Taylor Swift in Arkansas

I was flipping through some old Butler Center paperwork when the top line of one message caught my eye. It said, “I appreciate you forwarding the pages about Taylor Swift’s return from Liberia…” My first thought was that I had never heard that world-renowned musician Taylor Swift had ever been in Liberia, or in any part of Africa. Moreover, it seemed odd that anyone in Arkansas would be tracking her travels back in 2002, when she was just about to enter her teenage years and was still on the cusp of what would become an epic career.

man with dark hair and mustache in starched white shirt, vest, jacket, and bowtie
Scott Winfield Bond of Madison (St. Francis County), who was born into slavery, going on to become a successful landowner, farmer, and businessman in the late 1800s.

But the entire message made more sense: “I appreciate you forwarding the pages about Taylor Swift’s return from Liberia from the Scott Bond biography. I had indeed found them several years ago. I have read some additional materials about Taylor Swift in the American Colonization Society records and from several northern newspapers that carried the story of his return. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to locate and interview some of his descendants who still live in the Forrest City area.”

No doubt a number of people over the years have been named Taylor Swift. This Swift, as I learned with a little research, was an African American man, born in Arkansas in 1853. His trip to Liberia and return are mentioned on page 136 of the book From Slavery to Wealth: The Life of Scott Bond. Arkansas’s Taylor Swift was a tenant farmer in St. Francis County, living and working on land that the formerly enslaved Scott Bond owned.

Swift was drawn to preacher Anthony Stanford’s endorsement of the Back-to-Africa Movement, an attraction Bond tried to discourage. In 1895, Swift joined other African Americans in a journey to Liberia on the west coast of Africa. He quickly learned that the farming prospects there were not as lucrative as had been promised, so the next year he returned to Arkansas.

Crowd standing on platform next to boat with two masts with flags on them
Departure of the Back-to-Africa Movement ship Horsa, bound for Liberia with approximately 200 passengers, half of them from Jefferson County; March 1895.

Ancestry.com sheds additional light on Mr. Swift. His return trip to Arkansas came by way of Liverpool and Philadelphia. He appears in Arkansas in the St. Francis County census records of 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930. In 1914, he married a woman named Mary Dent. Arkansas’s Taylor Swift died in Pulaski County on January 30, 1931.

What of the famous musician who shares his name?

Like many musical figures of an earlier generation—including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis—Taylor Swift performed in Arkansas before she achieved international fame.

young white woman with wavy blond hair blowing up around her head
Taylor Swift’s album Fearless was released on November 11, 2008.

It appears that her earliest Arkansas appearance was at the Mt. Sequoyah Retreat Center in Fayetteville on April 20, 2007. (Tickets were seven dollars!) Swift returned to Fayetteville to perform at the University of Arkansas on June 20, 2008. Her “Fearless” tour, promoting her second album, brought her into Arkansas again: She performed at the Convocation Center in Jonesboro on April 24, 2009—only the second concert of that tour—and returned to Arkansas to perform at Verizon Arena (now Simmons Bank Arena) in North Little Rock on September 26, 2009. Swift would also include Verizon Arena in her next tour, performing in North Little Rock on October 4, 2011, as part of her “Speak Now” world tour promoting her third album.

Her most recent performance in Arkansas was at the Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. On June 1, 2012, she sang two of her hits for people attending the Walmart shareholders’ meeting.

Arkansas’s Taylor Swift might be merely a footnote to history, especially when compared to the musician who shares his name. But his story also matters, an account of one man who tried the Back-to-Africa enterprise but chose to come home to Arkansas and seek his fortune here.

By Steve Teske, archivist at the CALS Butler Center for Arkansas Studies/Roberts Library




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