Muskie Harris remembers the “Army men” entrenched just down the street from his house in 1957. He was 3 years old when federal troops were deployed to enforce integration of Little Rock’s flagship school, Central High. And let’s face it — for most little boys, it doesn’t get much cooler than a bunch of real, live Army men on the job just a stone’s throw from your house.
Of course, it’s tragic that the presence of the 101st Airborne was necessary at all. Harris was too young to appreciate the significance of what was happening. Roughly 15 years later, he became the first Black football player out of Central officially recruited and signed by the Razorbacks.
Harris, who now owns a drug rehabilitation services center in Little Rock, told me there were five Black players on the roster in ’72 when he arrived on the Hill. That number increased to 13 in ’73 and grew by a dozen in ’74. By ’75, the Hogs had 40 Black athletes on the team.
The only color that mattered to Harris and his teammates, he said, was Razorback red.
If you haven’t been to Oark in the mountains of Johnson County just north of Clarksville, it’s worth the trip. I hadn’t been since ’89 or ’90 when I covered a basketball game at Oark High School for the Southwest Times-Record in Fort Smith. The Hornets’ Nest still stands, and despite school district consolidation Oark still competes, these days in the 1A-4 conference against schools such as Nemo Vista, Western Yell and Mount Vernon. (Hopefully, they’ll get to start up basketball later this fall.)
Think Hickory, Indiana, the setting for the classic film, Hoosiers, one of the very few movies during which it’s OK for a man to tear up. But only smaller. That’s Oark.
Brian Eisele, a South Carolina transplant who I’d like to think roots for the Hogs when they’re not playing his native Gamecocks and who owns the Oark Café with wife and Johnson County girl, Reagan, has become something of an amateur local historian. The Eiseles, self-described former D.C. politicos who met on the job, have owned the iconic spot for eight years. Brian told me Oark used to be home to three busy general stores. He thinks there may be around 50 folks in Oark proper now, maybe 200 families in the vicinity.
The historic café still serves as a general store, the only one left, but it’s more restaurant these days. (The food alone makes the two-hour trip from Little Rock worthwhile.) And like many small businesses, it’s trudging ahead through the pandemic.
Check out Harris, the Eiseles and more inside this July issue of AMP. As always, shoot me any questions, comments, concerns or suggestions. I’m open 24/7 at MCarter@ARMoneyandpolitics.com.
— Mark Carter