Harrison mayor signs Black History Month proclamation

HARRISON, Ark. - The Harrison Community Task Force on Race Relations said this is the first time they can remember the city proclaimed February as Black History Month.

"Harrison is I think has been very progressive, especially these past years, trying to do a better job of letting everyone know that they respect people of all backgrounds. And that this is just another way of saying to a specific group, African Americans, that yes we do recognize the importance of black history," said Kevin Cheri, a member of the task force.

Layne Ragsdale, the public information officer for the task force, said Harrison has a bad rap when it comes to the perception of racism in the community.

"When minorities think of moving to Harrison or think of passing through Harrison, they get on the internet and they look, and there's concerns," she said.

But the mayor said the city is constantly working to change that perception.

"It's my opinion that because of the microscope we've lived under for so long, Harrison is probably the most non-racist small town in America," said Mayor Jerry Jackson.

Kevin Cheri said he lived in Harrison in 1978 as a Buffalo National River park ranger. It was his first job.

"I was the first black employee to ever be hired in this area," Cheri said. "And during that time there were actually death threats against me because people were not ready for a black person to be in this area."

But years later Harrison formed its task force.

"The task force has been operating for the last 15 years to work to provide better information, provide the truth of Harrison as we know it, and to prove it's a warm and welcoming place for all," Ragsdale said.

Cheri said in 2007 he came back to Harrison with his family as superintendent of the Buffalo National River.

"While I knew my history of the past, I was able to talk to a few folks to find out whether things had changed much, and I learned that yes, this town has gone through significant change," Cheri said. "There's just much more diversity present."

He recently was awarded the 2019 Trail Blazers award by the Arkansas Martin Luther King Commission on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

He is also on the task force and said the community is constantly working to be proactive.

"It started out as a group of white people around the table dealing with the issue of racism, and the perception of racism within the area. And they instead of sitting back, even when encouraged by their neighbors not to bring it up or not to talk about it because it might make it worse, stayed positive, stayed proactive, and said no we need to talk about it if we're going to effect change," he said.

"We aren't waiting for Ferguson to happen or Charleston," he said. "We are talking about these things, looking at ourselves, and seeing our own faults and failures. But also seeing our opportunities to educate ourselves."

The task force is sponsoring a free showing of Hidden Figures at Lyric Theatre on Saturday at 7 p.m. in honor of Black History Month.