Friday, February 29, 2008

Rural Arkansas claims kinship link to Obama

My mom recently forwarded me a link to this story, which reports Barack Obama's kinship ties to Madison County, Arkansas. This appeared in the Madison County Record. Madison County (population 14,243; population density 17/square mile; 96% white; .1% African American) is in Northwest Arkansas and sits between Newton County (the least densely populated in the state) and Arkansas's second urban area (after Little Rock): what is now a conurbation running from Bentonville to Fayetteville, home to Wal-Mart, Tyson foods, and the land-grant University of Arkansas.

Since the link is likely to go away, here's the story in its entirety:
by Joy Russell
Madison County Genealogical & Historical Society

The current national newscasts are filled with the names of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the top two Democratic candidates for President of the United States of America.

The Clintons have been well known to Arkansas residents since the mid-1970’s with Hillary Clinton serving as Arkansas’ First Lady from 1979 to 1992 when her husband, Bill, was Governor of the State. The Clintons were married in Fayetteville on Oct. 11, 1975, and their daughter, Chelsea, was born in Little Rock on Feb. 27, 1980.

However, Obama also has roots that run deep in Northwest Arkansas. Obama’s great-great-great-great-great grandparents were Nathaniel and Sarah (Ray) Bunch, who came to Arkansas about 1840 and settled near Dinsmore, about three miles south of Dry Fork. The community of Dinsmore is in the extreme northwest corner of Newton County and is only about a half-mile from both the Carroll and Madison County lines.

Nathaniel Bunch was born on April 23, 1793, in Virginia and served in the War of 1812 under General Andrew Jackson. Family legends say he took part in the Battle of New Orleans. Soldiers who served in the War of 1812 were given “land bounty certificates,” which entitled them to claim 80 acres of land from the government, and it is believed that Nathaniel Bunch used his land bounty certificate to claim the land that he settled in Arkansas.

Anna Bunch, born in 1814, was the daughter of Nathaniel and Sarah. She married Samuel Thompson Allred in Tennessee and they moved their family to Newton County, Arkansas, about 1845. They were the great-great-great-great grandparents of Barack Obama.

Nathaniel and Sarah Bunch, Samuel and Anna (Bunch) Allred, and Samuel’s parents, John and Phoebe (Thompson) Allred, are all buried at Liberty Cemetery near where the Bunch family settled at Dinsmore. There are many graves of the Bunch and Allred families in this cemetery, most of whom are relatives of Barack Obama.
Frances A. Allred, daughter of Samuel and Anna, was born in 1834 and married Joseph Samuel Wright. On Aug. 11, 1869, Margaret Bell Wright was born to Frances and Joseph. Margaret married Thomas C. McCurry in Chautaugua County, Kansas, on March 13, 1885. Margaret and Thomas McCurry were the great-great grandparents of Obama, and their daughter, Leona McCurry, married Rolla Charles Payne in 1922. Both Leona and Rolla were born in Kansas, lived there, and are buried there.

Obama’s grandmother, Madelyn Lee Payne, was born to Leona and Rolla in October 1922, and married Stanley Armour Dunham in 1940. Their daughter, Shirley Ann Dunham, married Barack Hussein Obama, Sr., in 1960 but they were divorced in 1963.

Their son, Barack Hussein Obama, Jr., was born on Aug. 4, 1961, and is now an Illinois senator vying for the U.S. Presidency.

Barack Obama still has many cousins in this area, including the Bunch, Holt, Combs, Hargis, Wright, and Stamps families. Further information on the genealogy of Barack Obama can be found at the Madison County Genealogical and Historical Society.
What stunned me about this is that Madison County is claiming Obama so proudly. OK, maybe when you are as obscure and generally insignificant as Madison County, Arkansas, you take fame where you can find it. But I've always associated rural Northwest Arkansas with great bigotry against African Americans. Indeed, Orval Faubus, the Arkansas governor who resisted desegregation of Little Rock's schools in what became the Central High School crisis and ultimately the case of Cooper v. Aaron, was from Madison County.

So, coming from there, this front-page news item was surprising. Maybe things have changed more than I realized in the 19 years since I left Arkansas, although I note that 80% of Madison County voters went for Hillary Clinton in the Super Tuesday primary. Maybe Obama would have improved on his 15% showing if folks there had known just a few weeks earlier that he is one of them.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

But how do they accommodate extra-curricular activities?

A story in yesterday's New York Times told of a "school bus on skis" that transports students from La Pointe, on Madeline Island in Lake Superior, to school two miles across the bay in Bayfield, Wisconsin. The story's angle is really about the curiosity of this one-off contraption called a windsled. Two local brothers designed and built it, and they also maintain and operate it. The windsled transports the students only for a few weeks each year -- the time falling between that when the ferry can run and when the ice is strong enough (thicker than 11 inches!) to support vehicles.

Although we are told that about 20 students are transported from LaPointe (year-round population: 250) to school in Bayfield, no mention is made of the impact that the remoteness of their homes has on their educational opportunities. Being tied to whatever transport the district can provide across the bay presumably impedes their participation in extra-curricular activities. It would seem similar to the challenges faced by students who are bussed long distances, as in the West. Perhaps students can work on the ferry or windsled better than on a conventional school bus, but transport time is often trapped time, unproductive. Also not mentioned is the quality of rural schools. Bayfield, a town of 611 in a county of 15,000, presumably has a pretty small school district. That, in turn, likely means fewer course offerings, usually a weaker foundation for tertiary education.

The good news is that, while transporting the students by windsled costs $21K/year and the ferry costs $30K a year, the district receives both federal and state support for its transportation costs. A half-million dollar grant from the Dept. of Transport supported the building of the windsled, and the state provides additional funds to the district so that it can bear these extra transport costs.

It may seem a high subsidy for educating 20 students, but unless we decide we don't need people (including young ones) living in our rural areas (and that we want our cities to be even more populous and sprawling), it's only appropriate for government to bear it. As the state senator who helped secure funding said, "if we pay for a yellow school bus with four wheels, then we ought to pay for this too."

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A set back for the exurbs, as economy falters

A story in yesterday's NYT tells of a housing slowdown in the "outermost exurbs" of Texas cities. The story focuses on Lavon, Texas, 25 miles northeast of Dallas, which had a 2000 population of 387.

According to journalist Leslie Eaton, the boom started just a year ago, with land values soaring and the population hitting 2,500. Now, however, the housing market has slowed dramatically, leaving the city, which had counted on continuing growth brought by a 5,000-home development, in a financial pinch.

The city's marshal and chief administrator, J. Michael Jones, doesn't seem to lament the growth, recalling the day when the city had no funds to repair roads and held "volunteer patching parties" to fix its then mostly gravel roads. But the housing bust has clearly had adverse consequences for Lavon's oldtimers, as well as its newcomers. The story quotes a local pastor regarding the number of families seeking emergency aid from his church. It's a mixed bag even for city marshal Jones, who lives in nearby Wylie (location of the closest Wal-Mart). He can't sell his home in Wylie in order to realize his dream: moving back to Lavon and its new "Grand Heritage" development of "turreted stone castlettes and modest brick bungalows." I wonder if others would like simply to return to the "good old days," when Lavon was, as Eaton writes, little more than a speed trap.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"feminization of the rural economy"

That line caught my attention as I was listening to NPR's "All Things Considered" during my drive time this evening. Two of my favorite topics -- women and rurality -- right there in the same story, indeed, the same phrase. Once I got focused on the story, I was intrigued to learn it was about Tajikistan and the phenomenon of vast numbers of men there migrating to Russia for work. Apparently one-seventh of the population regularly works outside the country, often returning home during the winter, when construction work ceases for a time. As an expert on the region explained, among other consequences, this leaves Tajik farms run and operated by women.

Coincidentally, just today, I was browsing through a book called Mama Learned Us to Work: Farm Women in the New South, about the role rural Southern women have played in U.S. agriculture since the turn of the 20th Century. Author LuAnn Jones observes how these women's critical roles have been overlooked by scholars who have relegated rural women to the margins, focusing instead on those who abandoned the farm for tobacco factory or textile work.

Jones's book was a reminder of my own family stories. During the Dust Bowl era, my maternal grandfather often left the family's rural Northwest Arkansas farm for months at a time for paid work in Kansas City or California. Meanwhile, my grandmother kept the farm and raised the kids. As Jones argues, these contributions by rural women have been rarely studied and mostly forgotten.

Today, Tajik women had their moment in the spotlight, albeit thousands of miles away in the United States. But are their contributions to Tajik society, their roles as solo parents and their sustenance of Tajik agriculture, acknowledged in their own land? And will they be remembered there?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

How the Candidates Fared in Rural Counties on Super Duper Tuesday

I'd been looking for some commentary on the rural vote on Super Tuesday . . . though admittedly not looking very hard-- more accurate to say I'd been waiting for some to come along. Today I decided to check out in some detail what happened in Missouri, where Obama beat Hillary by the closest of margins. Missouri is also of interest, of course, because it has picked every president but one in the last century. Turns out, Hillary carried the rural parts of Missouri and Obama the urban ones, along with Columbia, home of the the University of Missouri.

Reports on the Daily Yonder indicate that Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mike Huckabee carried the rural vote in many states. The Hillary part of this news is a bit curious to me, in part because the anti-Hillary quotient was very high when I was growing up in rural Northwest Arkansas, home to many Dixie Democrats. I wonder if Hillary enjoys the knock-on effects of rural voters' attachment to Bill Clinton or if, perhaps, rural voters tend to be more racist than they are sexist? Rural places tend to be characterized, after all, by racial homogeneity, with some exceptions in the South, where Obama did pretty well among rural voters in states like Alabama and Georgia.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Presidential candidates neglect rural and agricultural concerns -- even in delegate-rich California

In a post a few days ago, I noted Presidential candidates' neglect of "fly over states," such as North Dakota. Like other less populous (and therefore less delegate-laden) states, North Dakota hasn't attracted any candidate visits. Of course, there may be more to candidate-scheduling choices than delegate count. North Dakota is apparently a not very glamorous place to spend time making stump speeches and pressing the flesh. Neither, apparently, are regions of the big delegate prize on offer today: California.

A few mainstream media stories in the past week have focused on the candidates' neglect of more rural, exurban, and agricultural-oriented regions of the Golden State. One appeared in the NYTimes last week under the headline: "Sprawling, Diverse State Poses Special Challenges for Candidates." The story notes notes that California is sometimes considered a microcosm of the country, and it reports on some of the creative ways candidates have sought to reach voters in towns and cities where candidate appearances are not feasible. Like another story in a national media outlet, "Forgotten Valley" in yesterday's Chicago Tribune, the NYT story also provides illustrations of middle class economic woes and mentions immigration issues.

The Tribune story focuses in particular on California's Great Central Valley, home to some 6.5 million people and the fastest growing region of the state. While I knew the Great Valley was basically our nation's "breadbasket," and while I knew home foreclosures in Stockton were among the highest in the nation, I did not know that, with a per capita income of $24.5K and falling, the Great Valley is poorer than Appalachia. If it were a state, it would rank 48th in per capita income. Even with a population far exceeding that of North Dakota, no candidates have visited (although Bill Clinton appeared in Sacramento yesterday and in Davis a few weeks ago). Must be the lack of glamor ... or the fact that rural and agricultural issues get candidate lip service only in the run up to the Iowa caucuses.