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Jonesboro barber broke racial barriers

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Frank Varner, 68, has been cutting hair since 1963, the last 23 years spent at his modest barber shop on 101 Souder Way in Jonesboro.

He says he doesn't do it for the money, but to stay in tune with the pulse of the community. "It's not about making a living," says Varner. "I just like to get to know people. You meet all kinds of people, and everybody has a different story. Most people will talk to a barber about things they wouldn't talk about with anybody else."

The thoughts and desires of the community, Varner says, are what inspired him to become the first black member of the Jonesboro City Council.

From 1970-1971, shortly after desegregation, Varner served one, two-year term on the Jonesboro City Council. While his time on the board was short, he says it made a big difference, and paved the way for black elected officials in the county.

"We weren't the majority then," he says. "Blacks and whites got along, on the whole, in Jonesboro." However, "we didn't have no voice or say so in the government. That's what gave me the encouragement to run for the Jonesboro City Council."

Varner says that during desegregation in the South, Jonesboro escaped the violence and turmoil experienced in places like Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas. Integration, however, did not immediately solve many of the social and economic inequalities experienced by black residents at the time, he says.

"All the people who worked on the garbage [truck, in Jonesboro] were black," he says. "They didn't have any [health] insurance. Over there at the Johnson [Street] Cemetery, they used to cut the grass all through the white part and stopped at the part where the black people were buried. It looked like a jungle back there."

Varner says that during his term, he was successful in convincing a nearly all-white city council to properly tend to the cemetery and to offer health insurance to the city's sanitation workers. He says he was also successful at getting the board to hire its first black police officer.

According to Varner, his successful election to the city council influenced other black residents to follow in his footsteps, including: Carl G. Souder, for whom Souder Way is named; Eula Wilborn Ponds Perry, the first black Jonesboro city councilwoman, for whom the Eula Wilborn Ponds Perry Center for Learning is named; Cliff Williams; and Wallace Norrington, who currently serves on the city council.

Rev. Charles W. Grant, has served as a pivotal character in Clayton County for more than 40 years. A few years before Varner ran for Jonesboro City Council, Grant founded the Clayton County Community Services Authority and worked out of a small office in the Historic Clayton County Courthouse.

Grant says that at a time when blacks had little representation in the county, Varner "was among those who had the patience and due diligence to make it better. "What was happening in Alabama and so forth, people took a look at that and didn't want that here," he says.

"They were willing to sit down with this organization or that organization and maintain an atmosphere of peace," he says. "I think it speaks volumes of the people of Jonesboro and him, to try to crush any open alienation and segregation. I would say that the black race did not just put him in. White people contributed to this as well."

Norrington, who has served a total of 17 years as a Jonesboro councilman, says he continues to be inspired by Varner's election to the board. "I think both [black and white] races were aware that all people needed to be represented in Jonesboro," he says. "I think that has been the greatness of Jonesboro, and that is what made me want to serve. He has been an inspiration, not only for me, but for all the people of Jonesboro."