Harrison land owner celebrates removal of billboard considered racist

HARRISON, Ark. -- Carrie Myers' family has lived in Harrison, Arkansas for generations. She knows what this town used to be, but says she's also seen how far it's come.

The fourth Google result for Harrison is a link to an article that asks if Harrison is the most racist town in America. Keep scrolling and more articles about the Ku Klux Klan's affiliation pop up.

"It's just not right," Myers said. "That's not who we are. That's a small little minority that lives 15 miles away."

But Myers has seen why the perception persists first hand. A billboard she rented out has read "Diversity is code for white genocide" for years - until a $20 technicality gave her the ability to take it down.

"I praise the Lord to say the very least, because it was the answer to prayer," she said.

She went to a local law firm, Sprott, Golden & Bardwell, and they noticed that the person who rented the billboards hadn't paid a small bi-annual fee to hold the permit.

"[Myers] was very defeated," Kelsey Bardwell said of Myers' plea for help. "She had no idea when she leased this property to this person what kind of messages would be going up."

Bardwell helped amend Myers' lease template to include protection against hate speech so that this won't happen to her again, but the larger problem persists for Harrison. Outsiders think the town is stuck in a bygone era. Their leaders ask for open minds.

"It's more of a perception that our community has," Mayor Dan Sherrell says. "I'm going to say it's an internet perception. That perception is nowhere near true. I tell everybody come to Harrison. Come to Harrison and make your own perception of Harrison."

There's a conscious effort to combat that perception. Patty Methvin, CEO of the Harrison Chamber of Commerce, also leads the city's task force on race relations.

"We are not the anti-Klan, we are just the pro-Harrison," she says. "We want people to know that we are not a racist community."

Their work over the past 15 years includes educating the town and promoting a positive message. They bought an advertisement in a local paper in 2006 that included signatures from residents promising to take a strong stance against racism in town. They've also won an award from the Arkansas Martin Luther King Commission, and are currently getting signatures to send to Charlottesville in support of that community after violent demonstrations there last month.

"You'll find the citizens of Harrison are very aware of how they speak and the things they say," Methvin said. "We have to do more than anybody else unfortunately - or, maybe, fortunately, because it makes us a better community because we're so aware of how other people may feel when they come here, so we try to go above and beyond to make people feel welcome."

There is still another racial billboard in town, which promotes a white pride media group. Mayor Sherrell wants that to come down too.

"It will help our community tremendously because when people are coming to visit or driving through they see it and this office has had phone calls on it."