Arkansas ACORN Leader, Walter Nunn

New Orleans    In the early 1970s, I used to run into Walter Nunn all the time. He and his wife were the primary leaders of the ACORN group in Oak Forest. He sat on the ACORN board in Little Rock and statewide in those days, but was always more of a back-of-the-room guy, than the voice at the front, running the meeting. He liked it that way. Working with Little Rock ACORN organizers, first Melva Harmon, and then Carolyn Carr, he liked being one of the team. Then he seemed a lot older than me, but reading his obituary, it turns out the gap was only a half-dozen years.

The Oak Forest neighborhood was the last redoubt before reaching University Avenue, which in many ways marked the borderland between the East and West in Little Rock in 1972, when we organized the area as part of ACORN’s Save the City community drives. We stumbled into Walter on the doors. He and a few others had been trying to put together a small neighborhood group. They immediately folded into ACORN to access full-time organizers and get the firepower for the issue galvanizing the area: blockbusting. Block after block we heard stories of the aggressive solicitation of homeowners being whipped into a frenzy to sell, because black families were increasingly buying into the area. Typical of the scheme, the various real estate agents would implore families to sell cheap before the home value dropped, and then turn around and sell high to African-American families wanting a stable, mixed neighborhood.

We won some weak language at the City Board of Directors language, condemning the practice, but it lacked any real bit. They weren’t willing in 1972-3 to embrace the pure racial exploitation involved. We had made the issue impossible to ignore though. We made signs that said, “This House is NOT For Sale – ACORN,” that families put up all over the area. Through a connection with a Los Angeles-based public media advocate and friend, Norman Seigelman, he produced public affairs spots that ran on local radio stations by Carroll O’Conner of the big TV hit, “Archie,” at that time, and popular movie stars in their prime, Jack Nicholson and Ryan O’Neil. It was a big deal.

I would see Walter regularly. Along with Martin Kirby, a former Arkansas Democrat reporter and some others, we put out a monthly newspaper for a bit. Walter was doing books through Rose Publishing, named after his wife at the time, specializing in Arkansas themes. I still have my copy of one of his big hits, a book of George Fisher’s memorable political cartoons. Things happened. Divorces. Moving to New Orleans in 1978. In the pre-Facebook era, it was easy to lose touch with people.

Going back to Little Rock more regularly the last 5 years between Local 100 and managing KABF, I quickly ran into Walter again, and it was as if we hadn’t missed a beat. I asked him to join the KABF board when it was being reorganized, and he did so, grudgingly, as a favor for a year or so, until the crisis ebbed. I met his son during the Occupy days, which was a nice closing of the circle. Walter did an interview about ACORN and the blockbusting campaign for the documentary, The Organizer, coming out now. He was on the board of the Arkansas Community Institute, one of the successor organizations, of Arkansas ACORN. He was an engaged community activist, who would never not answer the call.

Local 100’s Toney Orr and I saw him only days before he died. Briefly stopping by to see Senator Joyce Elliot and my sister-in-law out west, we walked out to find Walter eating lunch with a former cartoonist for the Arkansas Advocate. He had been at what he described as a seniors re-education camp at a church not far away learning some new computer techniques. We told old stories for a minute, and went on. I drove that night to New Orleans and flew out to Casablanca the next day. I replied to one of the ACORN Canada leaders the next day who asked on Facebook why I was heading to Casablanca and what was the deal on the Organizers’ Forum. Walter weighed in and commented that he had seen me the day before and was surprised that I hadn’t mentioned I was leaving the next day for Morocco.

It never occurred to me to do so, knowing that I would see Walter many, many times in the future. I didn’t mention Morocco, and Walter didn’t mention that he, my old comrade and friend, would be dead before I returned, creating a hole in my life and my history that can never be filled again.


Exploiting Immigrants Old School in Arkansas-Mississippi Delta

Ottawa   Almost every month for the last 3 ½ years I’ve driven through the Lake Village area of southern Arkansas and more recently back and forth across the bridge to Greenville, one way or another, as well. Along the lakeside past the fishing docks, the boat launches, the catfish and barbecue places I’ve often done a double take when I see Regina’s Pasta Shop, heralding the “Italian Tradition” on the banks of Lake Chicot, and thought to myself, “what in the world is that doing here” in the middle of cotton and soybean country?

The mystery was both solved and deepened as the layers of the answer to that question were revealed in an uncharacteristically long piece in The Economist of all places. The eyebrow, headline and sub-head of the story tell a lot of the tale in a spoiler alert. The eyebrow said: “Immigration’s forgotten history.” The headline was “Moses in the Ozarks.” The subhead was: “The ordeal of Italian labourers is a parable of race and migration in the Deep South.” The dateline was both Lake Village in the south and Tontitown in Ozarks of Arkansas near Springdale, the city now famous as the worldwide headquarters of Walmart.

The story starts in 1861 at the Sunnyside plantation owned by Elisha Worthington who shocked the local community not by fathering two children by a slave, but by recognizing them. After the Civil War the plantation passed hands several times ending up with Austin Corbin, described by the business-conservative Economist as “a robber-baron financier and railroad speculator, who, as a founding member of the American Society for the Suppression of the Jews, barred them from the hotel he built on Coney Island.” He couldn’t find labor so he imported families from Genoa, Italy through New Orleans and up the Mississippi River to Sunnyside on a land contract scam, where they bought acreage with sharecropping credit on future cotton crops. Many died. All of the Italians lived through terrible discrimination against them that was common at the time and well into the 1930s, highlighted by the infamous lynching of 11 Italians in New Orleans in 1891.

The “Moses” of this story was a Jesuit priest from Italy sent as a missionary to Native Americans in Montana and later assigned to New York to “minister to put-upon Italians,” as they write. He bought land west of Springdale, Arkansas in the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. Forty families ditched their land contracts and somehow traversed Arkansas in an arduous and lengthy journey. The pioneers founded Tontitown, named after Henri de Tonti, a 17th century Italian explorer. Despite the neighbors hostility, which included burning down the first Catholic church, Father Bandini was the “town’s teacher, band leader and first mayor, as well as its priest.” Grapes were imported and despite the poorer soil, the cooler temperatures led to a wine industry still present in the area.

As for the Sunnyside shame and scandal, the Justice Department sent an investigator down in 1917 who stopped the importation of Italian immigrants. Their footprints are deep though. There is a part of Greenville called Little Italy. Lake Village became home to many where churches and traditions survived. Discrimination also grew there from the Ku Klux Klan. On the receiving end of prejudice, as The Economist writes, “is a sort of shadow version of African-Americans’, the hardship milder and the ending sweeter.”

There are still modern lessons to be learned from the hidden history of places like these all around us.