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The George Berry Washington Memorial was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on August 11, 1994.

George Berry Washington Memorial

Summary

The George Berry Washington Memorial, located north of Earle on Highway 149, is the sole extant historic resource associated with George Berry Washington, a successful African-American landowner, farmer, businessman, and preacher. It is also the sole example in Earle and all of Crittenden County of a sculptural funerary monument.

Elaboration

George Washington, Jr., was likely born into slavery, the son of George Washington and Hanna Washington, on December 25, 1864. His parents were both born in Kentucky and were possibly the slaves of James G. Berry, one of Crittenden County’s largest landowners who moved to Arkansas from Kentucky as early as 1833.

Little is known about his early years, though census data lists his occupation as “laborer” in 1870 and 1880. In May 1883, Washington — who now went by the name George Berry Washington — married 18-year-old Ella Rostelle. They had a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1886 and a second daughter, Irene, in 1891. In 1897, Washington married a second time (no information survives concerning the fate of his first wife); his new bride was 25-year-old Lula Wright of Tennessee.

George Berry Washington began his rise to becoming the owner of one of the largest landowners in Crittenden County with the November 1893 purchase 40 acres in Section 15 of Township 8 North, Range 6 East, for $200. In 1898, he acquired an additional 70 acres, and also operated a cotton gin. By 1900 he had increased his landholdings to a total of 176.63 acres worth $1,140. In addition, he owned 15 cattle, 10 horses and mules, 10 hogs, a pair of carriages or wagons, and a gold or silver watch. “Washington’s growing status as a landholder was becoming evident, as of the 2,008 farms in Crittenden County at that time, only 102 were equal to or larger in size than his own.”

By the turn of the century, Washington and his family lived where the Tyronza River meets Gibson Bayou in an area that became know as the “Main Place” and where the George Berry Washington Memorial is now located. His holdings at the “Main Place” eventually contained a total of 518.20 acres.

By 1905, Washington owned 477.30 acres worth $2,760 and had personal belongings valued at $1,490. By 1911, he owned 923.53 acres worth $10,690. “The size of Washington’s land holdings (at the time of the 1910 Census) placed him in the very top level of the county’s landowners as only eight other farms equalled or exceeded his in size that year.”

Two years of bad weather in 1912-13 forced Washington place all of his land up for collateral for a $12,000 loan in 1914; however, good crops in 1915 allowed him to increase his total acreage to 1,006.08 and purchase a pianoforte for his living room. In 1917, Washington’s personal assets totaled $2,710 and he purchased an automobile.

Washington paid off his 1914 loan in 1921 and increased his total holdings to 1,042,71 acres worth $17,780; he bought a second car in 1925. His land acquisitions peaked in 1927 at a total of 1,145.08 acres valued at $20,900.

Washington’s major holdings, in addition to the 518.20-acre “Main Place,” were the Chatfield Plantation with 146.18 acres, the 160-acre Marriman Place, the 20-acre Harding Place, and another 160 acres at the Dunning Place.

Washington managed part of his vast holdings through the share-cropping system, with 12 chattel mortgages in 1923. It is likely that he also employed from 60 to 100 other hands to farm other sections of his property. “Even though no records exist from his farming operation, the presence of such a sizeable work force alone would indicate the extent of his farm’s economic activity.”

The Washington Plantation featured a rather modest one-story frame house for the family, a commissary store, and a cotton gin that reportedly exploded in the 1920s, causing two deaths, as well as numerous outbuildings, tenant houses, and related structures. None of these are currently extant, however.

George Berry Washington’s status as a large property owner was mirrored not only in his extensive personal belongings, but also in his social activities. He became a member of the local Prince Hall Freemasonry chapter and bought land in 1902 with two other individuals and Tyronza Lodge No. 197 in Norvell, the black residential area north of Earle, possibly as a lodge site. The extent of Washington’s Masonic activities is unknown, but a masonic emblem embellishes the front of his funereal monument.

He was also active in several local churches. He served as a preacher at St. Peter’s Baptist Church, located a few miles north of the “Main Place,” and at the Spring Hill Church three miles east of his home. He also was known to engage in preaching sessions to farm hands gathered at his home. Washington deeded five acres in 1919 for the Gibson Bayou Cemetery and Pentecostal Church Association. The title “Rev.” also appears on his monument.

Early on the afternoon of August 30, 1928, Washington became ill and collapsed. By 3 p.m., he was dead of “acute gastritis.” He was buried September 2, 1928 on a mound at the “Main Place” where “his wife could keep watch on him” from their family home.

Elizabeth Washington attempted to continue the farming operations in 1929, but the advent of the Great Depression that year forced Lula Washington and her stepdaughters to borrow nearly $28,000. They defaulted on the loan and, on March 7, 1932, Prudential Insurance Company of America sold the “Main Place” at auction to satisfy the 1929 note. “With the sale of these lands, the George Berry Washington farming enterprise ceased to exist.”

George Berry Washington rose from humble beginnings as a laborer and the son of slaves to become one of the most successful landowners and farmers in Crittenden County. As the last extant historic resource associated with this remarkable businessman, the George Berry Washington Memorial is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion B.

The George Berry Washington Memorial is also eligible under Criterion C as the best example in Earle and, in fact, all of Crittenden County of a sculptural grave marker. A state-wide survey of outdoor sculpture conducted by the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program revealed only four sculptures in the entire county and the George Berry Washington Memorial was the sole example in the county of sculptural funerary art. Its graceful angel, clasping a single flower in its hand, also inspired noted Delta artist Carroll Cloar, an Earle native, to produce a painting titled “Angel in a Thorn Patch.”

The George Berry Washington Memorial meets the requirements of Criterion Exception C, regarding birthplaces and graves, by virtue of its status as the last standing structure of any kind associated with Washington, a man with outstanding importance within his local area, and his myriad activities in and around the “Main Place.”

It should also be noted that, while this nomination does not address Criterion D, the George Washington Berry Memorial is located on a site that was an occupation locus during the Late Archaic, Woodland and Mississippian Periods; it also contains evidence of Parkin Phase occupation. Future archeological investigation would probably supply sufficient evidence to justify the nomination of a larger area surrounding this sites for its prehistoric cultural significance.

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