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December 15, 2018
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History Minute with Dr. Ken Bridges

This article was published November 29, 2018 at 6:00 a.m.

Harvey Parnell’s rise to political power in Arkansas was almost accidental. He became governor in a time of growth and optimism. But when the good times evaporated with the Great Depression, he found himself unable to effectively move the state forward.

Parnell was born in the tiny Orlando community in Cleveland County in 1880. He was one of seven children in a farming family. He attended local schools, and in 1898, he moved into nearby Warren to complete high school. He began working as a store clerk until he graduated. He was the last Arkansas governor to never attend college.

After graduation, he settled into a quiet career as a clerk and a bookkeeper. By the age of 20, he started his own dry goods store. He made a good living, and eventually married and had two daughters. In 1904, Parnell bought some acreage in Chicot County and began farming on the side. In 1918, Parnell was elected to the state House of Representatives in a district that included all of Chicot County and rose to the state senate in 1922, representing both Chicot and Ashley counties.

It was the state senate that his career took a remarkable turn. As his first term was winding down in 1926, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled after a series of baffling lawsuits that the vote of the people creating the office of lieutenant governor in 1914 was legal, and therefore, the office existed. He quickly announced his candidacy, put together an almost unparalleled political machine from the allies he had collected over the years, and was elected almost without opposition.

As the first lieutenant governor in the state since Reconstruction, Parnell helped push through a modern highway construction bill favored by Gov. John Martineau. In March 1928, Martineau accepted an appointment as a federal judge, making Parnell the new governor. He called a special session of the legislature to address the new roads program, which approved $18 million to fund the new highways and $7.5 million in bonds to construct toll bridges.

Parnell ran for a full term and won a four-way primary. He won the general election that fall with 77% of the vote.

In the new legislative session in early 1929, Parnell pushed to modernize state services. A state income tax was passed in an attempt to relieve the property tax burden of farmers. With new funds available, Parnell commissioned new buildings for the School for the Deaf and opened a new psychiatric hospital. The state took control of the financially troubled Henderson-Brown College in Arkadelphia and began operating it as Henderson State Teachers College. In addition, the school year was increased to eight months.

That fall, the stock market crashed, heralding the beginning of the Great Depression. Problems Arkansas farmers had been facing only got worse. With their finances crippled by deflation, farmers also had to fight a devastating drought. As the Depression deepened, Parnell found himself overwhelmed by the magnitude of the crisis. All his powers of persuasion and organization failed him. Unemployment skyrocketed and farms failed. State revenues collapsed. The South Arkansas Oil Boom had already peaked and no longer had nearly the impact on state finances that it had a few years before.

With all the spending the state had done on infrastructure, there was almost nothing left. The state was now in danger of defaulting on the bonds it had passed. Over a hundred banking corporations collapsed in Arkansas in 1930 alone. With no idea of how to combat the crisis, he reluctantly began establishing commissions to study issues of unemployment, state spending, and highway construction. He urged residents to rely on charities for relief from the Depression. But with so many in such desperate situations, charities themselves struggled. With most blaming President Herbert Hoover for the Depression, Parnell nevertheless won re-election easily in 1930.

By the winter of 1930-31, approximately one-third of Arkansas families had to rely on Red Cross food relief – in a state where upwards of 80% of the people worked the land. Farm incomes fell to an average of $230 per year. By January 1931, angry Lonoke County farmers marched into England demanding food from local stores and quietly dispersed once they got it.

The state had no money to help the poor. Most of the state budget was locked up in paying off highway debts. Parnell cut the state budget 20% and insisted the state had turned the corner in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Amidst the situation, Parnell was increasingly accused of corruption from both election contests and his conduct as governor. He was never indicted for any misconduct, but with the economy stubbornly idle, his political career was over. He decided not to run for a new term in 1932.

Parnell left office at the end of his term in 1933 frustrated and turned the governorship over to the incoming Marion Futrell. He returned to Chicot County to resume farming, but President Roosevelt appointed him to serve as an administrator for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a Depression-era federal program that helped stabilize bank finances. He quietly worked for the RFC office in Little Rock for the next three years until his death from a heart attack in 1936.

•••

Children working in mines and factories was a common sight in the late 1800s. They worked for wages far less than those of adults in dangerous conditions and were forced to give up school to concentrate on work. The result was often another generation mired in poverty, bodies broken by labor they were still too young and too weak to perform, and the lost opportunities that youth and education could have provided for them. By the early 1900s, politicians began pushing to end the practice. In one of the most contentious humanitarian issues of the early century, Arkansas congressmen and legislators took the lead on banning children in factories nationwide, including favoring a proposed constitutional amendment.

Many states were pushing for a ban on children in factories. Even at the state level, Arkansas was one of the earliest to ban the practice. In 1914, under Gov. George Washington Hays, Arkansas passed a strict child labor law that banned children under 14 from working in factories. Though children routinely worked on farms, child labor was seen as more of a factory issue than a farm issue. In Congress, Senator Joseph T. Robinson had voted for a federal ban on child labor, the Keating-Owen Act of 1916. It was a popular piece of reform legislation, but corporations fought all the way to the Supreme Court to keep children working in their factories. The law was declared unconstitutional in 1918 by the Supreme Court. A second ban on child labor passed in 1919, again struck down by the courts in 1922.

The 1920 Census showed that more than one million children between the ages of 10 and 16 were working in factories and mines out of a total national population of 105 million. By 1924, taking inspiration from the passage of the 18th Amendment banning alcohol, activists pushed for a constitutional amendment to give Congress the power to ban labor by children under 18. Many constitutional amendments have been proposed but very few have been ratified. In fact, the Constitution has only been amended 17 times since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791.

Supporters of the Child Labor Amendment argued that children should be in school and not in the factories and pointed to the many injuries children suffered while working. The amendment drew wide bipartisan support. Robinson, along with Congressman John Tillman, a Fayetteville attorney, were among the most vocal supporters. Tillman passionately argued for ratification, declaring a need for one labor standard across the country. “The child is the same the world over, and should have the same protection in Louisiana as in Maine; the same protection in Florida as in California.”

The House of Representatives approved the amendment in April 1924 by a vote of 297-69. Of Arkansas’s seven congressmen, five voted for it. Only two, William Driver of Osceola and Otis Wingo of DeQueen, voted against it. In the Senate, Robinson helped lead the floor debate in favor of ratification. Both he and the state’s other senator, Thaddeus Caraway, voted for the amendment in June, which passed by a vote of 61-23. The next step would require its ratification by three-quarters of the states.

On June 28, Arkansas became the first state to ratify the Child Labor Amendment. The historic vote took place during a special session of the state legislature in which Gov. Thomas C. McRae sought funding for the state’s public schools. However, support for the amendment stalled, and Arkansas ultimately became the only state in the Deep South to ratify the amendment.

Only five states had approved it by 1927. The crushing economic pressures of the Great Depression revived interest, with supporters arguing that factory jobs should go to adults with children to support instead of children, and 20 states ratified the amendment by 1933. As part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to jump-start the economy, Robinson helped push through the National Industrial Recovery Act, a cumbersome program that had the effect of banning child labor in some industries. When the Supreme Court struck down the NIRA in 1935, more states were prompted to act on the amendment.

Twenty-eight states ratified the proposed amendment, with the Deep South and major industrial states like New York and Massachusetts rejecting it, leaving it eight states short for ratification. By this point in 1937, some 33 states had banned factory and mine labor for children under 14 and ten more for children under 16 and all but one state had some laws regulating child labor.

Child labor was finally banned by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, making the Child Labor Amendment unnecessary. A major social problem had ended in the process, allowing children to have safer lives and more opportunities through schooling. The Child Labor Amendment itself is still in a legal wilderness ten states shy of ratification, but advances in labor laws and children’s welfare have made what was seen as a necessity then into a historical curiosity.

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