I’m still at Magnolia Cemetery in Helena, Ark. You can find the graves of not one but two African-American legislators at Magnolia. Let’s take a look at their careers.
“Worthy of Emulation”
I sadly admit that my high school and college education didn’t cover much about Reconstruction (1865-1877). In researching William Henry Grey, I learned more about the era than I ever did in my younger days.
Here is Grey’s impressive monument at Magnolia. Just reading the list of his accomplishments on it is awe-inspiring. The Masonic symbolism represented here is also something you don’t see every day. I learned this week that the monument was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2019. There was nothing on or near it at the time of our visit to indicate that designation.
Grey was born in Washington, D.C. in 1829 to free parents. Despite having only a rudimentary formal education, Grey learned parliamentary procedure sometime before 1856 while he accompanied his employer, Virginia governor Henry A. Wise, to sessions of Congress.
In 1854, Grey wed Henrietta Winslow, who became the mother of his nine children. A member of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, he became an AME lay minister. The Grey family had moved to Helena by 1863 and operated a grocery/bakery business there.
In 1868, the first year that most of the African-American population could vote in Arkansas, Grey was among the eight African-American members elected to the second post-Civil War Constitutional Convention. He spoke eloquently on the convention floor more than 25 times, primarily on matters relating to African-American welfare.
Grey was admitted to the practice of law on July 6, 1869, but there is no indication he ever practiced as an attorney. Republican Governor Powell Clayton appointed Grey as clerk of the circuit court in Phillips County and ex-officio recorder of deeds for several counties in 1870.
Grey was elected to the Arkansas General Assembly. In 1872, as a delegate to the Republican National Convention, he seconded the nomination of Ulysses S. Grant, becoming the first African-American to address a national presidential nominating convention. Grey also served as the commissioner of immigration and state lands from 1872 to 1874.
While Grey was in New York in 1873 to supervise arrangements for Arkansas’s exhibit to be shipped to the World’s Exposition in Vienna, Austria, he suffered a stroke, forcing him to return to Little Rock.
In 1874, the Democratic Party regained the governorship and a legislative majority. The legislature immediately voted to hold a third post-war Constitutional Convention. When it was announced, Grey spoke out against it, anticipating that delegates would try to take away African-American citizenship rights. In 1875, he won a special election for a seat in the Arkansas Senate due to the passing of senator John Willis Williams.
By this time, the push for Jim Crow government was coming on strong. In September 1878, Grey suffered another stroke. In the 1880 U.S. Census, Grey is listed as paralyzed and he disappeared from politics after his state Senate service. He never recovered from his 1878 stroke, dying in Helena on Nov. 8, 1888.
Grey’s monument was erected seven years after he died on Aug. 13, 1895. I found a newspaper clipping announcing the unveiling at a meeting of the “colored Masonic Lodge” in Helena.
You can read the many accomplishments Grey achieved on his monument. I am puzzled as to why his 1875 Senate service is not listed on it. His epitaph truly moved me:
Up all the various graded steps
From Life obscure to Fame
Thou’st studied toiled prayed and fought
To leave thy race a name —
A name in legislature hall,
And high official station,
The highest in the mystic craft,
Worthy of emulation.
Having joined the St. John Masonic Lodge in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1852, Grey was named first Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Arkansas when it was established in 1873 as a merger of three different lodges.
Topped with a Masonic “G”, the third tier of the monument exhibits a simple anchor, which is a Masonic symbol and a Christian symbol of hope.
The fourth tier is engraved with a number of Masonic symbols. Starting on the left is a bell, followed by a pillar, topped by the sun. Next is an open book with the Masonic square and compass engraved on its pages topped by an eye with rays of light (likely the All-Seeing Eye of Horus). Continuing right is a second pillar topped by a crescent moon and surrounding stars. The engraving is completed with a ladder on the far right. All of these are known to have Masonic significance. Below all those symbols is a checkerboard foreground, also known to have Masonic significance.
I’m not going to to into what it all means but I’m sure if you asked a Mason, they could tell you.
I don’t know where Grey’s wife, Henrietta, or any of his children are buried, or if any of them are buried at Magnolia Cemetery. Records indicate that Henrietta remarried in 1889 to a John Bryant and continued to live in Helena according to a 1910 U.S. Census record. She disappears after that.
Elected Four Times to Congress
In my last post, I mentioned Cliff Dean’s blog “My Delta World” and thanks to him, I found out a great deal about another African-American legislator buried at Magnolia.
Born in Tennessee in 1853, Jacob N. Donohoo was likely the child of slaves. He moved to Arkansas in the 1870s to live with an uncle. Elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1877, Donohoo was its youngest African-American member. He was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives four times. In 1879, he married Mollie E. Owens in Helena. They had six children including two sons, Green and Jacob, and four daughters, Frankie, Laura, Fannie May, and Nina.
In addition to being involved in farming, operating a mercantile store, and editing a newspaper, Donohoo managed to practice law and advocate for education. Jacob also served eight years as deputy internal revenue collector under President William McKinley and was appointed for a third term under President Theodore Roosevelt.
Like his fellow legislator William Grey, Donohoo was also an active Mason. He was a proud member of the M.W. Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Arkansas, which still exists today.
Jacob Donohoo died at age 63 on Nov. 11, 1914 in Helena.
Mosaic Templars of America
You can barely make out the seal above Jacob’s name on his marker, my photo is not the best. It represents the fraternal organization known as the Mosaic Templars of America (MTA), a black fraternal order founded by John E. Bush and Chester W. Keatts, two former slaves, in Little Rock in 1883. The name of the organization, taken from the Biblical figure Moses who emancipated Hebrew slaves, elected the Templars’ ideals of love, charity, protection, and brotherhood.
The MTA originally provided illness, death, and burial insurance during an era when few basic services were available to African-Americans. Unlike most fraternal organizations of that time, the MTA had chapters for female members as well.
By 1905, the MTA had lodges across the state and thousands of members, several living in Helena. In the 1920s, it claimed chapters in 26 states and six foreign countries, making it one of the largest black organizations in the world. But by the 1930s, the MTA began feeling the effects of the Great Depression and ceased operations in America. One single chapter still exists in Barbados.
I am sharing a photo of the grave marker of Laura Blue, also an MTA member, so you can get a better idea of what the seal looks like. She died in 1920 due to complications from Bright’s Disease, a kidney disorder.
Thanks to the blog “Kathleen Maca: Tales from Texas”, I found out a lot more about these markers. According her, the MTA operated a monument department as early as 1911 that provided grave markers for deceased members. Operations were managed by the state jurisdictions until 1914, when the MTA created a national monument department to centralize operations and cut costs. Members paid an annual tax to finance the department, and were promised a marble marker. This reminds me or the tree markers provided to policy holders who paid an extra fee by Woodmen of the World during this same era.
Interestingly, I photographed two MTA markers at a cemetery in nearby (to me) Lawrenceville, Ga. several years ago and had no idea what it represented. Now I do.
I found a sad footnote to Jacob Donohoo’s life. His oldest daughter with Mollie was Nina, born in 1879. Helena’s 1909 business directory lists her as working there as a music teacher. By 1914, she had moved to Chicago, Ill. This newspaper article details her death at age 35.
There is a Find a Grave memorial for Nina as being buried at Magnolia but I did not see a marker for her when I was there. But I also didn’t look for it since I didn’t know about her when I visited. Regardless, I am sure Jacob and Mollie were devastated by the news.
Next week. I’m going to finish up with Part III by sharing the history of an African-American fraternal organization with roots in Helena, the Supreme Royal Circle of Friends.