History Minute: Charles Brough, Part II

Charles Brough, a Mississippi native and former professor at the University of Arkansas, became the 25th governor of Arkansas in 1917 in a time of change.

The early twentieth century was a time promising tremendous changes in the way that Americans worked and lived, and Americans were excited about what the future held.

Americans were calling for a modern system of government to keep up with the changing times. And Brough was ready to deliver.

He quickly enacted school reform measures in the state, creating compulsory attendance laws and expanding vocational education.

Brough enacted numerous other reforms. He created the Arkansas Corporation Commission in 1917 to oversee utilities in the state and pushed for a modern highway system in the state.

Though the highway plan was bogged down by financial problems and mismanagement at the county level, it did result in 2,500 miles of new highway being constructed. He also pushed through a law in 1917 allowing women to vote in state party primaries, where most elections in the state took place at the time.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Brough shifted the focus of his administration to the war effort. He went across the state to raise money for the troops and for the Red Cross.

He also created the State Council of Defense to help coordinate production to ensure the troops had all the supplies they needed.

Brough’s popularity was so high that the Republican Party did not even bother fielding a candidate against him in 1918, endorsing Brough’s re-election against Socialist candidate Clay Fulks.

Brough swept into a second term with 93 percent of the vote.

While he hoped that his second term would allow him to build on his earlier successes, the end of the war saw new challenges.

He attempted to push through a new state constitution, but the effort failed.

In 1919, the nation was hit with a major recession.

And in late September, Phillips County erupted into bloodshed as a race riot erupted in Elaine. An estimated 200 African-Americans were slaughtered by white mobs, but the death toll was possibly much higher.

Brough sent in the National Guard to restore order and appointed a special committee to study the slaughter, but the committee’s weak recommendations to prevent further riots were never acted upon, and the matter still haunts Phillips County to this day even as residents strive to rise above the massacre.

After his second term ended in 1921, Brough toured the country on the speaking circuit, promoting the state.

And it is Brough who is responsible for what is probably the worst Arkansas joke in history, one he repeated often in these speeches: “Did you know Arkansas is the only state mentioned in the Bible? The Bible says: Noah looked out the Ark-and-saw.”

In 1928, Brough spoke at the graduation at Central Baptist College in Conway.

So impressed with his performance, college trustees decided that he would be the perfect choice for the new president of the college.

Brough accepted, but he quickly ran into controversy. The country had taken a sharp reactionary turn since World War I, and Brough’s attempts to defend progress and reform were faltering.

He fought back against attacks by fellow Baptists against the 1928 Democratic nominee for president, Al Smith, for his beliefs as a Roman Catholic.

In addition, he supported the teaching of evolution in accordance with scientific standards, but fundamentalist Baptists howled their objections to the idea.

Within a year, Brough was forced to step down, but he soon found work as a promoter for the University of Arkansas.

He unsuccessfully attempted to run for U. S. Senate twice, the last time being in a 1931 loss to Hattie Caraway.

In spite of his lack of political success in his years after his governorship, he remained an enthusiastic personality and stayed active in civic causes.

In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to a special commission to help solve a dispute over the West Virginia border. However, just weeks after his work was completed in 1935, Brough suffered a massive heart

attack and died.

After his death, he was widely praised for the accomplishments in transportation and education he achieved for the state.


Dr. Ken Bridges, a history professor at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado, can be reached atkbridges@southark.edu. The South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society is dedicated to educating the public aboutthe state’s rich history. The SAHPS can be contacted at PO Box 144, El Dorado, AR, 71730, or at http://soarkhistory.com.


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