Charles Brough Leads Arkansas Through Progressive Era

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

The early 20th century was a time that promised huge changes in the way Americans worked and lived, and Americans were excited about what the future held as they clamored for a modern system of government to keep up with the times. changing times.

Brough was ready to deliver.

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

Brough also enacted many other reforms.

He established the Arkansas Corporation Commission in 1917 to oversee state utilities and pushed for a modern highway system. Although the freeway plan was bogged down by financial problems and mismanagement at the county level, it resulted in the construction of 2,500 miles of new freeway.

He also pushed through a law in 1917 allowing women to vote in state party primaries, where most elections in the state were held at the time.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Brough refocused his administration on the war effort. He traveled across the state to raise money for the troops and for the Red Cross. He also established the State Council of Defense to help coordinate production to ensure troops had all the equipment they needed.

Brough’s popularity was so high that the Republican Party didn’t even bother to field a candidate against him in 1918, endorsing Brough’s re-election against Socialist candidate Clay Fulks. Brough began a second term with 93% of the vote.

While he hoped his second term would allow him to build on his earlier successes, the end of the war saw new challenges. He attempted to pass a new state constitution, but that effort failed.

In 1919, the nation was hit by a major recession. And in late September, Phillips County erupted in bloodshed as a race riot broke out in Elaine. An estimated 200 African Americans were massacred by white mobs, but the death toll may have been much higher.

Brough sent in the National Guard to restore order and appointed a special committee to investigate the massacre, but the committee’s weak recommendations to prevent further rioting were never acted upon, and the case still haunts the Phillips County to this day, though locals strive to rise above it. the slaughter.

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 joke in Arkansas history, one he repeated often in these speeches:

“Did you know that Arkansas is the only state mentioned in the Bible? The Bible says, ‘Noah looked through the ark and the saw!’”

In 1928, Brough spoke at the graduation from Central Baptist College in Conway. So impressed with his performance, the college administrators decided that he would be the perfect choice for the new college president. Brough agreed, but soon ran into controversy.

The country had taken a reactionary turn since World War I, and Brough’s attempts to champion progress and reform were failing. He fought back against fellow Baptists’ attacks on 1928 Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith for his beliefs as a Roman Catholic. Additionally, he supported teaching evolution in accordance with scientific standards, but Fundamentalist Baptists howled their objections to the idea.

Within a year, Brough was forced out of office, but soon found work as a promoter for the University of Arkansas.

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

Despite his lack of political success in the years following his governorship, he remained an enthusiastic personality and remained active in civic causes. In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to a special commission to help resolve a dispute over the West Virginia boundary.

Just weeks after finishing his job in 1935, Brough suffered a severe heart attack and died. After his death, he was widely praised for the accomplishments in transportation and education he made for the state.

Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be contacted by email at [email protected]

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