A 1923 race riot in the community of Catcher, Arkansas led to an exodus of Black families

Ty Thompson
Press Argus-Courier
Effie Latimer, left, was murdered in 1923. Charles Rucks, center, and Son Bettis were implicated. Latimer's murder sparked a race riot in Catcher that resulted in the exodus of Black families in the community southeast of Van Buren.

The assault and murder of a white woman sparked a race riot in the small town of Catcher near Van Buren on Dec. 29, 1923, that ended in the death of an innocent Black man, two death sentences, and the exodus of Black families from the community.

Catcher was situated about 4 miles southeast of Van Buren and had a large African American population.

Although the incident is commonly referred to as the Catcher Race Riot, it did not see as much death and destruction as was experienced in Tulsa in 1921 or Elaine, Arkansas in 1919.

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On Dec. 28, 25-year-old Effie Latimer was shot in the back and hit over the head with the gun. Latimer, a white woman, was found unconscious on the ground when a friend came to visit her that afternoon. She gained consciousness long enough to tell a doctor that she recognized her shooter as Son Bettis, a local African American farmer, adding two other men were present, though she was not able to identify them.

Bettis was immediately arrested and placed in jail where he denied any involvement, stating that he was picking cotton around the time that Latimer would have been shot. 

A sign for Catcher Road is one of the few visible traces of what was once a large community of African Americans called Catcher southeast of Van Buren. A late 1923 race riot drove off about 50 Black families from Catcher, many of whom owned land, and never returned.

The following day, two more men were arrested. Charles Spurgeon Rucks Jr., 26, and John Henry Clay, 14, were taken into custody in connection to the murder. According to newspaper reports at the time, Deputy Sheriff W.A. Bushmaier said Rucks had confessed to the murder, but according to the case files that never happened. 

"I do not think these three men were the murderers," Michael Anthony, a doctoral candidate at the University of Arkansas, said this week. "I will say, it is far more common for a spouse to kill their wife after a dispute in the house."

Anthony referenced the fact that Latimer's husband had left the home six days prior, taking half of everything.

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On Dec. 29, a mob of an estimated 500 white citizens surrounded the Fort Smith jail where the men were being held and demanded they be handed over. The men were quietly moved from the jail and sent to Little Rock where they would await trial. 

At the same time, a number of people had made their way to Catcher and began threatening the Black residents, defacing the local cemetery and digging up the remains of some buried there to burn them. 

Charles Rucks Sr., father of the accused, was killed during the riot. Newspapers at the time said he was resisting arrest, but Anthony believes it was a lynching.

"After the white community tried and failed to lynch Bettis and Rucks in jail they seemed to turn to their families," Anthony said.

The occupation of Catcher lasted several few days. On Dec. 30, 11 Black men were arrested and charged with night riding, which is an act of violence and vigilantism performed at night and typically in disguise. 

Jay Richardson, a Sebastian County state representative, has a great-grandfather that was part of the group accused of night riding.

Richardson knew about what happened in the Catcher area for most of his life but didn't know he was connected until he looked into it more. He got together with Anthony, and more was discovered.

"My family owned some land over there during that time," Richardson said. "They were part of the main group who was identified."

Richardson said that his great-grandfather was killed during the riot, but does not have enough information to determine how it happened.

The 11 men were hiding in a log cabin when the group that was terrorizing the town found them. Gov. Thomas McRae allowed a few men access to a machine gun from a local company in Ozark.

Once the men in the cabin learned about the machine gun they surrendered and were found with two shotguns and a small amount of ammunition. After their arrest, they were sentenced to one year in jail on counts of night riding.

Notices were placed around Catcher threatening the Black community to leave within the next five days or "face the consequences."

Around 50 families left Catcher, many of whom owned land, and never returned.

On Jan. 4-5, 1924, Bettis and Rucks were tried separately for murder. They were convicted and sentenced to death by electrocution that occurred on Feb.15, 1924. The trial was expedited under Act 258 of 1909.

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According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas website, Act 258 of 1909 was a law intended to prevent citizens from engaging in lynching. Instead, it aimed to expedite trials relating to particular crimes in order to render what would likely be a death penalty verdict to mollify the local population enough that they would not take the law into their own hands.   

The strongest evidence against the two was the very detailed statement of the crime allegedly offered by Clay.

According to a prison file at the time, Clay was mentally slow and unable to read or write. However, the statement attributed to him was very detailed and he later retracted it when questioned by his attorney.

Clay was sentenced to hard labor at the state penitentiary for the rest of his life. In 1928, he was found dead from exposure in a field near a Cummins prison camp in southeast Arkansas. 

"The digging up of Black cemetery graves and the burning of those bodies seemed to embody the racial cleansing that was occurring not just physically but also metaphorically," Anthony said. "The white community was literally trying to destroy all traces of the Black community that had lived there."

Like many stories from this time including the Tulsa race riot and the Elaine Massacre, the story of the Catcher riot is not well known by the general public. 

"I think there were a lot of things like this around the state that people aren't aware of," Richardson said. "By design, those things weren't publicized or made available for historical purposes. That's unfortunate because history is a benefit to all of us."

As Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the emancipation of slaves in the United States falls on June 19. Richardson said that it gives them a day to celebrate, in his opinion the true freedom of America.

"We celebrate independence for similar reasons, but for African Americans, this is truly our independence day," Richardson said.