All Research Provided By Felicia Sykes Habersham
*Felicia is the Great Granddaughter of Josephine Sykes by her son Walter.
Off Highway 64 between Augusta and McCrory AR lies a secret that is actually a tragedy in two parts. From the Highway New Salem Church does not appear to be much but a quaint, old, country church. You cannot tell that there is also an old graveyard located behind it. If you were to explore you would find a site that looks forgotten – with overgrown graves and sunken stones. This area floods and over the years as the church ceased to be active, people have thrown trash into the area either blatantly disrespecting or not realizing the graves that are there.
Among the hidden stones are forgotten lives with their own stories waiting to be found and told. One of those is the story of Josephine Elizabeth Curry Sykes. Ms. Josephine Sykes was a young 41-year-old woman of color born roughly in 1886. Though unconfirmed, it is currently being researched by the family that she was a graduate of Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, AL founded in 1881.
At the time of her death - the first tragedy - in this tale, Ms. Sykes was the teacher in Hoxie, AR for the schoolhouse / shack built by local white farmers to educate their children. She was married to Richard Sykes who was several years her senior. It is believed they met at New Salem Church on an unknown date.
Mr. Richard Sykes was a traveling “backroad” preacher. In November of 1927, he had been gone for several days attending a Baptist Preacher Conference where he spent their savings on women (Mr. Sykes considered himself to be a ladies' man”. Upon returning on November 16th an argument occurred between Richard and Josephine because there was no money to feed the children as he had spent it all in Chicago. Josephine took her 4 children - ages 11, 9, 4 & 2 – to her schoolhouse to get away from him.
Josephine was nursing young Walter (age 2) when Richard tracked her down at the schoolhouse. When she refused to come back home, he hit her over the head with the butt of his rifle killing her and leaving young Walter laying under the body of his dead mother for days.
Mr. Richard Sykes pleaded guilty to murder in the second degree and was sentenced to 21 years of hard labor in the Arkansas State Penitentiary. Ms. Josephine Sykes was buried in the graveyard of New Salem Church here in Woodruff County Arkansas.
The condition of the graveyard is our second tragedy. As decades have passed and generations have become further separated the stories of these souls have almost become as forgotten and neglected as the graves themselves.
Ms. Habersham and her family's drive and initiative to track down the story of their lost “Gigi” is inspiring and brings to light the tragic snuffing of a unique woman in 1927 who’s own life was cut short by her desire to provide the life her children deserved, and her husband would not provide. Ms. Habersham and her family traveled to Woodruff County in 2020 to find her resting place.