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‘Haint Blue’ Leaves Mark on Arkansas History

Mosaic Templars Cultural Center - Monday, November 02, 2020

Brian RodgersLike much of the South, historical homes in Arkansas often are partially painted with a distinctive shade of blue, called “haint blue.” Many homes that line Little Rock’s streets in areas like the Governor’s Mansion Historic District share this characteristic, and I have often wondered what “haint blue”was and why Southern houses often share this color.

“Haint blue” is not one shade of blue but is a group of blue hues that were originally produced from the indigo plant. The use of this blue has a long history in the American South and is based on fear of evil.

When I was young, my great grandfather, Jessie Ellis,told stories of “haints” and how he escaped them by crossing water. I was 7 years old in 1982, when my grandfather told stories of “haints” and witches. He was walking at night from Allport, Arkansas, to Humnoke, Arkansas, a journey that took about 30 minutes. As he approached a bend in the road, just short of Humnoke, he heard someone chopping wood. Jessie looked in the direction of the noise, but no one was there. He continued on, and he heard the sound again. This time when he looked, he saw a shadowy figure that moved quickly toward him. He said he knew immediately it was a “haint.”

Jessie ran toward the creek, which he needed to cross to reach his home. He knew he had to get across the water, because he had been told “haints” could not cross water. I had no idea what a “haint” was at the time, but the stories were effective, I was scared.

It turns out, my Paw Paw’s story of “haints” is likely connected to old legends or mystical beliefs. For example, some enslaved Africans used the blue as a talisman for protection against evil spirits. My great grandfather was born in the early 20th Century, but he knew the stories of the “haints.” But, what is a “haint,” exactly?

“Haints” typically refer to evil spirits, hags, witches, etc. A story from 16th Century England recounts the adventures of Old Betty and her one friend, Raw Head. Old Betty is described as an old witch-woman who lived in the woods. Her one friend, Raw Head was described as a “fat, old razorback hog,” according to one folktale. One day, a hunter shot and killed Raw Head and butchered him. Old Betty was so upset that she said a spell, performed a secret incantation and just like that, Raw Head was back. The only problem was, he had changed. The legend says, “…he had bloody, bear-clawed hands and a raccoon tail. He walked on two feet and his skeleton was a bloody mess of flesh and bones and muscle and sinew.” To make it even more horrible, Raw Head carried around his own pig head in his bear claws. This was not a deal breaker for Old Betty, the two reunited and went off seeking revenge.

Like in my Paw Paw’s story, the story of Old Betty and Raw Head was a story of “haints.” The story became widely popular in the American South during the 1700s and 1800s and may have contributed to the growing popularity of using the color. The story of Old Betty and Raw Head had also been used to scare children and the enslaved Africans.

Appalachian historian Dave Tabler defines “haint” as “an undefinable something that scares the bejeevers out of you.” It is usually an angry spirit, never the trickster, always malevolent. The stories I heard as a child recalled the stories of “haints” in rural parts of Arkansas, of angry spirits chasing people across fields as their victims ran to the safety of water.

The defense people had against unwanted specters, phantoms, spooks, apparitions and “haints” was “haint blue.” According to Gullah tradition, the color fooled the “haint” by making it think the blue paint was more than paint. The part of the house that was painted “haint blue,” usually the doors and overhangs on porches, convinced the “haint” the house was part of the sky and the “haint” floated off into the sky and away from its victim. Or, the “haint” saw ceilings painted blue and believed the house was surrounded by water, which the “haint” could not cross. The paint tricked the “haint” into thinking the house was protected from its malevolence by a more powerful magic, the power of nature.

Over time, “haint blue” became a part of tradition in the American South. People painted their doors and porch overhangs blue because their mothers and grandmothers did, yet they did not know why they were doing it.

The tradition of “haint blue”became a mainstay in the Southern tradition in a similar way that soul food has become synonymous with Southern cooking. Designers and people restoring historical homes have brought “haint blue” colors back to life in modern times. Homes, once painted for protection, are getting their “haint blue” restored for decorative purposes.

So the next time you drive down a tree-lined street in some Southern city and you notice the front door or the underside of the porch is painted blue, think about the generations of people who came before and felt safe in a house because the “haint” that chased them couldn’t get in the door.

For more information about African American history in Arkansas, contact MTCC at 501-683-3593. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday at 501 W. 9th St. in Little Rock.

About the author

Brian Rodgers is a North Little Rock native and graduate of both North Little Rock High School and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where he earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in history. His research interests include African American institutions in Arkansas from 1865 to 1900, their influence on the development of the African American communities in Central Arkansas and Emancipation Day celebrations in Arkansas. He currently serves as the Community Relations Liaison at Mosaic Templars Cultural Center and historian for the Dunbar Historical Neighborhood Association.

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