Eighth-grade GEAR UP students from Clayton recently visited the Fort Smith National Historic Site in Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Students viewed a short film of the history of the area and the fort.
Following the film, students were led on a tour of the museum by Louanne Weir, volunteer with the National Park Service. The first stop on tour was the prison nicknamed “Hell on the Border.” Weir explained to the students that during the time of its use, the room held approximately 100 men year round with little ventilation and no running water. Prisoners drank from a small water barrel and slept, ate, and used the bathroom in the same space (sometimes for months) until their cases went to trial. Men who were awaiting trial stayed in the same area as those already convicted of everything from simple robbery to murder. Prisoners lived here until the spring of 1888. The prisoners were then moved to a newly-constructed jail thanks to Anna Dawes and the article that she wrote about the conditions that she witnessed at the prison when she traveled there with her father, Senator Henry Dawes, in 1885 calling it a “piece of medieval barbarity.”
Students continued their tour through the building upstairs to see many artifacts from the time including clothing, guns, pictures, and even a hangman’s noose from the time. Students walked through the rebuilt prison cells that housed prisoners after “Hell on the Border” closed. Prisoners were segregated into three levels of cells depending of what they were convicted. The jail cells were not pleasant, but still an improvement over the larger mass incarceration of everyone in one place that they had known before.
Students ended their tour in the Judge Parker’s courtroom where they sat in the trial area of the courtroom where the lawyers, defendants, jurors, court personnel and judge would have occupied during the time of its use. Students participated in a lesson in court procedure and the arrangement of the court, including who sat where and why. A law book from that period was opened, and students were allowed to turn its pages to see the same kind of book that would have been available during the period of the court’s operation. Students ended their time on the tour as well as in the courtroom with a question and answer session.
“I enjoy taking our students to the Fort Smith Historical site and having them take a short walk through history,” said Education Coordinator LaDonna Baldwin.
The field trip was sponsored by Eastern Oklahoma State College GEAR UP. Participating schools take two field trips each academic year—one to tour a college or university and one that is cultural/educational in nature. In 2017, Eastern received a $17 million federal GEAR UP grant and serves over 3,000 students in 39 area schools for seven years.