White County residents today still recall the devastating tornadoes which swept across the state on March 21, 1952. In White County alone, according to local authorities, 46 people were killed and 615 injured while 658 homes and buildings were totally demolished and 831 damaged. One year later, the following account was published.
At 5:45 on the afternoon of March 21, 1952 – Black Friday it will be called always by residents of Judsonia – a series of tornadic winds concentrated their fury on this White County Community, leaving 33 persons killed outright, hundreds maimed and crippled, and more than half the dwellings and business houses totally demolished or badly damaged. Only an atomic bomb could have wrought greater havoc over one small area.
A year afterward, Judsonia is rebuilding, and has rebuilt, and the work of putting on new paint to hide old scars is a tough job. But these are tough people – tough, that is, in the sense that they are dogged and have implicit faith in God – and they will be eternally grateful for the help and encouragement given them in the form of outright financial awards by the people of the United States through the American National Red Cross. In White County alone – with by far the greater proportion of funds going to residents of Judsonia – the Red Cross made direct relief grants of $663,433.94 out of awards exceeding $1,500,000 in Arkansas and seven other states. These funds were awarded through the local White County Chapter, American Red Cross, which, with scores of chapters throughout Arkansas, had sprung into action within minutes after disaster had struck.
This sum was expended for the construction of new homes, individual business enterprises, household furnishings, hospital and medical bills, nursing and sanitation equipment, farm supplies, livestock and food, clothing and miscellaneous maintenance expenses. These sums were outright gifts. They were not loans or advances to be repaid. They were monies donated by the American people to help their neighbors when such help becomes necessary.
And what is Judsonia like today?
Here’s how Judsonia Mayor Ralph Van Meter, printer and publisher of the weekly White County Record, sums it up: "The gas and light companies have more connections today than they had before the tornado. New houses which have been built have facilities that some of the families concerned never had before. Those of our residents who left town following the disaster either have returned and have rebuilt or started to rebuild and those who have not yet come back have let us know they are going to do so.
"The American Red Cross," Van Meter said recently, "did a lot of good here. There wouldn’t have been half the houses built back that have been in Red Cross had not helped as they did."
John Henson , who is one of Judsonia’s leading citizens, says, "Everybody appreciates what Red Cross did here. Even those who didn’t qualify for assistance are grateful for what was done for their neighbors."
These are handsome statements from two men who because of their personal resources by no stretch of the imagination could have qualified for assistance from the Red Cross. Both of them, Van Meter and Henson, took enormous losses on their business investments and on their personal holdings, as a result of the tornado, but each is going ahead, rebuilding and investing funds in new business enterprises and generally setting an example of which the American people can be proud.
And what of the people of Judsonia who did need help? How do they feel, those whose homes and businesses were destroyed? Let’s take a sampling.
Here’s a family with several members located in different White County communities.
In Judsonia there was the Thomas Rollins family. Mrs. Rollins, killed in the Black Friday disaster, was a niece of Mrs. George Schug. Mrs. Schug had three sisters in Judsonia itself: Mrs. Paul Bennett, Mrs. Steve Thomas and Mrs. Lucy Siler. Each of these families suffered from the disaster in varying degrees.
In the Rollins family, Eva, the mother, and two infant children, Tony Lynn, aged three, and Julia Ann, two weeks old, were killed outright. Debbie Ann, 1 ½ years, was severely injured, suffering a skull fracture, brain injury and body contusions. A craniotomy and two subsequent operations had to be performed. Thomas Rollins, a veteran of World War II, and only recently discharged from a postwar re-enlistment, was not hurt. Not hurt, that is, physically. Less than a month out of the Army, he saw his wife, two of his children and his home -–the first real home he and his family ever had known together, though to be sure it was rented – obliterated, wiped out, never to be recovered. One child alive, and seemingly a hopeless invalid. It is a wonder that, today Thomas Rollins has gone back to his job, confident of the future, and with his head held high despite the misfortune that Nature has dealt him. His one surviving heir, Debbie Ann, after months of medical and surgical care, paid for by the Red Cross, is now living with her grandmother in Letona. She will recover. There is no need to tell what young Rollins, who is only 27 years old, thinks of Red Cross.
His aunt-in-law, Mrs. George Schug, and her husband and two children, George Phyllis, nine years old, and Anna Lou, 17, were fortunate in some respects, compared with others of Judsonia: they were not in their house when the tornado hit.
"We had started down to town to visit the Thomas Rollins’ and we stopped at the store to pick up some groceries. The sky was black as midnight. Anna Lou thought we should go to the community shelter, so we all piled in. The wind was blowing, hard, but we still didn’t realize how severe it was. I told George to go up and close the cellar door. We were all in the shelter looking at the sky and when George came back down the steps, he told us the door has disappeared. I looked up the steps, and our pickup truck, which had been parked right in front, also had vanished. Next morning we found it 40 feet from the front of the shelter.
"A few minutes after the twister had passed, someone stopped by and told us our house had been blown away. We stayed in the shelter all night. Georgia Phyllis spent the whole night praying. Next morning, a man came by and told us what had happened in the town of Judsonia, and in Georgetown and Bald Knob. Mr. Schug had cousins in Georgetown and I had three sisters in Judsonia, and a niece, Mrs. Rollins. The man told us Mrs. Rollins and two of her children had been killed. It was almost more than we could bear to think about. In a little while, another man poked his head down the shelter entrance and asked if the Schug family was there. I said, "Mister, if it’s any more bad news, don’t tell me. We’ve had all we can stand."
But the visitor was one of the friends from Harding College in nearby Searcy. All he wanted was to comfort the stricken family.
Today, the Schugs, with Red Cross assistance have built a new house, and it’s becoming home to them. It’s plain, as are most houses constructed with such award monies, but it’s functional and substantially built. The Schugs’ former house had been in Mr. Schug’s family for 47 years. There was nothing left of it but five floor boards and some piano wire – nothing distinguishable, that is.
Asked how she felt about accepting Red Cross aid, Mrs. Schug said: "I used to have pride about these things. We always wanted to give to others, but we never figured we’d need help ourselves. But on Saturday (March 22, 1952), we lost all that. We had nothing left; not even a dish towel. If it hadn’t been for the help of our gracious Lord, and the way in which the Red Cross and other folks turned to and helped us, we wouldn’t have been able to go ahead."
Mrs. Schug is typical of the attitude and character of Judsonia and its people. Her sisters, Leila Thomas and Lucy Siler, both were badly hurt physically, and their dwellings were smashed. Mrs. Thomas spent 18 days in a hospital, suffering from head injuries, contusions about the chest, broken ribs and arm and with several vertebra dislodged.
Mrs. Thomas’ main source of income was from five small rent houses. These were totally demolished, as was her own house. With Red Cross help, plus what measure insurance she had, she has today rebuilt three of her six houses to restore a small part of her income.
"Red Cross did us wonderful," Mrs. Thomas says. "They did Judsonia a lot of good. I don’t know how any of us could have recovered if it hadn’t been for Red Cross."
Yes, there are other stories, too, each one a little different, but each with heartache of greater or lesser degree and varying degrees of financial loss. All these circumstances have inter-related strains which have bound the whole community together and made each family an integrated, closely-bound part of the whole Judsonia family.
There are Esther Giles and Mary Henson, for example. Each is a beauty operator, and prior to the tornado each had her own business in her own home. Both these women lost their homes and their business. Today, they have joined forces and are partners in a new building on the main street of town. "If any good ever came out of a tornado," Mrs. Giles says, "this was it. We’re both very happy."
Melburn Chumley, a veteran like Thomas Rollins, has a brand new house between Judsonia and Bald Knob. Melburn’s lucky to be alive. He nearly was killed in the March 21 disaster. His wife, Lilly Mae, and three of his four youngsters, also suffered extensive physical injury. Red Cross paid their bills and rebuilt their house in its entireity. Melburn has at last been allowed to remove the steel brace from his neck, and has returned to his former work with a construction company as a foreman.
Not all cases in a disaster like Judsonia have unhappy physical connotations, even though damage to dwellings may have been extensive. Take the case of Charles Bauer, for example.
"Chuck" is assistant principal of the Judsonia High School and basketball coach. On the night of the storm he was sick in bed with a high fever. When the twister struck, his wife, his in-laws, and his small child were all in the bedroom.
"The whole house seemed to lurch first one way and then another," Bauer says. "All the furniture cascaded across the floor and pinned my father-in-law against the wall. Fortunately he wasn’t really hurt. I jumped from bed and told the folks to lie down on the floor. That’s what saved them, I guess, for the roof started caving in. There was debris everywhere. I got over my fever in a hurry, I can tell you.
"Mind you, we hadn’t heard a thing, but the house was collapsing all around us. The only thing that stopped its forward motion was a huge oak tree that had toppled into our living room. Then it was over. My wife said, ‘We’re ruined,’ but I pointed out that we were alive and that we had to go on."
The Bauers had no insurance and no income other than Chuck’s modest salary in the high school. Red Cross has rebuilt everything for them – stem to stern – has replaced much of their furniture, and carried them along in other ways when the high school temporarily went "out of business."
The high school itself was a scene of total destruction. Had the tornado struck a few hours earlier hundreds of students would have died in the rubble. Special help was needed by all the White County schools to replace equipment and books not covered by insurance and not subject to replacement by the state. This help, too, came through the Red Cross, in this case from a special fund set up by gifts of Junior Red Cross members throughout the country and called the National Children’s Fund. Maps, books, laboratory equipment, library supplies, amounting to $16, 269.94 in all, were given to the school children of White County by their friends in other schools throughout the nation.
Judsonia today is not a pretty place to look at. The jonquils still grow in profusion among the rubble of former homes and business establishments. There’s new paint trying to hide old scars, but some of those scars are too deep to obliterate.
Watch the people of this town on a late afternoon in March, 1953, just a year since the terror came from the sky, and you’ll see and realize the meaning of such terror.
Above the newly built Baptist Church, low-hanging, grey-black clouds scud across the sullen skies. It is humid, still. It is an ideal tornado setting. People emerge from their houses and gather at the entrances to shelters. Nearly every dwelling along Main Street and on the side streets has its own shelter, right in the front yard. Not very pretty, you say. But practical. For these folks have learned the hard way and they’re not about to be fooled again.
Judsonia used to be a community filled with sturdy oaks and lovely willows. They are no longer there. What is left standing resembles so many matchsticks, of a variety Paul Bunyon might have used.
There’s no nostalgia here. Only harsh memory. If, however, there is fear of the future, Judsonians aren’t letting anyone see it. They are going about the business of rebuilding their lives, their homes and their bodies – possibly with a weather eye cocked a little more carefully toward the southwest than ever before.
Most of all, the people of this community are grateful for what has been done to help them, grateful to the Red Cross and to the countless individual people who have helped them.
Possibly Chuck Bauer reflects their attitude as accurately as any of them:
"As long as the people of the United States have enough heart to give their dollars to help people in distress, to help their fellow men, we’ll always make it.
"If the time ever comes when we as a people feel that we don’t need to help each other, as far as I am concerned, that’ll be the end of everything."
This is Judsonia, 1953.
The White County Historical Society may be contacted at P.O. Box 537, Searcy, AR 72145.