In late 2006, the U.S. Marshals Selection Team arrived in Fort Smith to measure it against Staunton, Va., the other finalist among 60 American cities hoping to land the U.S. Marshals Museum. After sizing up the city and its people for a couple of days, they stepped into a huge meeting room at the Holiday Inn, greeted by over a thousand people, a marching band, thunderous applause, and chants of “Bring It Home.”
Paul Rainwater, program emcee, asked members of the audience to take the microphone and tell of their connection to the Marshals. What followed were heartfelt intergenerational stories of long-gone deputies who had served under Judge Parker in the Indian Territory. Even descendants of outlaws stood and told their stories to a rapt audience. Although weeks passed before the formal selection was announced, the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) had come home — to its sacred ground.
The Fort Smith community asked to be selected to have the nation’s first, and only, U.S. Marshals Museum. After seeing their enthusiasm, USMS Director John Clark answered: “Yes.” Community leaders then organized two 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporations to develop concept plans for the Museum. No one knew the ensuing 12 years would see an economic meltdown and a resultant struggle to convince remote donors to support an unfunded dream in a distant, small American city.
To boot, the venerable USMS’ mission of apprehending fugitives demanded a low profile. Marshals often stepped aside to let local law enforcement take credit for successful takedowns. Even though the Marshals were created five months after George Washington was sworn in as our country’s first President, they stood, and still stand, in the shadows of their law enforcement cousins.
Long before the first spade of dirt was turned for the project, the Museum began its Constitution-based educational programming. In November 2010, on the 50th anniversary of the integration of New Orleans Public Schools, the Museum reunited three retired Marshals — Al Butler, Arkansan Herschel Garner, and Charles Burkes — with three 56-year-old women they had protected — Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost, and Gail Etienne. As three of the four first-grade pioneers, the girls had endured death threats and harassment at two deeply Southern elementary schools.
The deputies, the three women, their family members, and Museum staff gathered at a historic New Orleans restaurant for reminiscing during dinner. They stood, one by one, to recount their memories of those dark and difficult days. Tessie’s mother described her fear daily as she watched Tessie with the Marshals, leaving in a black limousine headed to McDonogh Elementary School. She described watching TV, seeing angry mobs at the school scream at her daughter and the Marshals. White parents had removed their children from McDonogh, and the Marshals had become these girls’ friends at a time when they had few.
The USMS had assigned local, mostly Southern, white Marshals to the New Orleans detail, some who opposed integration. Yet Al Butler summed up the Marshals’ mantra, both then and today: “You put on the badge, you do the job.”
The story of New Orleans is one of many that will be told in the U.S. Marshals Museum. Educational materials, lectures, and programs are used now in Fort Smith schools with Constitution Week, National History Day, and much more. Teaching materials have already touched 13,000 students in 500 classrooms in 24 states. Overall, the Museum’s programing has reached 28,000 children and 4,000 adults. In a nation where only 30% of people can name the three branches of government, and 10% think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court, the Museum has begun its effort to help America understand and preserve our Constitution and the Rule of Law — the notion that all citizens are bound by the same laws, fairly and impartially applied and enforced.
The Museum also honors Marshals killed enforcing the law in the Samuel M. Sicard Hall of Honor. It will engender respect for all law enforcement, not just Marshals. When Congressman Trey Gowdy spoke in Fort Smith in 2017, he said the Museum was a “living monument to women and men who are willing to risk their lives” to enforce the law.
But there is more. By carefully planning the Museum where everything is available at the click of a mouse, the Museum has tossed aside age-old museum norms to tell its stories. Much more than an “Old West Museum,” it will be a multi-layered community asset, offering family opportunities for fun and learning, and constantly bringing new visitors to the city. Fort Smith’s downtown and riverfront will be the epicenter of economic development. The Museum will continue the momentum created by trails, a bike park, murals, a planned school for the arts, and better-funded schools that combine to promise a bright future.
The Museum has already enriched the lives of thousands of children. It offers scholarships, funded through private donations, to many children who could not otherwise attend its spring break and other programs. The annual “Bill Cooper’s Safe Kids! Fair” connects parents and children with police and other first responders to promote child safety, reaching 2,300 children and 1,200 adults over 11 years. This Museum has made, and will continue to make, our children safer, our students smarter, and our community better and stronger.
In closing, we reiterate:
• The proposed sales tax will last nine months, and no longer.
• In nine months, the one-time will produce about $15.5-16.0 million to complete the Museum; the economic effect on Fort Smith will be $13-22 million annually.
• The Museum will have zero impact on the city budget.
• The Museum’s educational programs will expand after completion.
• The Museum will have six levels of private-citizen accountability with all financial information made public.
• The Museum will be governed by private citizens and operated by Museum professionals.
March 5–12, Fort Smith voters will decide the direction the community will take for generations to come. It is time for Fort Smith to step forward, once again, into its historic role as a center of law and economic progress. Visit this page on our website for more information.
Editor’s note: Jim Dunn is president of the U.S. Marshals Museum Foundation. The opinions expressed are those of the author. The group supporting the one-cent sales tax and the group opposing the tax were given the same opportunity to provide a guest commentary. The group opposing the tax did not provide a commentary.