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The Tornado of 1947: Unity in a Hurting Community

Seventy-seven years later, June 1st is still one of the most harrowing days in Pine Bluff history as an F4 tornado swept through Pine Bluff. Though the city was still largely segregated, the relief efforts were fully integrated as locals banded together to care for their hurting community.

Seventy-seven years have passed, but June 1, 1947, remains one of the most harrowing days in Pine Bluff history. At roughly 4 p.m. an F4 tornado (winds between 207 and 260 miles per hour) struck the city of Pine Bluff, Union and four other townships south of Pine Bluff without warning. The tornado’s path was 20 miles long, varying from a few hundred yards to several miles in width. Its path stretched from Watson Chapel to Atkins Lake in Jefferson County to Ladd and dissipated near Star City in Lincoln County. Union received the majority of the storm’s force.

Pine Bluff historian James Carter Watts compiled details from his father Thomas Watts, a full-time railroad worker and a respected part-time photographer, whose photographs of the after effects have appeared in books and newspapers about the disaster. Some of the following details are excerpts from that article.

Mayor George Steed was in Oakland Park (now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park) when the tornado touched down. He followed the first ambulance and was among the first on the scene. Steed later left the scene to join Alderman Guy Goodman in directing emergency response and relief efforts. Many Pine Bluff citizens from churches, veterans groups, civic organizations, and businesses gathered at city hall to lend their assistance to the rescue efforts. The Pine Bluff Commercial, several other local businesses, and First Baptist Church quickly joined together to establish a local relief fund. 

After the tornado, the rescue efforts were fully integrated even though Pine Bluff was still largely segregated at the time. Doctors, nurses, and rescue officials were rushed to the area as trucks, taxis, and automobiles were turned into ambulances to transport the injured to Davis Hospital (the predecessor of Jefferson Regional Medical Center) on Cherry Street. Local taxi companies donated the services of their cabs and drivers. Though Pine Bluff’s two cab companies were segregated, designated for white or black passengers only, immediately after the storm it made no difference what the color of the taxis’ drivers or passengers were. 

Davis Hospital temporarily integrated their facility for black and white patients. 

Many of Pine Bluff’s injured citizens drove themselves to the hospital or received rides to the hospital from neighbors or passersby as the whole town banded together to care for the injured. All the injured citizens received preliminary care and injury analysis as they were processed based on the severity of their wounds and not the color of their skin. As a result, about 15 people listed as missing during the initial rescue operation were discovered in the hospital or by neighbors in fairly good physical condition.

The Red Cross allocated $20,000 for emergency relief efforts in the area and brought tents to house the town’s people. Temporary shelters were quickly organized at civic and community centers to house the injured and homeless citizens. Many chose to go back to their wrecked or demolished homes to be near their possessions and rebuild. 

Many of the storm’s survivors chose to remain in Pine Bluff and rebuild their homes, while some re-established their lives elsewhere. For a generation or two after the storm, the community wrestled with a sense of loss and insecurity. The storm-affected area has since experienced a great deal of growth and other positive changes. 

Times have changed since then. Currently, we have a select number of people who are known as “storm chasers” who aid in predicting and identifying tornadic activity. We also have advanced warnings from weather channels and reliable severe weather radios for the home. Most of us carry around a warning device commonly known as a cell phone. 

In 2019, when an F1 tornado hit Pine Bluff, fewer properties were damaged, and no lives were lost as emergency workers from Pine Bluff, White Hall, and Jefferson County rushed to the scene to join together to assist in the rescue efforts - much like the Pine Bluff community did in 1947. 

The 2024 tornado season finds us with around 300 confirmed tornadoes to date here in the United States. We are thankful to be spared thus far in Pine Bluff, but our hearts, thoughts and prayers go to our fellow Arkansans recovering in Rogers, as well as those across the US where loss of lives and devastation has taken place. Please stay alert to the weather conditions.


Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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