Photo by Liz Chrisman for ABOUT the RIver Valley magazine.
This piece was written in partnership with ABOUT the River Valley magazine and the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action. You can view the original article here. We write a feature piece each month for ABOUT the River Valley. Want to subscribe to this magazine? Go here. Your subscription helps support our work!
The River Valley Progressive Men’s Club dates back to the mid 1980s when a group of river valley men began informally meeting in Russellville to celebrate Martin Luther King Day. “Back in that time frame Martin Luthur King Jr. Day wasn’t being recognized in Pope County,” explains Vice President Rick Colclough. “A lot of companies didn’t offer the day off,” he adds, and so many relocators (himself included) and River Valley natives began taking a personal day to come together and observe the importance of MLKs’s legacy. “We’d fire up the grill, cook burgers, steaks and hot dogs and reminisce and reflect,” he explains.
As more African American families moved to the community the informal event grew, and by 1988 the group decided to open up their event to the public. “It was out of our pocket and it was simple,” Colclough recalls of those early gatherings. “One or the two guys worked at Dow Chemical Plant in Russellville and they had a pavilion we could use. We opened our doors to the community and had a few people that spoke and a few choirs that sang,” he explains. The turnout was large and community members were thankful to have a space to honor the holiday with others. “And it just kept growing from there,” Colclough says. For a while they hosted the event at the Dardanelle National Guard Armory and then later at the Russellville Armory. Eventually the event grew so large they began hosting it at the Hughes Community Center in Russellville where it continues until today.
What started out as an informal community wide celebration quickly grew into fraternal organization with a wide ranging influence in the community. “We just grew the group from the grassroots,” Colclough explains. “We don’t have ties to or influence from other organizations,” he adds, noting what he calls a “pull your bootstraps up” style organizing approach. Today the River Valley Progressive Men’s Club not only seeks to educate the public about the ideals of Martin Luther King Jr but also to provide community services targeted toward area youth. Such activities include youth including mentoring, assisting with tutoring, supporting church, band, football and basketball camps, and helping area families in need.
One of the club’s biggest outreach programs is the $2,000.00 worth of scholarships they give away each year to area high school students entering college. The first scholarships were given away in 1992 and community-wide support for the program has grown greatly since those early days. Students can attend colleges near or far and recipients have used their scholarships to attend universities from Arkansas Tech to Harvard Law School.
Today the organization raises money for four scholarships, three of which are named in honor of charter members and/or well known community members. Both the William E. Kellybrew Academic Scholarship and Eddie Colen Jr. Academic Scholarship focus on academics while the Corliss Williamson Athletic Scholarship is targeted toward area athletes. They also offer a general River Valley Progressive Men’s Club scholarship. All of the scholarships are for 500.00 each and require a competitive application process.
Colclough says that while the amount of the scholarships can not cover all of the student’s costs they can make a vast difference in the lives of area young people who need help securing books and making payments toward their education, especially students who may not have access to financial resources. The application process takes into account a variety of factors including academics and community involvement. But the focus on the scholarships, explains McCullough, is about making sure students with the greatest needs are supported by their community. Colclough says past recipients regularly report what a difference the scholarships have meant in their lives and often return to speak at the annual MLK Day events. Colclough mentions a recent speaker, Carmen White, one of the first scholarship recipient who graduated from Baylor and later attended Harvard Law School. She now works as an attorney in Dallas. Colclough says it’s inspiring to see young people return to the club’s events and speak about the ways in which the scholarships opened doors.
The Martin Luther King Day events are always free to the public and feature the group’s locally famous BBQ. It was actually the success of this BBQ, says Colclough, that first gave the group the idea of raising money to give back to the community. “We kinda figured out people liked this stuff,” says Colclough, laughing. “So, let’s see if we can sell it,” he says. They began selling the meat and fixings at regional festivals like Yell Fest in Dardanelle and Pickle Fest in Atkins as well as holding once a year events held at area stores in the river valley. To help offset the costs of the food prep they receive support from Kroger, Con Agra, Coco-Cola and a handful of other corporate sponsors. People in the group also make donations for the supplies, allowing their BBQ sales to generate more revenue for the scholarships and community programs.
All the men in the organization help cook the meat but it’s founding member Stephen Pearson’s sauce that makes their BBQ famous. “We have one recipe,” Colclough laughs, “and Steve won’t tell us what it is,” he explains. “We’ve been trying to get it out of him for years,” he adds, noting how one year they tried to get Pearson to itemize his ingredient list for reimbursement. “He makes gallons of this sauce,” Rick explains, “and so we tell him, “Okay, Steve, we’re gonna pay for this sauce but we need you to tell us what the ingredients are,” Rick says, laughing. “He won’t itemize them. He’ll just say, “Here’s the total price.” We tried to get it out of him, but he won’t give it up,.” Colclough laughs.
In recent years the group has grown to host other events, including the Autumn Ball, an evening event held each November. A fully catered formal event held in Russellville, this celebration also helps raise money for the organization’s work. But the MLK Day celebration remains the group’s most popular community event, attracting people from all around the region and bringing together former scholarship recipients living both near and far. The event features a large cookout with the group’s famous BBQ, pies and cakes made by volunteers, as well as guest speakers and musical selections from the choirs at New Prospect, Unity Baptist and Pilgrim Rest churches “It’s for everyone,” Colclough says of the yearly event, “and is a way to recognize Dr. King’s accomplishments and how far we’ve come as people,” he explains. “Not just black people, but as a people in general.”
When asked what changes he’s seen in the organization over the years, Colclough says he’s seen the support grow, noting the impact the club’s visibility has on both youth and older members of the community. The impact, he says, “isn’t about a tangible thing or a dollar amount,” he stresses, but rather about the connections built within the community. Quick to downplay his own role and to call attention to the work of other early founders like Freddie Green, Roger Hudson, Obie Woods, and Steve Pearson, he says he’s proud of the influence the club has had in the lives of area families and youth and the ways in which the club plays a large role in the community.
The club meets the first Sunday of each month at the Cunningham Learning Center on Atkins. All donations made to the organization are tax deductible.