A human resources professional. A freelance journalist. A public defender. A small business owner.
They are political newcomers and experienced public servants; proud grandparents and mentors to teenage girls.
Individually, they have their own reasons why they decided to run for office. Together, they represent a surge of Black residents hitting the campaign trail across the nation.
In many Southern cities and towns, four African-American candidates seeking political office during the same election cycle would not be considered a “surge.” In Faulkner County, Arkansas, where 12 percent of the nearly 124,000 residents identify as Black or African-American, it’s substantial.
Since its incorporation in 1873, Faulkner County and its largest city and governmental center, Conway, has seen only a handful of Black elected officials. Shelia Isby, Rene Henderson, Jackie Wright, and Wefus Tyus hope to change that in 2018.
Position Sought: Conway City Council, Ward 4, Position 2
In 1998, Shelia Isby became the first Black woman to be elected to the Conway City Council. She and fellow council member Theodore Jones are the first African-Americans to serve on the city’s eight-member council.
After securing her fifth term in 2014, Isby thought two decades as an alderwoman would be enough.
“Four years ago, I had said I was going to give it up. But after much consideration, prayer, and encouragement from others, I decided to seek a sixth term.”
For the first 18 years of her nearly 20 years in office, Isby served under longtime Conway mayor Tab Townsell. She thought it would be fitting to split what she anticipated would be her final, four-year term between the outgoing mayor and the current mayor, Bart Castleberry, who was elected to the position in 2016.
“Bart has stepped in and has done a phenomenal job. I’m excited to see all the changes that have come about with a new mayor. I decided I wanted to keep some continuity on the council. There is still a lot to be done, and Conway has made great progress. I want to continue to be a part of that.”
A lifelong resident of Faulkner County, Isby attended Conway Public Schools and the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. She is a human resources coordinator for Counseling Associates Inc., an organization that provides community-based, behavioral health care services to a six-county area.
In addition to her role as an alderwoman, Isby is actively involved in the Conway community, serving on the city’s seven-member Advertising and Promotion Commission, on the board of directors for the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, and as a mentor for the Young Empowered Sisters (Y.E.S.) program for African-American girls. She is a board member for Arvest Bank and a past president of the Conway Regional Women’s Council — an advocacy group of Conway Regional Health System.
“My community involvement puts me in front of a lot of people. When they see me, they feel comfortable talking to me. Being approachable is important, because part of what helps make things better for our city is input from its citizens.”
Position Sought: Justice of the Peace, Faulkner County Quorum Court, District 4
After years of supporting Democratic candidates, attending meetings at the Arkansas state capitol, and discussing issues with legislators, Rene Henderson decided to pursue elected office herself.
“I’ve always been driven to service, helping people meet their needs and directing them to sources for the solutions to their problems. I then began to feel like I could run in an official capacity and perhaps serve a greater need.”
Henderson was raised in a single-parent home in Earle, a small town in northeastern Arkansas. She moved to Conway in 1981 to attend the University of Central Arkansas, where she graduated with degrees in nursing.
“I saw education as my way out of poverty,” she said. “We were so poor that when I came to college, it was the first time I saw jeans with names on the back of them. I thought to myself, ‘What’s that Calvin Klein all about?’”
After a career in nursing, Henderson is now a freelance journalist. “I love telling the story. What drives me to write is discovering information that has never been recorded.”
Henderson recalled a time when she traveled back to her hometown to write a story about a local resident who was shot in 1970 during a protest of the town’s segregated school system. During her visit, she expected to find a marker designating the site where the incident — known as the Earle Race Riot of 1970 — took place.
“The mayor told me there is no marker,” she said. “I would like to see more laws and commemorations that reflect the needs of people of diverse ethnicities. I believe one good way to begin to do that is to put more multi-ethnic people at the decision-making table so their voices can be better represented and their needs better served.”
Position Sought: Justice of the Peace, Faulkner County Quorum Court, District 5
As a capital and conflicts attorney who handles death penalty cases across the state for the Arkansas Public Defender Commission, Jackie Wright has dedicated her professional career to advocacy and public service.
“My jobs are a good indication as to what motivates me. I enjoy speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves.”
In her spare time, Wright volunteers with the Young Empowered Sisters (Y.E.S.) mentorship program for African-American girls as well as Faulkner County Teen Court. She also serves as president of her subdivision’s homeowners association and teaches business law at Central Baptist College in Conway.
“I believe my work experience and my volunteer experience will make me an effective justice of the peace because I have developed skills to interact with and listen to people and advocate on their behalf. Helping people in any form is kind of what I do.”
A lifelong resident of Faulkner County, Wright attended Conway Public Schools and Hendrix College in Conway before entering law school. She always wanted to be more involved in the place she calls home, so when the opportunity arose to run for justice of the peace, she took it.
“I wish more people realized that we are the change we want to see. In order to make a difference, in the South as a whole or in our respective communities, you need to be there doing the work — running for office, trying to make a difference, letting your voice be heard.”
Position Sought: Justice of the Peace, Faulkner County Quorum Court, District 1
“I always thought growing up that I was a pretty special person because of the unique name I have.”
Wefus K. R. Tyus II (his father went by K. R.) resides in Twin Groves, the rural Faulkner County community where he was raised. A “part-time cowboy” and a full-time business owner, Tyus participates in professional and amateur rodeo and opened his own commercial and residential concrete business in November 2017.
After an unsuccessful bid for county sheriff in 2016, Tyus is running for justice of peace of District 1, the largest district by area in Faulkner County.
“I think my first campaign for sheriff went well,” he said. “I met a lot of people and received a lot of positive input.”
If elected as justice of the peace, Tyus hopes he can help mend divisions across racial lines and add more diversity to the Quorum Court, which currently has no women or people of color representing any of the 13 districts in Faulkner County.
“I ran for office because I felt like it was time for someone to step in and try to add a little more diversity in the county and the state. I’m also motivated by love. If we can get people into office who love people and who are honest and do the right thing by people, I think it will help our communities.”
Early voting for the general election begins October 22, 2018, and the general election is November 6, 2018. A complete list of times, dates, and voting center locations in Faulkner County can be found at faulknercounty.org. If you’re not sure if you’re registered to vote, check your voter registration status at voterview.org.