Warren Family Connects African-American Heritage to Arkansas History

For a few seconds each day, time travel is possible in downtown Little Rock.

On a certain stretch of Second Street you find yourself transported into a long-gone era. A stately collection of columned houses of brick and wood, outbuildings and log cabins lines your pathway to the past.

Perhaps you’re too focused on your destination for the clang and smoke of the blacksmith’s shop to be anything but a fleeting distraction. Maybe you’re too intent on beating the light to catch more than a glimpse of the skeletal, split-rail fence zigzagging along the street.

But unlike the future, always in a hurry to arrive, the past is patient. History will wait. So, should you take a moment to circle back to this place out of time, you’ll find the pristine, 1800s-era buildings and the Historic Arkansas Museum waiting to tell stories dating to before the state’s founding.

And within the parameters of the museum and its work, you’ll find the intertwined stories of a family and its home state.

James “Butch” Warren, the veteran chairman of the Historic Arkansas Museum Commission, and his son Jonathan, an attorney and member of the museum foundation’s board of directors, are gearing up for the biennial Candlelight Gala fundraiser Nov. 4.

The fundraiser is the museum’s pressing task of the moment, but for the Warrens, an African-American family tracing its history to the territorial era, the museum represents a vital connection, and it provides a chance to ensure African-American history in Arkansas never again suffers the neglect it has faced in the past.

“My connection to the museum is to make sure that the ‘coloreds,’ the ‘Negroes,’ the ‘blacks’ and the ‘African-Americans’ are not forgotten in the telling of Arkansas history,” says James, the Historic Arkansas Museum’s first African-American chairman, who began as a volunteer nearly 33 years ago.

For Jonathan, the museum and especially the territorial-era buildings are a reminder of how far his family and so many others have come.

“I am humbled to be alive in a society where I can be anything I want to be. That said, I would not be where I am today without my ancestors, some of whom were slaves,” Jonathan says. “To be able to learn about Arkansas’ history and to see actual slave quarters and a pre-Civil War neighborhood on the museum’s grounds is amazing and humbling at the same time.”

Paintings and Teacakes

The dark-haired young woman — beautiful in a shoulders-baring white blouse with full sleeves — stares beyond the viewer, as if she can somehow see the role her descendants will play in the state’s growth.

The oil painting, done around 1855, is a Warren family heirloom donated by James at the behest of former museum executive director Bill Worthen and current director Swannee Bennett.

The artist is unknown and there is debate over the identity of the woman, though she is almost certainly a Warren ancestor. James says it is strongly suggested she is Annie Warren, one of the beloved slaves — perhaps a favorite — kept by Senator Chester Ashley.

“But which Annie Warren?” James says. “Was she the Annie Warren that was married to Rush Warren, my great grandfather, or was she the Annie Warren that was married to Nathan Warren?”

Nathan ran a confectioner’s shop in Little Rock and made teacakes that were wildly popular with the white society ladies. James will share cakes made from the jealously guarded family recipe at this year’s food-themed gala.

But was Nathan a great uncle or cousin?

Some birth records were lost or omitted when Nathan’s family Bible was transcribed, but other relationships are unclear because of a common oversight that lends urgency to James’ museum work and passion for history. Before 1865, few if any records were kept of African-American marriages because they might interfere with the slave trade. Birth records were also shoddily kept, making the handed-down tales vitally important.

“One of the greatest sins of slavery was not thinking enough of blacks to keep the same written records that were kept on whites,” James says. “If not for oral history, there would be no black history.”

Food & Family

Regardless of how the Warrens and their ancestors connect, the connection matters. Jonathan is one of three Warren sons who grew up with family and African-American history. He recalls childhood visits to the Historic Arkansas Museum with his father.

“My father is a very special person, and to learn from him in any capacity is something that I will always cherish,” Jonathan says. “There is a lot of Arkansas history that I have learned from my father, and sadly I did not learn any of this in any formal school environment.”

For James, sharing history and his beloved museum with his son is an assurance that the past lives and that the future will have to pay attention.

“I would say we have a very serious connection to all Arkansas history,” James says. “Not only were we here helping to make Arkansas into a state, but we were being a spectator to all of the history being made in Arkansas from the city side to the countryside. That’s about as well-rounded as you can get. And those history lessons and stories were told and told again and passed down from one generation to another.”

The Candlelight Gala is at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 4 at the Historic Arkansas Museum.
Tickets + Info: HistoricArkansas.org

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