Arkansas’ backcountry by Richland Creek, a federal wilderness area. They explained that much of their culture and lifestyle comes from the Ozark Mountains, and for that reason, many label them with the derogatory term “hillbillies.”
“Arkansans have lived with that stigma for decades and know that that’s one reason the state might be so overlooked,” Thurston said about the state not being a top outdoor destination. He added that no one really knows why they’re called that either.
Thurston explained some think the term could be traced back to the “Billy Boys,” who supported King William the Third of England in the 17th century. Others think it derives from the Scottish term meaning “friend,” as in “friend of the hills.”
“Wherever it came from it’s not generally considered a positive term,” he said, adding that the way in which Arkansans are trying to reverse the stigma is by welcoming visitors to the state, which has very little federal land. Some 90% of the land in Arkansas is privately owned.
Thurston also explored the Delta Heritage Trail, which was converted from an old railroad track, with the group Bike POC, an advocacy group intent on creating and expanding cycling opportunities for marginalized communities.
Following the trail, Thurston learned that “exploring the outdoors can bring us face-to-face with some of the darkest moments of our past.” One of the stops along the trail was Elaine, Arkansas. Back in 1919, the town was the site of one of the worst racial massacres in U.S. history.
According to the show, white plantation owners and wealthy businessmen attacked a group of black workers who were meeting to discuss demanding higher wages. Although there’s no official count, some believe hundreds of black people were killed and others were arrested.
“The train tracks that delivered mass death over a century ago, that’s now the Delta Heritage Trail,” Thurston said. “America has started to address the destruction of other black communities like Tulsa and Black Wall Street, but Elaine has not gotten that same attention.”
In an interview with Thurston, officials at Bike POC explained that their goal is to teach people how to enjoy the outdoors and understand the places they visit.