A black-tie banquet and ball was held Thursday night at the Pine Bluff Convention Center as former state legislator and minister Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV was sworn in as judge of Jefferson County.
Wilkins is the first black county judge of Jefferson County, and according to a press release for the event, the first black county judge in the state of Arkansas. That information could not be independently confirmed before press time, however.
Wilkins, the son of former state legislator Henry Wilkins III, served 16 years as a representative and then a senator in Little Rock. He is the pastor of St. James United Presbyterian Church. Wilkins’ mother and uncle also served in the legislature.
He defeated incumbent Jefferson County Judge Dutch King in a runoff.
“I’m going to do an excellent job, so your vote for me will not have been in vain,” Wilkins told the ballroom crowd, which was peppered with public officials and community members.
The event was sponsored by the Black Business Women of Jefferson County and Women of Righteous Development. Debra Allen, president of BBW, said she began organizing the ball about three months ago once it looked like Wilkins was going to be the judge.
“It does my soul good” to see Wilkins’ election, she said.
Wilkins told the crowd that when he was 5 years old, his father would take him around the black community to collect poll taxes so they would vote. The taxes cost one dollar and applied only to black people, he said. Many people slammed doors in their faces, he said, but others paid for them.
“I understand this is not right, but we have to participate in this system if we’re going to change it,” Wilkins said, remembering the attitude of the voters. “We’re going to change it from the inside out.”
Poll taxes were legal until a 1964 constitutional amendment outlawed them.
Under the Arkansas state constitution, the county judge is the head of the executive branch of the county government. The judge also oversees but does not vote on the 13-member quorum court, which is the county’s legislative body with budgetary and administrative authority.
Traditionally, operation of the county’s roads occupies much of the office’s operations. Wilkins said recently that many people think only of roads when the office is mentioned, but “there are so many things we can do to improve the quality of life.”
The judge may also hire and fire county employees, except those working under other elected county officials.
The keynote speaker was Rodney Slater, a Marianna native who in 1993 became the first black U.S. Secretary of Transportation under President Bill Clinton. Slater is an attorney at Washington, D.C., law firm Patton Boggs LLP, and is married to Wilkins’ sister.
Slater said that while studying at the University of Arkansas School of Law, he was struck by Wilkins’ devotion to a life of ministry as well as public service.
“I remember thinking, ‘What manner of man is this, that knows he wants to serve the Father and all of his children?’” Slater said. “Tonight, with your support, he alters Arkansas’ history, as the first African-American judge in the state’s history.”
The ceremony featured the Pine Bluff high School ROTC color guard, National Anthem by Nora Celestine, dancing and drumming from the 34th Avenue elementary School drill team, a gospel mime performance by Xavier Clark and a poem by emcee Agnolia B. Gay.
The elementary school drill team featured girls dancing with red and black pom-poms in black track suits and sparkling red shoes. The boys played snare drums and bass drums and clashed cymbals.